A former Nashville zookeeper has organized the first-ever Black Birders Week, an online celebration of African-American bird watchers. But supporters took to social media after a group of Tennessee nature lovers initially declined to promote the event.
Corina Newsome, now a biology graduate student in Georgia, founded the event after a white woman called police on a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park last week. It was a familiar scenario for black nature-lovers, she says.
“This has been our experience since we’ve been out here, in the United States, exploring the outdoors, going birding, whatever it may be,” says Newsome. “But for the first time, this intersection of racism and outdoor exploration was making national news.”
Black Birders Week is currently underway. Virtual events include a dedicated day to #AskABlackBirder, a discussion on birding while black and a challenge to post pictures of birds.
But Jake Belair, a white zookeeper in Tennessee, says he ran into some pushback when he asked the Tennessee Naturalists Facebook group to promote the event.
“I’d seen it in a couple other groups, but I hadn’t seen it in this one yet,” he said. “And I just wanted to spread the word.”
Group administrators turned him down. Screenshots that Belair posted to his Facebook page show that they cite a variety of reasons when he pushed back, including that the post had “racial overtones” and a “potential for conflict.”
Belair says, “They also gave me this random answer, that while many naturalists may also be bird watchers, that doesn’t mean all bird watchers are naturalists. So it’s not necessarily relevant to the group.”
The exchange ended with Belair calling their decision racist and administrators accusing him of inciting a “lynch mob” on social media of rage and retaliation.
Administrators have since posted an Audubon Society article about Black Birders Week. They tell WPLN News in doing so they’ve acknowledged the event. They declined to answer more questions about their decision.
Newsome says she wasn’t surprised by the tense exchange, and that it only proves why this event is so necessary: Black people are often excluded from outdoor activities, she says.
She also says that black scientists and naturalists like herself have to spend an “inordinate amount of energy” coming across as harmless to white people.
“I always have my binoculars on the road side of my body,” says Newsome. “If I’m looking at equipment, even if I’m being blinded by the sun, I’m always facing the road to make sure that everyone walking and driving by sees that I’m doing something that appears to be official and not whatever they might construe in their mind.”
She says she’d love to focus all her attention on just trekking through the knee-deep, muddy saltwater marshes where she studies her beloved seaside sparrows, because it’s “extremely physically taxing” work.
But she points out that her field site is in Brunswick, Ga, — just down the road from where Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging earlier this year.