"This has to be it," my friend says as we pull into a parking lot at Proud Lake Recreation Area. We're looking for a cookout and kayaking meetup called Browns, Blacks, and Kayaks. This is undeniably the spot, because everyone getting out of their cars carrying lawn chairs and blankets under their arms is Black, like us.
It's an unfamiliar feeling. Usually, on our visits to Michigan State Parks for hiking and camping, we're the only Black folks around. But this event is led by Black to the Land Coalition, a group of Detroiters who organize outdoor events like kayaking, hiking, camping, and fishing, for people of color.
The goal is to get more POC outside, exploring nature and building a harmonious relationship with the land like our African and Indigenous ancestors had. Browns, Blacks, and Kayaks (or BBK) is the group's signature annual event. This year drew more than 200 participants, half of which had never kayaked before.
Afrobeat music and the sound of excited children fills the air. The chargrilled smell of burgers and vegan sausages teases our noses as brown-skinned people of all shades kick back on the grass and paddle down the river.
Erin PJ Bevel, a BTTLC board member, wants to eradicate stereotypes of what's seen as "Black" and what isn't.
"So many of these things Black people are not used to seeing other Black people do, and so it gets labeled as 'other,'" she says. "I would say some of the most negative feedback I get about stuff like this, unfortunately, comes from other Black people. I mean, people weren't really talking about kayaking and there wasn't really anybody I could kayak with, so even debunking that in our own community is really important."
This all started around 2018, when several Detroit organizations working separately toward self-sufficiency in communities of color decided to come together. BTTLC is made up of several organizations whose members share collective resources for initiatives like archery lessons, a camping program for elders, emergency preparedness, and an Urban Forest School for children.
While on the surface, BTTLC may seem like just a group of POC getting together for outdoor recreational activities, their work is rooted in ancestral connections to the Earth and preparing their communities for what they believe is the eventual collapse of capitalism, when they will have no choice but return to the land.
Nature as a classroom
Bevel runs BTTLC's Urban Forest School for children under 10 years old. It's part of her "unschooling philosophy," which trades a stuffy classroom for hikes in places like Eliza Howell and Rouge Park. Twice a month, the Urban Forest School kids go out and learn to identify wild plants and explore the flora and fauna surrounding them.
"We got all these kids sitting down for eight hours a day, not letting them go outside, and it's like we're just making them into capitalist slaves," says Bevel. "Life is a classroom. You can teach math through seeds. We can count seeds, plants, cars, whatever. You don't have to teach it by sitting down and looking at a book."
Bevel always knew she would homeschool her children, but decided to take the classroom outdoors after her 5-year-old daughter seemed completely uninterested in her at-home curriculum.
There are several Forest Schools in Michigan, but Bevel found them all "woefully white." So, she decided to create her own, and later took the idea to BTTLC.
"A big part of our frame is making sure that our Black and brown children are learning about their unique relationship with Mama Earth," she says. "Black, brown, Indigenous people are descendants of Earth-honoring societies. When I think about being a Black woman here in America on Turtle Island and raising a Black child, I want to make sure that they understand that we are descendants of people who found great power, organization, and greatness through working with the earth."
Bevel is also a co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which provides resources and grant money to help Black farmers purchase land in the city. She says Black and Indigenous people have a responsibility to protect the planet and continue the traditions of their ancestors.
"Our ancestors on the African continent brought us agriculture, and animal husbandry, and all of these seeds of what we call civilization in America," she says. "And I don't mean stewarding it in that Abrahamic religious sense of having dominion over the earth, but working in cooperation with it. Protecting the Earth is protecting ourselves. This is not something that we are separate from or that is separate from us."
The spiritual philosophy comes later, but things like kayaking and hiking are the first step on the road to building a relationship with the land. If more POC would just get outside to see and feel the life all around them, that connection with the planet as a living organism will come eventually. That's the hope, anyway.
Beyond the sacred aspects of land stewardship, BTTLC co-chair Tepfirah Rushdan believes we will eventually need to prepare for a reimagined society. Whether climate change wipes us all out or polarizing politics tear humankind apart, she says there will come a time when the capitalism paradigm is no longer sustainable.
"Capitalism and the root of colonialism needs to be abolished and destroyed in its current form," Rushdan says. "If we're going to move toward societies that are more equitable, we are going to have to reverse that colonial trend and gain some level of independence. But if anything happens to society as we know it, you're gonna have to go back and re-examine your relationship with the land. And if you don't have one, you're gonna be hit."
She adds, "We're in the convergence where the old is collapsing and the new is being created. I want to drive us toward that, so for me, it's like, let's expose people to the outdoors and understand what plants we can eat out here. Let's understand that it's OK to sit in the grass and it's OK to swim in water that's murky. That's the natural way of things, so let's conquer some of those fears and anxieties."
“Protecting the Earth is protecting ourselves.This is not something that we are separate from or that is separate from us.”
BTTLC board member B Anthony echoes similar thoughts.
"Peace," he greets my friend and I when we arrive at Browns, Blacks, and Kayaks. He answers the phone in the same manner when we later speak about his emergency preparedness initiative Get Ready, Stay Ready, a group he runs through his other organization, the Conscious Community Cooperative Think Thank (or C Three Think Tank, for short).
As the name implies, Get Ready, Stay Ready's goal is to prepare melanated people for emergencies through workshops and skillshares.
"The impetus for doing this work is that people who look like us are the least prepared and therefore the most susceptible to danger and a lot of the negative impacts that come from emergencies or disasters," B Anthony says. "Whether it's the instability of our power grid, the rise of terror attacks on schools, something as simple as EBT cards not working, or natural disasters, most of us are not equipped to handle those things."
He says the COVID-19 pandemic blew the lid off why people, especially in poor communities, need to be prepared.
"Things are becoming more and more real," he says. "There's been foreshadowing of food shortages all across the United States for a couple of years now. We're also still in a water crisis. Even just being prepared for everyday Black life — like, what do you do when you are stopped by the police? That is an emergency that we don't necessarily think about, but it's something that happens."
The Three C Think Tank also partners with Mama Shu's Avalon Village to host an annual "hood camp" where children camp out in Highland Park for two nights. They learn skills like first aid, how to pitch a tent, and how to build a fire. Hood camp has been an ongoing event for about ten years.
Poor righteous teachers
Years before Rushdan was spreading the joys of kayaking, she says she lived "off the grid" during her 20s in a complete rebellion against modern society. During her 10 years of isolation, she says she dropped out of school and lived in Detroit with "varying levels of electricity and water," where she meditated daily and didn't have a job.
Rushdan would collect bottles or beg for money until she could scrounge up enough to eat every day.
"My day-to-day sustenance was reliant on the creator," she says. "I was basically living this monk lifestyle, practicing my yoga and spirituality, but I found myself getting further and further away from my people. I always felt the desire to change the things that I was seeing, but then I started to feel like, 'How am I gonna change them if I'm isolated in this monk world?'"
She considered herself a "poor righteous teacher" (named after the New Jersey hip-hop group), who thought renouncing money and society was the key to liberation.
That lifestyle worked until she couldn't feed her children.
"I had locs down to my butt, a head wrap up to the sky, and was wearing African garb very much in that nonconformist subculture, challenging the system," she remembers. "But it was in a very theoretical way because when it came down to it, I couldn't feed my children. It was like, OK, you know the system is the devil, but if you know that what are you doing about it?"
After she turned 30, Rushdan came out of isolation, went back to school for environmental studies, and got a job with The Greening of Detroit, where she worked on conservation projects with local youth. From there she took a farming apprenticeship and began growing her own food. Now she works at Keep Growing Detroit, an urban farm in the Eastern Market district that distributes seeds and transplants to gardeners around the city through its Garden Resource Program.
For both Rushdan and B Anthony, the 2003 blackout that left many Midwestern cities, including Detroit, without power for several days was a turning point.
"When the blackout hit I saw how vulnerable we were, and it really made me confront this revolutionary theory and deep isolation," she recalls. "I was super revolutionary and I could cite all this philosophy, but I was still relying on the food system as it was to bring me my food every day. That was crazy for me. I had to confront that, like this deep rebelling against the system, what is that really gonna get us?"
B Anthony adds, "I remember most folks not being prepared. I remember folks barbecuing in the alley, scavenging, and really struggling to make ends meet."
From there, B Anthony started getting serious about emergency preparedness and sharing it with his community. Rushdan began exploring her neighborhood to learn what plants were edible and planted a garden. They would later both come together under BTTLC with similar goals of self-sufficiency.
So, is it racist to exclude white people?
Now that's a loaded question.
While some Black to the Land events are open to white allies, Browns, Blacks, and Kayaks is for POC only. It may upset some white people, but B Anthony and the others say having Black and brown only spaces in settings where they have historically felt unwelcome is a way of healing.
"We need to be outdoors in order to heal, in order to get back connected to nature, and a lot of that healing is from a capitalist white supremacist system," B Anthony says. "That healing works best when we can do that on our own. We don't have time to nurse their white fragility when we're fighting for our right to be in an outdoor space. It's not about hating anybody or anything like that. It's just not about you, and if you are an ally, you need to understand that."
Having POC-only events makes people who may not have much experience with outdoor activities feel comfortable asking questions without the fear of being judged. It also means we don't have to code switch or change the way we speak and behave to be understood and respected.
"I could just imagine white folks who may be very used to being in those environments taking over the space in a way that I didn't want to see," Rushdan says. "I wanted to be very intentional. I wanted people to feel themselves there, see themselves there, hear their music, talk in their language, and have a space to strategize and organize around independence and strategies for our community."
To answer the question, "is it racist to exclude white people," you must first consider how America's racist history fuels present-day reservations many POC have about venturing out into the wild.
The woods hold trauma around lynching, rape, and other atrocious acts that have taken place there throughout history. In Michigan, the mere word "backwoods" dredges up images of gun-toting, militant extremists who aren't the type of folks POC want to be stuck around after dark. Its reminiscent of sundown towns, areas where Black people were kept out through intimidation tactics, discriminatory practices, or outright violence. Many metro Detroit suburbs were once sundown towns.
The first time I took my then-63-year-old mother camping in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, she was dead set on bringing a gun or a knife to protect us against bears and the racist white people she was convinced we'd meet. When it dawned on her that she doesn't actually own a gun or a knife, she thrifted a baseball bat, despite how many times I asked, "Are you serious, right now?"
After a successful trip, my mother realized sleeping on the rock-hard ground was a more concrete source of discomfort than a hypothetical racist (who we never encountered). Still, the fear is tangible, especially for older generations of Black folks.
“If anything happens to society as we know it, you’re gonna have to go back and re-examine your relationship with the land. And if you don’t have one, you’re gonna be hit.”
"When you get outside of liberal Detroit, you can kind of run into some scary people and that can be a scary situation, especially if you're by yourself," Rushdan says. "I've talked to some elders who have seen some things in the woods, and that historical trauma lives in our DNA, and in our storytelling amongst our families. If that's an experience that our grandmothers had, even if she didn't say it outright, just that attitude of 'Don't go over there, don't do that' would be reiterated to us."
The effects of systemic racism are a lot to unpack, but they are the root of many of the issues BTTLC is trying to address.
Beyond trauma and the fear or running into someone racist, other cultural reasons and attitudes also deter many POC from outdoor activities. Not wanting a fresh retwist to get ruined in the water is a damn good reason for plenty of Black Americans to avoid going swimming. (If you know, you know.)
And that's not to mention the history of segregation in public pools and beaches, leaving many Black Americans with fewer opportunities to swim. It's why dumpster trailers filled with water used as quasi-pools, also known as "swim mobiles," became so popular in urban neighborhoods during the 1970s.
Many Black Americans still grow up without learning how to swim, another seemingly benign way deeply ingrained systematic oppression rears its ugly head.
A 2017 study found that nearly 70% of Black children had "no or low swimming ability." What's more, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than their white counterparts, while the rates for Indigenous people are two times higher.
"That's a very prominent statistic and we know that Black and brown people disproportionately don't have opportunities to go swimming, and are just not being exposed to swimming for a variety of reasons," Rushdan says. "That can lead to some very real anxiety when you're on the water."
Rushdan is actually biracial, or "all the things that were here when the whole thing popped off," as she puts it. Her mother is English and French, and her father is Black and Indigenous.
I ask her if putting the emphasis on her Black and Indigenous heritage somehow feels like ignoring her French and English roots. But Rushdan says intimately seeing both communities and the disproportionate oppression growing up put racial equity at the forefront of her mind.
"I've actually talked to my mom about this, who is white," she explains. "For me, it comes down to, if you're not intentional about Black and brown people being welcome, in Detroit — this majority Black city — they won't take ownership or engage with it in the same way."
She experienced this both while planting trees with The Greening of Detroit and working at the Keep Growing Detroit farm.
"We would do tree plantings and it would be like 30 or 40 white volunteers come to an all Black neighborhood and the Black people sit on the porch and don't feel included because they automatically feel like 'that's not my space,'" she explains. "At the (KGD) farm I was the first Black employee and I had long conversations with other employees about if we're trying to engage the 85% Black population, and they pull up to the farm and see 10 white people working, they're going to withdraw from it. And so I didn't want to replicate that."
Rushdan says she'd rather focus on creating joy through events like Browns, Blacks, and Kayaks, which provide a reprieve from the cacophony of city life.
"Even outside of all the political talk of collapse, I love nature," she says. "The sun, the water, the minerals in the soil, all of it. It's all healing."
That love is clear as she gets people situated in their kayaks back on Proud Lake Recreation Area and instructs first-timers before they set off. As the day rolls on, it's almost as if BTTLC exists in a microcosm where the stigma and fear attached to POC doing something as simple as kayaking doesn't exist. The river has washed it away as participants coast along its gentle waters.
"This land is ours, all of ours, because I'm not saying that just Black and brown people need to be in nature," Bevel says. "Everybody can be there. But like, everybody can be there, and that includes me."