About 185,000 years ago, the earliest-known humans left Africa on a humanity-defining journey. Over the next few millennia, they’d go on to travel some 24,000 miles across the globe—all on foot, sole to soil.
I think of this often, especially when I have to hop in my 17-year-old gas-guzzling car to make the four-minute drive between my parents’ homes. Why can’t I walk outside? Primitive humans did it. Not to mention, the animals they encountered and the uncharted roads they crossed. But then I have to remind myself of a few things: They didn’t have to breathe in the toxins from the refinery next to their home or worry about crossing a six-lane highway bursting with big rigs. They didn’t have to think about the police pulling up beside them. And most importantly, their journey was a chosen one.
Neither I nor any of the last 500 years of my bloodline had that choice. Controlled and forced movement is woven into the fabric of our society. America was built on—and still thrives on—the rupture of Blackness and Indigeneity from land. With that rupture, the natural environment was transformed, turned into a commodity to be bought and sold just like our bodies. As white Americans destroyed the land, massacred Indigenous populations, and erected land posts across the country, non-white people were locked out of ownership.
The built environment was made to mimic the same exclusionary principles. From racial segregation, which forced racialized people into the country’s most toxic and undesirable corridors, to the prison, probation, and electronic monitoring boom, which restricts the movement of millions of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Americans.
Today, Black Americans are 75% more likely to live next to a polluting industry than other Americans and five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than white people. Correspondingly, Black communities suffer a greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those that are predominately white. Likewise, formerly incarcerated Black people experience a 65% higher mortality rate post-incarceration than formerly incarcerated white people.
As we’ve lost our volition, the natural joys, freedom, and stress relief offered by the sun, soil, and breath of air have dissipated, too. With all of this comes a simple truth: Black people can’t walk outside.
We’ve seen Black folks get the cops called on them for touching grass and others killed on their “silly little walks.”
On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man and aspiring electrician left his home in Brunswick, Georgia, to go for a run a few miles away through a leafy green, budding housing development in the nearby Satilla Shores neighborhood.
He never made it home. The last words he’d hear before getting gunned down by a white father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, were, “Fucking n****r.”
The duo, now incarcerated, claimed to believe Ahmaud was a burglar. Despite an alleged massive cover-up and dragging of feet by former District Attorney Jackie Johnson, we now know that Ahmaud was just a young Black man trying to access nature in a region that not too long ago was home to a network of labor camps for enslaved people. Many Black folks in Brunswick can draw a direct line to their enslaved ancestors who worked the land they now live on.
Brunswick’s history resonates with many towns and cities across the country. After the police could no longer enforce legal segregation in the mid-20th century, white flight, Neighborhood Watch groups, and community policing was born. Many white folks, as mobile as ever, were able to pick up and leave. Those who stayed put in the now growing and diverse cities created community police forces to maintain the segregation and racial violence that kept them comfortable. Sixty or so years later, folks like the McMichaels are still on the prowl, and Black folks still aren’t offered peace in their communities.
Legal mechanisms of movement restriction proliferate Georgia’s (and the rest of America’s) current reality, too. If Georgia were its own country, it would have the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the world behind Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Despite Black folks making up just 30% of the state’s population, they make up roughly 60% of the state’s incarcerated population. For white folks, it’s the inverse: White Georgians make up nearly 60% of the state’s population but just 30% of the state’s incarcerated population. The state also employs heavy use of a probation monitoring system, used to confine thousands of people, including children—many of whom not yet convicted of a crime—to their homes and communities, unable to access the world around them.
The palpability of being confined to one’s home becomes even more daunting when we think of Brunswick’s environmental realities. Brunswick, by the federal government’s standards, is a frontline environmental justice community. It’s regularly hit by hurricanes, an especially deadly phenomenon when coupled with the fact that the region is home to elevated levels of toxic waste and Superfund sites, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen mapping tool. And you can guess who is disproportionately affected by such reality. It’s then not hard to imagine why Ahmaud chose to run where he did—in a community lined with trees and streets and homes not yet occupied: clean air, unencumbered by pollution and the looming cloud of environmental disaster.
Black people can’t walk outside.
We can’t get no rest, either—literally. Some scientists believe that the stress resulting from centuries of racism and disconnect from the natural world have likely led to Black Americans getting lower amounts of restorative sleep than white Americans. The social, cultural, and physical pressures caused by such existence have made American Blackness inseparable from stress, especially during the pandemic where memes calling for people to “touch grass” and take “silly little walks” have permeated social media. But we’ve seen Black folks get the cops called on them for touching grass and others killed on their “silly little walks.”
That scares me—and with my fear of becoming the next Ahmaud comes a higher likelihood of poor health outcomes: heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and premature death. I’ve seen what that looks like in my own family: a multigenerational history of strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes.
I think of all this often. When we have access to nature, we die. When we don’t, we die. But I’m also reminded of the words of contemporary abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba: “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.”
Now when I visit home, I try to make the trek between my parents’ homes on foot at least once. Every step, oscillating between pavement and dirt, helps me regrow my relationship with the world around me as it once again becomes a place where Black people can walk outside.