Making outdoor recreation more inclusive: Interview with Outdoor Afro’s Antoine Skinner

Antoine Skinner prepares a fire at his campsite during an overnight hike on the West Fork Trail in Sedona, Ariz. (Photo credit: Michael A. Estrada)

This is the fourth in a series about inspiring conservation stewards by Michael A. Estrada. Read the first interview with Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s Carleton Bowekaty, the second interview with Idaho Wildlife Federation sportswoman Becca Aceto, and the third interview with Hispanic Access Foundation’s Chela Garcia Irlando.

With a 70-pound pack in tow and a camera clipped to his chest strap, Antoine Skinner wades through the warm, sandy trail. The temperature, 100 degrees, is rising steadily in the Arizona summer, and he’s only just begun the seven-mile hike into the red rock canyons of Coconino National Forest.

Near some high brush, he rounds a bend and sees a group of early morning hikers approaching. Skinner notices them first. Sometimes he’ll make a noise to alert folks of his presence but many times he lets the quiet be. As they’re about to come face to face, Skinner gives a common trail-friendly greeting, “Good morning.” The fellow hikers look up and, for a small moment, appear stunned by whom they see. After their short pause, they recover and eventually return a curt, “Howdy,” before continuing on.

For Skinner, the moment isn’t outstanding. Like the Arizona heat, it’s normal, even expected. On the trail, on that day alone, he’ll experience some version of this same reaction from white hikers at least a dozen times. Often, they’ll suddenly notice him, their spine and shoulders will slightly snap back, and a surprised, confused, maybe even fearful look will flash across their faces, proceeded by one of two endings. Either a quick attempt to take the previous reaction back — facilitated by a greeting — or awkwardness. The awkwardness that comes with a continual gawking as Skinner passes by, unfazed and unsurprised.

At 42, and after spending almost his entire life in the wild, Skinner isn’t waiting to be accepted. He’s traversing into the backcountry, having a great time, and being unapologetically Black while at it.

On most weekends, Antoine Skinner hits the trails. Maybe it’s a 18-mile backpacking trip up and down Mount Baldy, or a heat acclimation hike at South Mountain in Phoenix. For the past six years, it’s meant exploring the wonders that the Southwest has to offer, from red rock canyons to blistering deserts filled with towering saguaros.

Skinner wades through the water in between the red rock canyons on the West Fork Trail in Sedona, Ariz. (Photo credit: Michael A. Estrada)

Skinner grew up in Philadelphia, where his love for nature started early. When his older sister joined the Girl Scouts, he remembers telling his mom that he wanted to join too — it looked fun. So, she placed him in the Cub Scouts. He rose to the top rank and then joined the Boy Scouts, where he eventually reached the highest rank of Eagle Scout as well. From then on, he did it all: kayaking, lifeguarding, whitewater rafting, you name it. He credits his time with the Boy Scouts as one of the main impetuses for his love of nature today.

In 2017, after two years of volunteering as a wilderness mountain rescuer, Skinner became the Arizona outings volunteer leader for Outdoor Afro. Outdoor Afro started as a blog in 2009 by Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of the nationwide not-for-profit. The mission of Outdoor Afro directly centers on the Black experience in the outdoors. The organization aims to proactively meet Black people where they’re at in their varied relationships to nature. As Skinner notes, if nature means taking a walk around a lake — perfect. If it means kayaking —that’s perfect, too. The goal is for Black people to heal. To reconnect.

National parks and the concept of public lands were not created in a time of equality. When Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 as the first national park, it required that the Nez Perce be forcibly removed from land first. Jim Crow laws were in effect from 1876 to 1964, mandating racial segregation that severely and wholly impacted the lives of African Americans, including how they could recreate, or how safe they could feel while recreating, especially in public spaces like parks. The parks remained segregated through the 1940s, and some of them longer. And even if African Americans weren’t recreating, it wasn’t safe to simply be Black. Last September, a commemoration was held for Bowman Cook and John Morine, two Black men who were lynched in Jacksonville, Florida in 1919, a mere three years after the National Park Service was founded in 1916.

There’s trauma for Black bodies in nature, trauma that’s been passed down through generations. Outdoor Afro actively addresses the trauma through community, safe space, and getting Black people together to heal one another and their relationship to nature.

Being an Outdoor Afro outings leader is like being a teacher: the work never really ends. Luckily, for folks like Skinner, it doesn’t need to. The outdoors is the one place that’s made him feel most at home, and he wants to make sure that all Black people can experience that same liberation, joy, and happiness outside.

Skinner hikes in between the red rock canyons on the West Fork Trail in Sedona, Ariz. (Photo credit: Michael A. Estrada)

Skinner discusses his love of the outdoors, the history of — and misconceptions around — Black Americans’ relationship with nature, and how he’s working with Outdoor Afro to make outdoor recreation more inclusive.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael A. Estrada: What were your big connections to the outdoors as a kid?

Antoine Skinner: I’d say my mom and my grandmother. My mom is from Mandeville, Jamaica. She always talked about the stuff they would do outdoors, like swimming in the ocean and going in the woods. My grandmother loved to fish. When I would go down South when I was really young, I just remember my grandmother, my uncles, and cousins would all go fishing down in the creek and come back with fish or a snapping turtle. And if they did come back with a turtle, they’d make snapper soup or something like that, or fry up some fish.

I loved being outside. My first camping trip was on Treasure Island, in the middle of the Delaware. My dad took me camping and he’s not a big outdoors person, so after he took me on my first trip he was like, “I support you and whenever you wanna go, I’ll drop you off or whatever, but I’m not camping anymore.” It was a lot of fun, he’d take me fishing and stuff, but he wouldn’t take me camping after that.

MAE: How do you feel when you’re outside? What does that mean for you?

AS: For me, being outside is freedom, I don’t feel judged. I don’t feel like there’s anything holding me back, especially being a Black man in society, and I’m a big guy. A lot of the time, I cannot react, and cannot show the way that I feel. I can’t always show my frustration or anger, because it can be taken as a threat. But being outside, I can just be free. I don’t have any worries, I don’t have to think of anyone judging me. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going, what I’m doing, I can just enjoy what God has created. His beautiful artwork. I mean, this is probably the closest you can feel to the Creator, is being in his Creation.

MAE: What would it take for white folks to not react the way they do to you on the trail? What do we need to do as a country to get to a point where there isn’t a negative reaction?

AS: It’s bigger than the trail. It’s bigger than the outdoors. This country was built on racism and separatism. Literally. We call it patriotism but it’s not. It’s piracy. We came in and took land from people that lived here and then called ourselves patriots because we had to radicalize and kill “the savages.” And we call that patriotism. Now if folks hear that, they’d say I’m un-American. I do love this country. I’ve had more opportunities here than any other place in the world, but it can be better.

But again, it’s bigger than just the trail. For decades, these types of outdoor spaces have not been welcoming to people of color. Look at the integration of pools, the integration of beaches.

Any time you went to a national park, where did you see Black folks? They were the help: cooking and cleaning; they were the porters on the trains. People don’t know their history, and the parks don’t promote that history: African Americans were a part of building the national parks. The first park rangers were Buffalo Soldiers! And yet still, the image of a park ranger is a young white male. But the original park rangers were Black men. Some rode bikes from St. Louis to the Grand Canyon. So, someone telling me that we don’t belong in this environment when we protected the white people who were coming out to be a part of the environment? Doesn’t make sense.

MAE: How do you stay excited about taking people outside?

AS: What keeps me motivated is people. People that follow me on social media, they see my pictures, they see my recent backpacking trip. People are just excited to see where I go. But not just that. When I take a person out, or take people out, I’m motivated just to see their faces when they experience what I’ve probably experienced a thousand times. It’s exciting to see that light, that spark go off in someone, and open them up to something new that they can experience and enjoy. That’s what really keeps me motivated. And then the fact that taking people to nature is for everyone.

And making sure that those images exist, whether it’s pictures of myself or places that I go, because there’s some kid that’s dreaming about it, like when I was as a kid — a kid wanting to go to these places, but many kids never see anyone that looks like them in the place.

So that motivates me as well, I want people to see me do the things I do, whether it’s crazy or dangerous, I want them to experience it and say, “You know what, I can do the same.”

Skinner, also a photographer, stops to take a photo of the canyons in Sedona, Ariz. (Photo credit: Michael A. Estrada)

MAE: How did you feel, having that awareness at a young age, that there weren’t people that looked like you doing outdoor activities?

AS: I didn’t fit in when I would go camping or backpacking in the Boy Scouts. Usually in scouting, it was typically our Boy Scout troop, the Black troop going out to these events. And we would be out camping, and the others didn’t look like us. And when we would go looking for gear, the images that were in the packaging didn’t look like us. Boy’s Life magazine didn’t have images of people of color in the magazines. Even if you’re watching TV shows about being in the outdoors, it was always the young white male enjoying nature. You see those images and then you sometimes wonder, is this place for me?

And then here’s also the historical aspect of it as well, with African Americans, it wasn’t always pleasant to be alone or go out in the nature. Black people were hung in the woods, they were chased into the woods. During slavery times, they would escape into the woods, they didn’t have tents, they didn’t have food, they lived off the land. That trauma is passed down, generation after generation, and now it’s become a thing of “Black people don’t do that,” when actually, we do.

MAE: Why is it important to have that history acknowledged when you’re out in these spaces?

AS: Because it connects you to the space. Whether it’s African American history, Native American history, it’s a connection to the space. It’s important to understand the context of where you are, historically, and what happened in that space. For a lot of African Americans, we don’t know that we are connected to the land in certain areas. Here in Arizona, a lot of African Americans don’t know that there is a connection of African Americans to this place going as far back as Reconstruction. The first African American settlement was McNair, Arizona, which was Apache land, and that was because one of the lumberyard owners was used to working with African Americans. So he came out here and he brought his Black employees from the South to Arizona, because that’s what he was used to dealing with. He brought them out here and they started cutting down trees and stuff, and when the season was over, they’d go back down to the South and they’d tell their family members and the next thing you know, the family would come out here. There’s a big population today of African Americans in McNair and in Flagstaff because of that connection.

A lot of African Americans don’t know that we helped build some of the trails in the Grand Canyon. An African American man ran the electrical lines in the Grand Canyon — nobody knows that. And a young Black man from the Civil Corps of Engineers helped build the trails. There’s also history that they separated those individuals — you had a Black camp and a white camp. They worked together in some places and in some places, they weren’t allowed to work side by side. But if you go to the Grand Canyon, you don’t see that context up there. Now when I’m hiking, I know that I belong here, because there was someone who looked like me that helped build these trails, and there’s someone who looked like me who helped build those walls along the South Rim. There were people like me here before me.

MAE: What made you want to volunteer as mountain rescue?

AS: First to challenge myself. I also didn’t see anyone on the team that looked like me, and I wanted to help people the way that they did in extreme situations. We trained in everything from high-angle rescue, which is rescuing climbers, to low angle, which would be like rescuing someone who fell over a cliff. You learn to set up a rig and a line to go down there and get them. Swift water training, helitraining — where you repel out of a helicopter — short hauls, alpine. Digging snow caves to avalanche beacons. Mines and cave rescue. Wilderness first aid. A lot of training, a lot of hard work. Now I can take that skill set and apply it to the work I do with Outdoor Afro.

MAE: How’d you find Outdoor Afro?

AS: I was googling, “black hiking groups,” looking for people of color hiking groups. “Blackpacking” is what people called it. And I just kept coming back to the same thing — a blog called Outdoor Afro. Then they started doing groups; they’d started a group in Arizona I think in 2015. And because I was doing mountain rescue, I didn’t have time to go out and do events, but I always kept up on them. In 2017, I applied to be a leader. I was blessed to be selected, and it’s been a journey. It’s been fun ever since.

MAE: Since you’ve become an Outdoor Afro leader, what has surprised you or what was something that you didn’t expect?

AS: What surprised me is the community. The encouragement you get from other leaders. You can post something and ask something about the outdoors or gear or leading a trip. It’s like family. And when I say family, I really mean family. When people travel, they will find out who the Outdoor Afro local leader is, and they’ll go hang out, hike, or just go have dinner, which is really cool.

The (annual) Outdoor Afro leadership training is like a huge family reunion of Black folks who love to be outdoors. A lot of the times you think you’re the only one, like you’re a unicorn, and then you get there, and you’re like wait a minute, there’s a lot more people that love being outdoors that look like me? It really is like a family.

Every time someone comes out to Arizona, I’m the unofficial planner for them. They call me and ask “hey where should I go hiking, what should I do? Are you free to go hiking with me?” It’s really cool.

MAE: 20 years from now, what do you want to look back and see?

AS: I want to be able to say that I’ve had a life filled with adventure. Whether it’s more backpacking or climbing — one of my goals is to climb Kilimanjaro. Or Machu Picchu. Saying that I’ve done that. No matter how old I get or how young I might be, but just having the opportunity to do that. And then sharing it with others, whether that’s through pictures or encouraging them to go. Encouraging them not to be fearful of the space, being fearful of not having the skill. It’s okay to understand that you don’t have the skill to do something. What’s not okay is to be satisfied that you are not gonna try.

Michael A. Estrada is a first-generation, Salvadoran-American photojournalist and artist. His work falls at the intersection of environment, justice, art, and the representation of people of color in media. He is also the founder of Brown Environmentalist.

Skinner overlooking Phoenix during a hike at South Mountain. (Photo credit: Michael A. Estrada)

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