At New Jersey Audubon we believe that nature and conservation are for all. We have held that belief at our core for decades, as reflected through our Nature for All education initiative. In the past several years we have moved to formalize that ethos as a major cornerstone of our organization through our diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) efforts. Part of our DEIJ commitment is a telling of the full history of John James Audubon and the Audubon movement.
We share J Drew Lanham’s recent article What Do We Do About John James Audubon, published by National Audubon, in recognition of the deeply problematic and complex relationship our organization’s namesake had with race and his own racial identity. A slaveholder himself, who harbored abhorrent views on race (regardless of his historical time period), John James Audubon’s brilliant contributions to conservation and the study of birds must be viewed alongside his promotion of racist ideas and actions that have contributed to the centuries of institutional racism derived from slavery in America.
Now is the time for us all to confront a legacy of racial injustice and, as Mr. Lanham aptly points out: The organizations bearing Audubon’s name must press forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be.
As a conservation thought leader, New Jersey Audubon is resolute in who it wants to be and recognizes that the first step in any transformational and challenging sojourn is through awareness. I encourage you to take the time to read Mr. Lanham’s story, and to support New Jersey Audubon’s ongoing efforts to ensure that conservation is a big tent under which all are welcome, valued, and can fully participate.
J. Drew Lanham is a conservation ornithologist and endowed faculty at Clemson University, where his work focuses on the intersections among race, place, and nature. He is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.
Additional articles by J. Drew Lanham
can be found HERE
“The founding father of American birding soared on the wings of white privilege. The birding community and organizations that bear his name must grapple with this racist legacy to create a more just, inclusive world”
My name is J. Drew Lanham and I’m a Black American ornithologist. A Black birdwatcher. I confess here and declare now multiple identities—race and ethnicity, profession and passion. My love of birds lies at the intersection of these and renders me, and the minuscule percentage of others who would declare themselves the same, a rarity. Like the seldom-seen skulking sparrows so many of us seek, we are few and far between among an overwhelmingly white flock. I celebrate who I am, but like far too many of us “living while Black,” I have also felt the frustration and pain of being discounted or disrespected.
Here we go again, some of you may be thinking, the race thing. Some are asking, “Wasn’t Black Birders Week over months ago?” “That overblown Central Park thing was put to rest, right?” But just as I don’t forget assaults with deadly words against friends, I must expand my Blackness and bird love beyond a week. Race is an issue in every aspect of American life, including birding, conservation, nature stewardship, and environmentalism writ large. For birders, it is an issue fledged from the nest of its “founding father,” John James Audubon, and flies fully feathered now in present day.
John James Audubon is American birding; the name falls wistfully, almost like a mantra, from admirers’ lips. Mention him, and like Edison and the light bulb or Zuckerberg and Facebook, more people than not will associate the name with a singular thing: birds. Though some would precede Audubon, and many come after, no one in ornithology is as revered. But what do we do when an origin story begins with a rancid “Once upon a time?” What do we do with a racist, slave-owning birding god almost 200 years dead? And what do we do with such a man who might have been in denial of his own identity?
You may have entered the realm of Audubon magazine to escape such a discussion. But it belongs here. The person whose name graces the publication, brands the national organization, and shapes how we perceive birds was more than most of his acolytes know—much less want to openly address. Questions about the bird man’s own race, how he identified others, and how his soured, inhumane legacy carries forward will define the future course of the movement he inspired. They also hold truths about our ability to help birds, and ourselves.
So here I am, deconstructing—or perhaps more precisely, dissecting—John James. I’m also pushing beyond that exhumation to dig into current affairs. I’m concerned with how birding and bird conservation rest too comfortably in a homogenized stasis. I’d like to show what they can and should be.
Go to National Audubon’s website for the full article