Ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham to address racism and the great outdoors
Free Press staff report | 9/14/2023, 6 p.m.
MacArthur Fellow J. Drew Lanham, an ornithologist and wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, will deliver VCU Libraries’ 2023 Social Justice Lecture to discuss “Coloring the Conservation Conversation.”
Dr. Lanham writes and speaks powerfully on the implicit and overt racism people of color often face when engaging with their natural surroundings. He bridges the arts and sciences to create a new model of conservation and care for nature that includes space for diverse perspectives.
At VCU, he will discuss what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds. The convergence of ornithologist, college professor, poet, author and conservation activist blend to bring our awareness of the natural world and our moral responsibility for it forward in new ways. Dr. Lanham will examine how conservation must be a rigorous science and evocative art, inviting diversity and race to play active roles in celebrating our natural world.
The talk, which is free and open to the public, will take place 7 p.m. Sept. 28 in person at the James Branch Cabell Lecture Hall and remotely via Zoom.
He emerged as a national figure after Orion magazine published his “Nine Rules for Black Birdwatchers.” The 2013 essay, later adapted for video, is a satirical take on some of the challenges he’s faced as a birder. His experiences have included veiled threats and encounters with armed passers-by while in the field. Dr. Lanham also provides specific ways to bring social justice principles into conservation work. His recent “Nine Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher” not only calls out overt racism but recommends adopting Harriett Tubman (who used an owl call to identify herself) rather than James Audubon as a bird-loving inspiration and renaming birds that are named after slave owners.
In his 2016 book, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” Dr. Lanham traces his love of birds and nature back to his family’s small farm in rural South Carolina. His lyrical descriptions of childhood explorations around the farm are a hallmark of Dr. Lanham’s conservation ethos: the head to heart connection. Dr. Lanham believes that the combination of scientific facts and emotional connections to nature can more effectively encourage conservation action. A critical component of the head to heart connection is understand- ing people’s historical and cultural associations with land, a point he illustrates through an affecting account of the painful legacy of slavery attached to the farm.
Like much of the land in the South, before his family owned, shaped, and nurtured the farm, slavers forced Dr. Lanham’s ancestors to work it. Jim Crow segregation is a frequent topic of his grandmother’s stories of life on the farm, which his family lost after his father’s death. The loss is all too common in a region where policies and practices frequently deprive African-American families of their land.
Dr. Lanham continues to investigate how African-Americans’ historical relationship to land influences their present perceptions of nature, and its appreciation and stewardship. This work is part of a larger effort to broaden, diversify and sustain engagement with the natural world.
To register to attend in person or via Zoom, visit https://www.support.vcu.edu/event/SocialJusticeLecture2023