My parents moved to California from Texas during the great migration of African Americans to a safer and more prosperous West (1940-1970). Following routes pioneered by Pullman Porters, the upwardly mobile African American train stewards, my parents, along with their siblings, arrived in the bustling towns of Richmond and West Oakland. Here, they worked in canneries and shipyards—opportunities unimaginable in the small rural towns they left behind.
Alongside an ambition to stack their coins, they kept in their center a Christian faith, and motherwit, a term that describes a mindset of tenacity, everyday wisdom, solid morals, and common sense. The ability to make a way out of no way. In our family, motherwit rivaled formal education as the key to successfully navigating the world with integrity. My folks also brought with them to California a love for nature as a refuge. In it, they fostered an ability to keep their Southern swagger of land stewardship—with a healthy dose of hospitality mixed in—alive. To that end, they invested in several acres of land north of the Bay Area in Lake County, California.
I was born in 1970’s Oakland at Providence Hospital in the midst of the determined, snappy vision of the Black Panther Party, educational martyr and visionary Marcus Foster, and the storm of a raging Vietnam War. It was a wild time all around in our country, but I don’t recall anything less than love and a sense of community around me. As a very small child, I especially remember family picnics at Lake Merritt (which I would later learn is the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the country). Through all the turbulence, we children connected with our urban landscapes, creeks, and green corridors with friends by bike—and under the hawk eyes of mothers and grandmothers who seemed to always be watching or shooing all us children from their windows and porches.
I grew up learning about ways to be in nature, and how to be with others in it. Up at the Lake County Ranch, we grew our own food and harvested meats from the cows and pigs we tended there. We hunted and fished: I recall the excitement of catching my first fish when I was three. And it was my job to help make sausages, threading lamb casing on the funnel of the meat grinder, twisting every several inches to wind a continuous rope into the five-gallon bucket. In the morning I could hear the sounds of woodpeckers tapping the giant oaks in the morning and mated pairs of California quails at home in our front yard.
It was also a place of convening. Numerous friends, neighbors, and community members would stop by, often unannounced, for conversation, a raucous game of dominoes, delicious BBQ, and other Southern-inspired culinary delights. When our church members came, we hosted moments of outdoor community prayer, through which I learned how to speak in public, reading Bible passages. Our pastor would even perform baptisms in the swimming pool. My friends and cousins and I created tents out of folding chairs draped by blankets to sleep outside in the thick quiet of night under the stars.
I Became an enthusiastic Girl Scout, who earned the most badges in my troop in a single year, gleefully sold cookies, and discovered a love for camping, journaling, and ecology. I was also on the cutting edge of technology. In the Bay Area, we were some of the first kids in the country to have computers in the classroom, and I learned to code on a Commodore PET computer.But my love of nature persisted.
I wanted to create nature experiences on my own terms. By the time I was 19, I had a few disastrous camping trips with friends under my belt. I recall overshopping for canned food (then leaving the can opener at home), leaky tents, damp sleeping bags, and shivering in cotton clothing next to an evening fire that refused to catch. An Outward Bound course tested me, and pushed me through physical boundaries I didn’t realize I had to summit a mountain. I learned a powerful lesson at the precipice of adulthood: to “trust my feet” or to have faith that I had everything I needed within me. It was another form of motherwit.
Then life got busy, and complicated. I went to San Francisco State University in the 1990s, the first in my family to attend a four year college. Here, I met some of the most brilliant and talented human beings of many hues, many of whom were, like me working to find their voice and identity—but after a few semesters, I decided to leave college. I worked at San Francisco’s famous Zuni Cafe. I started a limited run clothing company called Rulette Wear. The experience of having my own business, at 22, brought life-changing joy, in spite of its challenges.
At 24 years old, motherhood came unexpected, but welcome, prompting me to move back to Oakland with my parents. I gave birth to two more beautiful children and I persevered with my husband to launch a game and hobby store in Oakland, but my marriage felt shaky from the start. On the heels of my divorce, I decided to complete that neglected undergrad degree. I was 33, and knew that I needed to have as many choices as possible to potentially support the children on my own. In night school, I discovered that I was a scholar, earning all As the first and almost every semester to follow, and I soon got accepted to UC Berkeley. I moved with my three young children into University family housing, surrounded by a community of mothers like myself who were working to change the trajectory of our lives.
The courses I took on the artistic representation of the American forest—stories and images of John Muir, Ansel Adams and others—inspired me most, yet I yearned to learn the stories of Black people in the narratives of these places. Throughout this whole time, I continued to find refuge in camping, hiking, biking, and being in nature with my family, and also sought out outdoor recreation groups. But they rarely had participants who looked like me.
At last, I had a shining moment of revelation. It was 2009, and the U.S. economy had tanked. I had just graduated from UC Berkeley with no real plan or job prospects and I was considering moving out of state to hide out in business school. My parents had both transitioned by then, and the lands and homes that were my precious bond to them, and my past, had been sold off. I felt awash. Then I had a conversation with a mentor about my next step in life.
My mentor, aware of all the uncertainties I was facing, asked me a simple question, “If time and money were not an issue, what would you be doing?” Her words suddenly opened a door in me, a revelation that my personal truth had been hiding in plain sight, I had a deep desire to keep that Lake County Ranch experience alive in the world, to share it.
I answered her: “I’d probably start a website that reconnects African Americans to the outdoors…”
My lifelong love for family, community, nature, and the wherewithal to use digital technology platforms to elevate my deeply instilled passions suddenly all made sense working together. Motherwit. This became my True North. Within a week, I set up a blog template and I began sharing my stories about growing up both urban and wild. Outdoor Afro, a community of love in nature, was born.
Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro (outdoorafro.com), the nation’s leading cutting-edge network that celebrates and inspires African American connections and leadership in nature, reaching 30,000 people every year through planned activities.
You can read this story and more in the Winter 2019 issue of Outdoor Retailer Magazine. Each issue we include a How I Got Here story, a chance for icons and leaders in the outdoor industry to tell their stories of growth, learning, success, and love ot the wild. Published twice each year, Outdoor Retailer Magazine embodies the people, culture, and ideas that encompass independent outdoor specialty retail. We believe that engaging in thoughtful, complex conversations about the business of retail, the people who make it work, and the outdoor experience will energize the growth and evolution of the outdoor industry. Be sure to pick up a copy at the Snow Show in Denver, January 30-February 1 in Denver, Colorado.