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National parks have room for all races

By Shelton Johnson, Special to CNN
  • Shelton Johnson is the only African-American permanent ranger in Yosemite National Park
  • African-Americans today are least likely to have a wilderness experience, says Johnson
  • Johnson writes that Yosemite had once been protected by Buffalo Soldiers
  • Oprah hosting a two-part television special on Yosemite on Friday and Monday

Editor's note: Shelton Johnson is a ranger at Yosemite National Park and is the author of the novel "Gloryland," published by Sierra Club Books.

(CNN) -- As the only African American permanent ranger in Yosemite National Park in California, I often lament that I'm more likely to meet visitors from Japan or France than I am to see an African-American family from nearby Sacramento or Oakland. So I couldn't be more appreciative of my recent opportunity to lead Oprah Winfrey through this national treasure for a two-part television special that airs Friday and Monday.

Some readers may be stunned to learn that this well-traveled celebrity had never before visited a national park. Most people of color won't be.

When I was growing up in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s, no one in my family ever visited a national park, nor to my knowledge did anyone in my community. My school friends never talked about summer vacations to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. The Smokey Mountains and Mesa Verde never came up in class discussions.

I had my first experience with nature while my dad, who spent his career in the military, was stationed in Germany. Even now, I remember the cold air, the warmth of my parents' hands and the closeness of heaven as we walked one evening on a mountaintop in the Bavarian Alps. Something in those mountains reshaped my psyche.

African-Americans today are least likely to have a wilderness experience, but we descend from people who were most likely to have intimacy with the land.
--Shelton Johnson

Back in Detroit, my grandfather had an old tackle box in our basement and stories about fishing on Mackinac Island. Together we'd watch National Geographic specials and "Wild Kingdom," and I was drawn to landscapes that bore so little resemblance to the scenes outside our front door. Half African and half Cherokee, my grandfather understood and encouraged the attraction.

When I became a Yosemite park ranger in December of 1993, I didn't know that I was in a preserve that had once been protected by Buffalo Soldiers, African-American men serving with the Ninth Cavalry. Eventually, I saw that history as a bridge between my culture and the National Park idea.

I began to dress as a Buffalo Soldier and to tell this historical story to people who visited the park. Unfortunately, few of those people were African-American. So I decided to reach beyond the park boundaries with a novel.

"Gloryland" became that novel, and in some ways a reflection of my own family history: a soldier father and a black Indian grandfather. As I was writing from the perspective of a fictional Buffalo Soldier, I realized that I was also reclaiming a sensibility that had been lost. African-Americans today are least likely to have a wilderness experience, but we descend from people who were most likely to have intimacy with the land.

In part because my interpretative presentations as a Buffalo Soldier, I appeared in Ken Burns' recent PBS series: "The National Parks, America's Best Idea." That series has already connected many young people of color to these beautiful places, just as those National Geographic specials made me fall in love with nature. Oprah's visit will reach even more young people of color.

Oprah says that in Yosemite, she felt the presence of God. I can imagine children, teens and young families in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta or Phoenix witnessing her appreciation of this place she'd never had reason to know she was missing. Perhaps they'll find the inspiration to step away from the television for a while, to head for Yosemite or Grand Teton or Arches. I'm confident that some will rediscover a connection to nature their ancestors took as a daily blessing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shelton Johnson.