Black birders took to Twitter this week in response to a viral video showing a white woman calling the police on a black man, Christian Cooper, who asked her to keep her dog on a leash in Central Park. The first Black Birders Week is taking place as a way to affirm black people’s right to be in nature without having to face racism and discrimination.
In the video of the Coopers’ interaction, the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), can be seen approaching the soft-spoken bird-watcher and saying she will tell the police “there is an African American man threatening my life.” Once Christian Cooper posted the video to Facebook, Amy Cooper’s actions were swiftly condemned by the public (she was also fired). All too often, police responses to similar calls have taken black lives. Protests continue to erupt across the nation to demand an end to police killings of black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Atatiana Jefferson.
The Verge spoke with Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman who, along with others, organized Black Birders Week. As part of the week, people are posting photos of their favorite birds and outdoor places online, and posing questions to experienced birders.
Opoku-Agyeman is moderating a discussion between black birders that will be live-streamed on Facebook on June 4th, but she is not a longtime birder (she’s the co-founder and CEO of the Sadie Collective, which works to get more black women into economics, finance, and data science). Opoku-Agyeman talked with The Verge about why Christian Cooper’s video struck a nerve with so many non-birders, how it awakened her own appreciation for birds, and what role social media is playing amid the movement taking place on the streets.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your reaction to Christian Cooper’s video? And how did the idea for Black Birders Week evolve from there?
Obviously, what happened to Christian Cooper was horrible. I’ve seen videos like that before where a white woman will inflect her voice so she seems like she’s in danger. And that’s just like, wow. Even if you told me you weren’t racist, that doesn’t mean anything because you are knowingly changing the cadence of your voice to insinuate that you are in danger, which is a lie.
The question of the matter is: is us being black in life a threat, fundamentally? I’m over apologizing for my blackness and for occupying space.
I’m in a community called #BlackAFinSTEM, and what we represent is being black unapologetically in our respective fields. At the time when that video went live, obviously there was public outcry and there were international conversations happening about what occurred with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper. In the #BlackAFinSTEM crew, some are very well known in the birding community such as Corina Newsome and Jason Ward and Jeffrey Ward. Those individuals are talking a lot about how that experience in the video was actually the norm. They have to go out of their way to make sure that people know that they are birding to preserve their safety.
I'm a recent PhD ecologist studying salamanders. This has brought incredible critters and places into my life, but very few other black faces. Here's to a future where being #BlackInNature is safe, accessible, and affirmed by all #BlackBirdersWeek #RepresentationMatters pic.twitter.com/zhYBAqpaBd— Scott Thomas (@scott06thomas) June 1, 2020
In the economics profession, we have similar scenarios in terms of black people being excluded from the space. That led me to think a little bit about, how do we go about celebrating black birders and amplifying them? So I pitched the idea to the group and I said, “How about a black birders day?” Tykee James, who hosts the podcast On Word for Wildlife, did me one better and said, “How about a black birders week?” And I said, “Perfect! Let’s see if we can organize it,” and we did that in 48 hours.
What experiences did you have with birding before you started planning this week?
I actually was the first black student to graduate from my elementary school, where they had a garden club and a bird-watching club. I didn’t realize until Black Birders Week that I’d actually been an amateur birder at some point in my life. One of the birds that I remember from childhood is the cardinal. As somebody who was the only one in that space, being in nature really made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t have to be just that black girl or this black kid in my class. I was just a kid in nature and embracing nature.
At @stjohnspds, I was apart of the Bird Watching club and for me, the bird that I find so captivating is the Northern Cardinal, which typically comes out during the wintertime.— Anna Gifty (@itsafronomics) June 1, 2020
Everytime I see one, I'm reminded of simpler days. #PostABird #BlackBirdersWeek pic.twitter.com/t6jUGTU4da
I’m so glad that I’ve been exposed to birding because what a lot of these black birders will share is that a lot of people, including black people, don’t think that they belong in nature — in terms of actually having a professional career as a naturalist, as an explorer, as a birder. Those options are not available, especially for black people. A lot of times when you think about black people in nature, a lot of people associate that with a threat — that black people can’t exist in nature without being threatened. So this idea that black people are thriving in nature — they are embracing nature, they are incredibly joyful and excited about showcasing the natural world to the rest of us – is a perspective that we desperately need. You need a diversity of perspectives in order to understand what’s happening in the world. If we need diversity in the boardroom, you sure as heck need it in the natural world because that encompasses all of us.
Most of the posts seem resolutely uncontroversial, and even joyful, featuring people’s selfies or pictures of birds — but as your colleague Corina Newsome has highlighted, there are still some nature groups that see even these innocuous posts as having the “potential for conflict.” What’s your reaction to those responses?
ATTN: if you need an example of what it looks like for Black ppl to be excluded from birding/outdoor exploration, here’s 1.@zookeeperjake asked why his post about #BlackBirdersWeek was taken down from the Tennessee naturalist fb.— Corina Newsome (@hood_naturalist) June 1, 2020
This is why #BlackBirdersWeek is NECESSARY. pic.twitter.com/Q9vjI3guND
What that shows is that black people are never allowed to just have space. We’re never allowed to occupy space. If black lives matter, all lives matter. If black people are doing this, all people should be doing it. The question then becomes, why are people who are saying that they’re not racist so hell-bent on ensuring that black people in particular are excluded or essentially dismissed? It’s not something, again, that is unique to birding. It’s something that you see everywhere.
How do you see Black Birder Week in relationship to the protests against police killings of black people taking place?
What we’re all ultimately protesting for is the existence of black people in space. Black Birders Week is protesting for the existence of black people in the natural space, in the birder space, in the explorer space. The protests happening across the country are broader than that. It’s arguing for the existence of black people in space, period.
We need to be living. Why do we need to be surviving? Why is that something that we need to be fighting for? Why is it so controversial?
We’re arguing the same thing. Why is it controversial that black birders exist in this space? What about being black in this space makes you so uncomfortable? That is what’s being protested outside and that’s what is being protested over social media through Black Birders Week.
Legit, I’ve been a hijabi birder for over 20 years and this is the first time I’ve met a Black hijabi birder. I am so grateful to #BlackBirdersWeek for elevating Black voices and profiles. I just want to go birding with these amazing people. Right. Now. https://t.co/vPjt9g43LT— Jameela Jafri (@JameelaJafri) June 2, 2020
What role do you see social media having at a moment like this?
Social media is the tool that keeps democracy in check at this moment. People are sharing information that is keeping people safe. People are sharing videos of police brutality that’s keeping institutions accountable. Social media is also a place where we can cut through the noise at times with joy — joy that can be spread beyond just where you’re sitting.
Social media is a powerful tool, especially for black people. People always talk about the power of black Twitter. Black Twitter is a force because it’s a community of people who have shared experiences across countries, across faiths — and they’re coming together under one purpose: uplifting black voices and amplifying who we are and our humanity.