The United States is continuing to move through a much needed and long overdue overhaul of many of the racist and oppressive foundations and figures in light of the current racial justice movement.
The conservation and environmental space is in dire need, as every industry is, of pushing towards more diversity, inclusion, and true representation of the entirety of human and non-human life it sets out to protect.
As part of that, recently the Sierra Club has been dealing with the reality of the racist and oppressive behavior of its founder, John Muir.
So to as the National Audubon Society. The President and CEO David Yarnold came out with a public statement regarding how it's handling with the behavior and exploitative ways of its namesake, John James Audubon. It's worth a read here.
John James Audubon made enormous positive contributions to science, ornithology, and conservation. He was the driving force behind Theodore Roosevelt's environmental policies, and he is perhaps most well known for his infamous watercolor paintings in The Birds of America.
However, John James Audubon was also a slave owner. He did many despicable things to black Americans that have for too long gone tucked away and out of sight.
His history is even more complicated in that some believe he himself was part Black. Born in Haiti to a French plantation owner before emigrating to the US, there are multiple theories as to his racial heritage.
Recently, the renowned artist and birder, Kerry James Marshall, came out with a series of paintings he calls Black & Part Black Birds in America. Kerry believes John James Audubon was indeed part black, but he used the fact that he was mostly white and looked white to his advantage.
His recent work is a must see as is his video interview. Find both here (you have to enter your email to view but it's worth it).
Making decisions on what we keep and acknowledge from history vs. what we try to throw away and bury is a very complex one. This country was founded of course on genocide of native people and slavery of African people. So nearly all historical American figures are going to have harsh pasts with behaviors or remarks we most certainly should condemn.
It is important to highlight and recognize both the good and the bad, as to not focus entirely on either. When studying John James Audubon, we should recognize his incredible contributions to the conservation field and hold that in high regard. We must in turn also recognize his harmful actions and behaviors as a slave owner and racists alongside that. Both ends should be out in public, studied, and used to tell the complex history of this country. This is a far better outcome than simply cancelling John James Audubon or changing the name of the society in his honor. We can not learn from our history if we do not keep it in the limelight for generations to come, both the good and the bad.
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