Parks Aren’t Public Unless Black Kids Belong

By Sianna Simmons-Afari | Posted on July 23, 2020

Sianna Simmons Headshot 410

This blog originally appeared on Kaboom! Stories and has been cross-posted here with permission. 

Where are Black kids truly safe? How do I reconcile the ideals I work toward with the realities of a society steeped in structural and institutional racism?

How can I answer these heart-wrenching questions in the length of a single blog post?

July is the heart of summer, a time when kids and families are itching to get outside and enjoy sunshine and play. But in the midst of two crises — COVID-19 and structural racism — the simple joys of being outside aren’t afforded to everyone.

As a professional at KABOOM!, a nonprofit that works to end playspace inequity, I think about Black and brown kids and their safe access to parks every single day. Our work is about creating equitable access to playspaces: in schoolyards, parks and other spaces that we believe are for the benefit of everyone.

The racist assault against Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, brought this into high relief for me. The story angered and saddened me on every level of my personal and professional being. Seeing white privilege weaponized against Black humanity in a so-called “public space” isn’t a new story, but it shook me all the same.

As a Black woman in America, this experience filled me with rage and hopeless terror for the safety of all the Black men in my life. I think about the filters society places on the Black man, contorting his image until it’s dangerously distorted. I imagine how still they must stand, how quiet they must keep, how careful they must walk to keep within the impossibly narrow line of safety. I think about the crushing weight they hold, the burden of disarming society of their perceptions of danger. This survival routine folds Black men into an oppressive box that denies the truth of their humanity — and it steals their joy.

The incident in Central Park was a painful reminder of how little has changed in terms of what it means to be Black in public. The reality is this: until Black people feel safe, welcome and included in a space, we cannot truthfully call it public. Insisting that a park is public simply isn’t enough. Full inclusion means confronting the history of racial exclusion in public parks and then actively rebuilding against it.

When I think about Christian Cooper, I wonder how he developed his hobby of bird-watching. Was it as a kid in the park down the street? Through the window of his bedroom, a bluebird song drifting in on the breeze? I let my mind wander with imagination thinking about the story behind Christian and his relationship to green spaces.

I imagine a Black boy roaming without a care to his leafy neighborhood park, the neighbors waving as he passes by. I imagine them seeing this Black boy staring up at the sky for what he truly is, just a kid enraptured in an ordinary pastime. After looking for birds and admiring a few flocks, I dream of the boy safely returning home with playful memories of his experience in the park that day.

Racial segregation in swimming pools, ice-rinks, amusement parks, and beaches was both legal and violently enforced until the mid-20th century. The Black-led movement that fought for the right to enjoy these spaces is a key part of the civil rights era that we don’t normally think about.

“You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

The laws changed, but privatization, racialized disinvestment and harassment continue to keep Black people out. The consequences of racism in parks fall on a spectrum just like racism anywhere else: exclusion from decision-making and programs, subtle glances of suspicion, overt threats, police intervention, and even death in the case of kids like Tamir Rice. We must dig into this history and recognize that it continues today, only in different forms.

In his foundational book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois posed a question that echoes more than a century later: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Black and brown kids not only lack safety and freedom within their own community, but are held within a system of adultification that keeps them from being kids but ironically also too often keeps them from seeing adulthood. There are two critical things happening here, the first being biased imagery and beliefs that mark Black kids as older and more culpable than their white counterparts and the second being the resulting chronic stress this imposes on Black kids.

Many of our cities and public spaces are being gentrified with coffee shops, fitness studios and boutique grocery stores that effectively diminish community gathering spaces that are culturally relevant to those that have lived there, while at the same time ignoring the basic needs of kids. What’s more, new social rules of patronage accompany gentrification that actively excludes Black kids and communities from that norm.

According to these new rules, Black kids are seen as dangers to society if they’re in a coffee shop, shopping plaza or public park. Where can they be safe? What spaces are we creating specifically with their preservation and safety in mind?

Equitable urban development means spaces that are made with and by every community member at the table and where decision-making power is given to those who have a vested interest despite being historically denied such rights.

We use the word “every” very specifically here to make sure there is no biased interpretation of those that make up the “all.” In this sense, every, means, Black, brown, young and seasoned community members are at the table, have a voice and have power to make decisions about their own community.

One of our community allies in the city of Baltimore stated that, “building spaces for play is literally helping to redefine the image of Black young men and thus, redefining where it is acceptable and safe for them to be. It’s giving them their youth back, their joy.”

At such a young age Black kids are worrying about their safety, health and well-being in every single moment. The chronic stress and accumulated burden associated with this awareness is an emotional load that white kids — or adults — do not have to face.

The work to dismantle structural racism in this sector is critical to the safety and preservation of Black kids and communities. So, while our work most tangibly focuses on creating safe places for these kids today, it couldn’t be more clear that our work is also reclaiming safe spaces for their futures as adults.

The fantastical dream of the boy in the park is what I work for. I want spaces where kids are seen for what they are: kids. I want parks where these same kids can grow up with playful memories. I want their memories to turn into traditions that become expectations for the next generation.

Sianna Simmons-Afari is an Associate Director of Community Engagement at KABOOM!. Her former days were spent as a Division I tennis athlete at Arizona State University. The tennis court is still her favorite playground but she loves hiking the trails in Maryland!