Though intentionally celebrating and recognizing the achievements of Black Americans and Black communities goes back much farther, Black History Month was institutionalized by The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, at first as Black History Week in 1924, and has been officially sanctioned by every sitting president of the United States since 1976. Every year, the ASALH proposes a theme for Black History Month to focus the attention of the public, the changing themes themselves mapping out some of the major social and political shifts since the inception of the celebration.
For 2021, the ASALH theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. While Black History Month extends far beyond the institutional halls of the ASALH, at Touchstone we find this year’s theme particularly helpful in navigating what it means to honor Black History Month as a company that is overwhelmingly non-Black. Both Touchstone specifically and climbers generally are fond of calling each other family—the community ties we build together through our shared love of climbing is a huge part of what makes our sport so special. For many climbers, as long as they can find other climbers—locally, nationally, or internationally—they can find their way home.
But for many Black climbers, this assumption is deeply complicated by systemic racism that makes it both harder to participate in outdoor sports and harder to find the same sense of safety and comfort in them. Economic and environmental barriers make it difficult for Black folx to access the outdoors in the first place (A 2019 Outdoor Industry Participation Report found that only about 8% of “moderate” outdoor participants have identified as Black since 2013), while racist social and political practices continue to pervade even the most self-described “welcoming” cultures. Given that, the presumption of “family” climbing ties no doubt feel tenuous at best, and specious at worst.
We at Touchstone have for far too long presumed that family connection, and recognize that we are just beginning the ongoing, continuous practice of developing truly equitable and inclusive gyms and communities. While it is necessary to integrate the celebration and recognition of Black achievements, contributions, and history into our everyday lives, we’re celebrating Black History Month this year by working intentionally on unlearning the assumptions that have kept us from being a home away from home to all of our members.
Here are a few things we are doing to celebrate Black History Month this year and throughout the year, and hope others find these resources useful too.
Learn About Black History in Climbing (and Beyond)
Many of us could use a refresher (or an entirely new education) on Black history in the U.S.—a great place to start is in rock climbing. Climbers tend to believe (or want to believe) that climbing is outside of history, but segregation didn’t end at National Park borders, and stealth camping holds far more danger for Black folx above all.
Part of learning to situate climbing within a historical context also means celebrating the achievements of Black climbers, both in the past and in the making. We’ve included a couple links below to some of these important stories:
- Charles Madison Crenchaw was the first African American man to summit Denali in 1964, and, according to Edward James Mills in a 2012 Alpinist feature, remained largely unknown for decades. And it wasn’t until 2020 that Crenchaw’s life and achievements were memorialized at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in an exhibition curated by Mills.
- Sophia Danenberg was the first African American woman to summit Everest in 2006, and she told Melanin Base Camp in a 2018 interview that she was shocked to be the first—she thought that surely someone had come before her.
- An American Ascent is a 2014 film about the first all African American expedition to Denali, and is available to watch for free. (The video above is excerpted from this great film, so don’t miss it!)
- Sabrina Chapman is one of the few Black women attempting elite grades in climbing, and Mountain Equipment Co-op released a short film about her quest to send Titan (5.14) in Ontario, Canada. Whether she sends or not, she’s a powerful voice in climbing that’s shifting the idea of what a hard climber looks like.
- While Reel Rock 15’s best short film, Black Ice, is not currently available to stream or purchase, you can still catch up with filmmaker Malik Martin in this interview with Epic TV, as well as Soul Deep, a short film by Black Diamond about Memphis Rox, the nonprofit, pay-what-you-can climbing gym in south Memphis, TN featured in Black Ice.
Support Black-Led Organizations
There is a growing number of Black-led organizations in the outdoors and climbing, and we encourage you to donate, support, and follow them! Here are just a few to get you started:
- The Brown Ascenders is a Bay Area-based nonprofit for and by BIPOC climbers increasing accessibility to the outdoors, outdoor recreation, and outdoor education.
- People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature & Environment (PGM ONE) are working towards environmental justice and collective liberation. They have both a General Fund and a Black Joy Fund that goes directly to supporting the “joy, dreams, wellness and imagination of Black folks.”
- Brown Girls Climb was one of the earliest organizations in climbing working to increase the visibility and leadership of BIWOC, and they are continuing to develop avenues for mentorship year-round. Check out their marketplace to support them!
- Memphis Rox, the nonprofit, pay-what-you-want gym featured in Reel Rock 15’s Black Ice film and the Black Diamond short film Soul Deep (below) relies on volunteer support and donations for its thriving community.
Support Black-Owned Businesses
Restaurants in particular continue to struggle during COVID, and many folx have contributed to these incredible living lists of Black-owned businesses and restaurants by area:
- Black-Owned Bay Area Restaurants
- Black-Owned Sacramento Businesses
- Black-Owned Los Angeles Area Restaurants
- Black-Owned Fresno Businesses
Read Books by Black Authors
With the gyms closed and travel limited, we’ve had more time to read than ever these past few months. Here are a few books by Black authors that some folx at Touchstone are reading now, or can recommend from reading previously:
- Isabel Wilkerson’s books Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns
- Trace by Lauret Savoy
- Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
- The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills
- A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet A. Washington
- Toxic Communities by Dorceta E. Taylor
And while a huge part of anti-racism work is education, shifting a worldview for us takes more than reading non-fiction. Some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, new and old, are by Black authors:
- The Binti Series by Nnedi Okorafor
- Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
- The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
- The Parable Series by Octavia Butler
- Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney
While you’re at it, you can support independent Black-owned bookstores, too!
Practice Non-Optical Allyship
Though reading is important for many of us at Touchstone, author, attorney, speaker, and educator Rachel Ricketts says that anti-racism is more than a reading list—it’s a spiritual awakening. While that phrasing may not resonate for everyone, we recognize that the real work of anti-racism is personal, radical, and goes far deeper than an intellectual pursuit.
That’s why we’re honored to continue to work with SOMA Integrative Wellness, who have offerings both for businesses and individuals to support racial healing and racial equity from the inside out. SOMA’s rigorous and holistic approach is geared towards sustainability, so that their clients can work towards fully embodying anti-racist practices every day, all the time. You can start by checking out some of their free resources, which include healing offerings for both BIPOCs and white/white-passing folx.
From within the climbing community, we continue to reference Resources for Climbers of Color, which includes resources for organizations and allies working to be more inclusive and diverse.