The Odds Are Stacked Against Black People Who Forage For Food. Here's Why.

Alexis Nikole Nelson, aka "Black Forager," explains how racist laws from 150 years ago have affected the way she lives today.
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

Alexis Nikole Nelson, otherwise known as Black Forager on Instagram and TikTok, is a Columbus, Ohio, content creator and social media manager. She makes videos that share foraging tips on topics like identification, sustainable cultivation and what to make with foraged foods, and she has amassed a community with 1 million followers on TikTok and more than 300,000 on Instagram. In this Voices in Food story, Nelson tells Stephanie Gravalese about how a series of laws put in place over 150 years ago kept Black and Indigenous peoples from foraging post-slavery.

On what it’s like to be a Black forager today

I went through a phase where I was urban foraging exclusively wearing dresses with full makeup, because I thought, “If I look the most palatable version of myself ― even if someone doesn’t know what I’m doing and the fact that they can’t identify it makes them a little bit nervous ― hopefully I look so inviting, so pleasant, that they’ll come and talk to me about it before they call the cops about it,” which is not an experience that I feel I see a lot of my white counterparts even being a little bit familiar with.

If you’re brown or a Black face living through primarily white spaces, you stand out by default. So a lot of times, just for the sake of our own safety, the last thing that you want to do is already have attention called to yourself because of your existence, and then add on top of that, the layer of doing a non-easily-identifiable action. That sometimes makes people nervous.

I feel like I have to have a speech ready to go at all times, regardless of where I am. I’m not the kind of person who can really get away with foraging in spaces where I’m not supposed to be.

To call it racism in foraging would be a little bit reductive, because it’s not that people in the foraging community are going out of their way to gate-keep or to ostracize people of color. It’s very much something that has happened, culturally. The things that set that into motion were purposeful, but they were purposeful 150 years ago.

At this point, there is about a century and a half of cards stacked against Black people for participating in foraging activities, activities like trapping, even activities like fishing or hiking, outdoor things in general.

How we got to this point

Up until right around when the Civil War was ending, much like it still is in a lot of parts of the U.K., foraging was extraordinarily normalized. Foraging and hunting on public property was not just normalized, it was the norm. That was just something that people were doing to supplement their meals, supplement their income, and foraging and hunting on other people’s property were not necessarily as frowned upon as I would say it is now.

In most places, it was considered a civil offense, as opposed to a criminal offense like it is everywhere now. What kind of began that shift was in Southern states once the slaves were freed ― recently freed Black people knew how to forage, and [there was a desire to] cut off their opportunity for financial integrity and financial freedom.

A lot of them [knew how to forage] from parents and grandparents who were taught by the Indigenous peoples who were also very much subjected to and victimized by these laws that were then put in place.

Nelson peers over a bowl of "Chicken of the Woods Cakes," which are like crabcakes, but made with pickled chicken of the woods mushrooms instead of crabmeat.
Alexis Nikole Nelson
Nelson peers over a bowl of "Chicken of the Woods Cakes," which are like crabcakes, but made with pickled chicken of the woods mushrooms instead of crabmeat.

For a lot of Black folks, they expected to be able to provide for themselves and even expected to be able to make some money with what they were gathering and trapping, which they already had to know how to do because a lot of the meals that you were getting on the plantation were not enough ― they were meager, and that’s being generous.

But with trespass suddenly becoming a criminal offense, well, boom! There’s a whole lot of space where you otherwise may have been able to get food that you can’t, because suddenly you’re looking at having to pay bail, having to serve time if you’re caught and you get in trouble. Concurrently, metaphorical fences and sometimes physical fences were put up around public property.

As a freed person, you didn’t have land. Nobody really ended up getting the promise of 40 acres and a mule. So if you couldn’t forage and hunt on public property and you couldn’t forage and hunt on other people’s property, what did you have left? The answer is nothing.

The answer for a lot of people was having to return back to the plantations they had only just walked away from as sharecroppers, because at least they were able to provide a little bit for themselves, a little bit for their families and communities.

It’s super unfortunate because with those laws kind of being put in place to subjugate Black people, they weren’t the only ones who felt the blow. Indigenous people also very much had to suffer because of those laws. And poor white people had to suffer because of those laws.

Where we stand today

Foraging has gone in and out and in and out of fashion over the last century. Once the Great Depression happened, a lot of people were foraging more regardless of their background because of the horrendous economic downturn. Then, when we kind of get over the hump of World War II and moved into the ’50s, foraging was seen as something that you did if you were poor. If you didn’t want to project poverty, you would go to the grocery store.

You’d have your ticky tacky house in suburbia with your white fence, and no one would see you wandering the streets and creeks looking for food, because it didn’t tell the story that you wanted to be telling.

For Black folks in the ’50s especially, the last thing that you wanted to be doing was protecting poverty in spaces where you already have the odds stacked against you to begin with. The cherry on top of why I think we see so few Black folks in the outdoors period, not even just in the foraging space, is in the ’50s and ’60s. It was dangerous to be a person of color by yourself in these spaces that our population was dominated by white people.

It was not a safe thing to do with how many deaths and lynchings we saw in the first half of the 20th century. It was a scary concept; it’s kind of the reason why, even now, a lot of Black folks don’t swim. It makes sense that now it has been culturally ingrained in us for multiple generations now to stay away from some of these spaces, because your great-grandparents were staying away from those spaces. They sure as hell weren’t teaching your grandparents who venture this whole war teaching your parents who then didn’t teach you.

I, for one, am just very lucky that both of my parents were very outdoorsy because their respective parents were very outdoorsy. So we kind of had a bit of a break in the chain, but it means my Nana’s outdoorsiness, and that partially stems from the fact that she had to work in the cranberry bog in Massachusetts as a teenager with a lot of her siblings. I guess I’m just lucky that that was kind of our foot in the door with our love of growing things and our love of the outdoors in general.

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