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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Author, comedian Baratunde Thurston visits UW-Madison

The prominent author and comedian spoke as part of the Nelson Institute’s Jordahl Lecture Series

Students, faculty and local residents had the chance to hear from writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston on Thursday, Oct. 5. 

Each year, the Nelson Institute of Environmental Science invites a distinguished expert in the field of conservation to speak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of the Jordahl Public Lands Lecture Series. Thurston spoke about some of the ways that ordinary citizens can help to foster positive relationships with the outdoors. 

Thurston, who is the author of The New York Times Best Seller “How to be Black,” entertained the audience at Shannon Hall with humorous tales of his upbringing in Washington, D.C. 

Thurston emphasized his mother’s influence in nurturing his appreciation for the natural world as well as the inspiring life of resilience she led and strong set of guiding values she provided. 

Using his family’s history as an example of the racial discrimination faced by Black Americans throughout the 20th century, Thurston stressed the necessity for a collective national healing to rectify some of the previous era’s abuses and to ease the tension that polarizes our society. 

Thurston also spoke of the capacity for the outdoors as a vehicle for healing and the breadth of educational opportunities buried within our nation’s public lands.

“This is not just something to use,” he said. “It’s something to belong to.”

Thurston’s new television series, “America Outdoors,” focuses on featuring the stories of ordinary Americans who use the outdoors in a constructive and enriching way. 

In the show, Thurston travels to different locales across the United States and meets with diverse groups of people — from a team of Indigenous roller skaters in Portland to urban gardeners and kayakers in Los Angeles — all of whom share a love for nature and a unique outlook on the current state of the environment. 

“I want people to see the outdoors as a place where we can literally experience common ground among the wide range of differences that make up this nation,” Thurston told the Times.

Thurston expressed similar points Thursday, emphasizing the unity of the American nation and the importance of maintaining the country’s parkland.

“America Outdoors” would not be complete, however, without mentioning climate change, which has been named one of the most divisive issues facing the country today.

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In the show, Thurston meets with James “Ooker” Eskridge, the conservative mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, a town that is quickly disappearing due to rising sea levels. 

While the two did not have much in common ideologically, Thurston was moved by the mayor’s dedication to his land and community. 

“We were on the coast of his island and seeing tombstones in the water,” Thurston said. “You can show data about climate change and you could watch an Al Gore presentation and see the temperature going up. But then you can wade through a graveyard. Hearing him describe having to exhume his ancestor to his own backyard; he got emotional talking about it. It made it real. I didn’t expect to have that experience at all. I definitely didn’t expect to have it with someone who’s seemingly so different from me.”

These types of moments, according to Thurston, are the essence of “America Outdoors” — telling stories of incredible tragedy and resilience in the natural world alongside groups often overlooked in the national discourse.

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