What Do We Do About John James Audubon?
by J. Drew Lanham (Reprinted from audubon.org)
My name is J. Drew Lanham and I’m a Black American ornithologist. A Black birdwatcher. I confess here and declare now multiple identities—race and ethnicity, profession and passion. My love of birds lies at the intersection of these and renders me, and the minuscule percentage of others who would declare themselves the same, a rarity. Like the seldom-seen skulking sparrows so many of us seek, we are few and far between among an overwhelmingly white flock. I celebrate who I am, but like far too many of us “living while Black,” I have also felt the frustration and pain of being discounted or disrespected.
Here we go again, some of you may be thinking, the race thing. Some are asking, “Wasn’t Black Birders Week over months ago?” “That overblown Central Park thing was put to rest, right?” But just as I don’t forget assaults with deadly words against friends, I must expand my Blackness and bird love beyond a week. Race is an issue in every aspect of American life, including birding, conservation, nature stewardship, and environmentalism writ large. For birders, it is an issue fledged from the nest of its “founding father,” John James Audubon, and flies fully feathered now in present day.
John James Audubon is American birding; the name falls wistfully, almost like a mantra, from admirers’ lips. Mention him, and like Edison and the light bulb or Zuckerberg and Facebook, more people than not will associate the name with a singular thing: birds. Though some would precede Audubon, and many come after, no one in ornithology is as revered. But what do we do when an origin story begins with a rancid “Once upon a time?” What do we do with a racist, slave-owning birding god almost 200 years dead? And what do we do with such a man who might have been in denial of his own identity?
You may have entered the realm of Audubon magazine to escape such a discussion. But it belongs here. The person whose name graces the publication, brands the national organization, and shapes how we perceive birds was more than most of his acolytes know—much less want to openly address. Questions about the bird man’s own race, how he identified others, and how his soured, inhumane legacy carries forward will define the future course of the movement he inspired. They also hold truths about our ability to help birds, and ourselves.
So here I am, deconstructing—or perhaps more precisely, dissecting—John James. I’m also pushing beyond that exhumation to dig into current affairs. I’m concerned with how birding and bird conservation rest too comfortably in a homogenized stasis. I’d like to show what they can and should be. I don’t just love birds, I’m in love with birds. They are an obsession that first took hold at about eight years old when my designs on boy-powered flight fell hard to gravity. After an arduous migratory route from childhood dreams of being a Red-tailed Hawk through expectations of an engineering career, I finally flew. Today I’m a cultural and conservation ornithologist who spends most waking hours (and some sleeping ones) thinking about birds. Some of my thinking is about others similarly given over to chasing, naming, listing, saving, and in almost any way connecting to birds.
From my earliest day of bird envy, I understood the almost mythical power of Audubon. I read everything I could get my hands on. In every book, John James was woodsy and heroic, the kind of birdwatcher I wanted to be. While others on the playground pretended to be cowboys or astronauts, I imagined myself in buckskins with a telescope and shotgun. I wanted to be like Audubon, watching and collecting birds. I would kill the birds as he did and paint them. I just happened to be Black. From the outside looking in, there was a lot to admire. Audubon roamed the continent in the early 19th century cataloging its avifauna in a way none of his contemporaries did (and no one really has since), bringing attention to its amazing diversity of birds and opening the door to North American ornithology. Audubon’s idea was to paint every bird. He tried his damnedest and, in the end, produced Birds of America. It must have been shockingly beautiful to behold: life-size bird paintings, artfully observed and illustrated, in a series of three-foot-tall plates engraved on “double elephant folio” paper. (The price for a set was certainly shocking: about $30,000 in today’s dollars.) These plates were later bound into enormous books, and now people visit the extremely rare copies in libraries and museums to reverently watch the pages turned by gloved docents. Audubon’s work became canon, and John James himself akin to birders’ Jesus. Like water to wine, anything the name “Audubon” touches is somehow imbued with ascendant conservation powers.
Audubon’s work became canon, and John James himself akin to birders’ Jesus.
The litany of North American bird noticers/naturalists/conservationists have all belonged to the same storied club—Wilson, Bartram, Grinnell, Roosevelt, Pinchot, Thoreau, Muir, Darling, Leopold, Peterson, etcetera ad infinitum. It is a pantheon that speaks to the white patriarchy that drives nature study in the Western world. Rachel Carson and Rosalie Edge—two women who played a pivotal role in bird conservation—break the pattern, but Black, brown, or Indigenous figures are hardly ever acknowledged as contributors to the cause of “saving things.” As important a role as George Washington Carver played in protecting the soil of the South, and Majora Carter plays as a founder of the environmental justice movement, their contributions go mostly unnoticed outside of Black History Month, and barely then.
In my life as a conservation professional, I’ve been steeped in this white history, told from a white perspective. And I’ve seen firsthand how the organizations that grew from this foundation are likewise predominantly white, with a homogenized point of view. I was a board member of many, including the National Audubon Society. I was a rarity there, too. I resigned in 2020 because the essential work of diversity and inclusion remained siloed, at the highest levels, from priorities like climate change, habitat conservation, and community science. Audubon’s policies and practices diverged from my own, and I had to remove any conflict of interest in order to maintain my personal agenda of connecting conservation and culture. Yes, environmentalism and conservation are inarguably worthy causes. But without consideration for human injustices, they are wildly unbalanced in ways that are coming home to roost like so many homeward-bound crows at dusk to the tall pines.
Now, in the midst of isolation and quarantine and a nearly yearlong, rending stretch of protests and debates, rioting and sedition, the nation faces an identity crisis of its own. The seemingly innocuous world of watchers who hold birds and birding as escapes hasn’t itself escaped a glancing blow. Injustice and inequity don’t have statutes of limitations and don’t cease to exist where people sling binoculars. Racism doesn’t stop at the borders of migratory hotspots.
Last summer, the Sierra Club denounced its first president, John Muir, as a racist unworthy of organizational adulation. Muir is a founding father of the American wilderness movement; he also characterized Blacks as lazy “sambos” and Native Americans as “dirty.” The National Audubon Society followed suit, stating that Audubon, too, was a racist. He enslaved at least nine people. He mostly referred to them as “servants” and “hands,” but never seemed especially concerned that the people helping him could be bought, sold, raped, whipped, or killed on a whim. Then again, relatively few men of his time did. Presidents did not. Why would he? Audubon’s callous ignorance wouldn’t have been unusual for a white man. It would have been de rigueur—an expectation of race and class that he enjoyed.
Both Muir and Audubon were “men of their time” and judged accordingly, but could have been men ahead of their time and judged otherwise. The stories of icons and heroes are critical, but what happens when truth rubs the shine off to reveal tarnished reality? As patriarchy, privilege, and the closely allied sin of racism persist, how many monuments to environmentalism and conservation need to come down—or at least be rigorously inspected? And as we consider how we treat past memory, do we need to rethink our current mission?
Playing Audubon or any other mostly white character as a 10-year-old, I never thought too deeply about race. Identity was suspended in fantasy. Growing into adulthood as a Black American, race is ever present and too frequently brought to my attention as bias or prejudice wrought by individuals and institutions. Bias plagues my life, including that portion of it dedicated to loving birds and bird-loving people. And so I am forced to think about it even when I’d rather be doing something else, like watching birds or thinking about the people I like watching birds with.
A simple question from my non-birding wife, Janice, brought another facet of Audubon’s identity to mind. She was in the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture, and History and called to check in. “Hey, did you know that Audubon was Black?” she said. It was one of those questions to which she already knew the answer but took premature glee in knowing that I might not. “Ummmm . . . I knew there was a question about it.” In fact, I didn’t know for sure that Birding Jesus was possibly a person of color, but my ego pushed a slight lie forward. “Well,” she said, “apparently they know it down here ’cause I’m standing here looking at James John Audubon” (she usually gets his name reversed for some reason) “and he’s on the wall of the museum. They obviously know something y’all don’t.” I bristled at the “y’all.” After all, I am a birdwatcher, but I’m a Black man. I didn’t have a problem with Audubon being Black-ish. “What do you mean ‘y’all’?” I asked. “You bird people,” she shot back. “Y’all need to get a clue.” We hung up, but it was clear that Audubon’s identity was more fact to her than to me. Like many birders it was some sort of tangent I hadn’t paid much attention to.
Audubon’s father was a French ship captain who traded slaves. Audubon’s mother was French or Haitian Creole. By some definitions, a Creole is a person of mixed white and Black descent. Definitions of race and identity have morphed over time to both cover and expose truths, so we may never know who John James Audubon’s mother was. But my wife saw his portrait hanging on the wall because there was a belief in his Blackness strong enough to ignore the biographers who say there was no doubt about Audubon’s whiteness. Blackness in America is a function of perception by some, belief by others. Proof sometimes lies in what cannot be proven. The difference between white burden of proof and Black knowing is emblematic of our national cognitive dissonance on race.
Maybe I’d been blinded by the brilliance of Audubon’s art and still stuck in the boyhood hero stories that didn’t mention his parentage, or his thinking toward humanity. Maybe I’d been made myopic by a mutual love of birds. But that someone with no stake in the birding game could call him as others saw him brought home the glancing blow. That one drop of knowledge was enough for my wife to definitively ID him, but it opened a whole line of questioning for me.
Blackness in America is a function of perception by some, belief by others.
Historians continue to debate Audubon’s Blackness, but for the sake of current argument, let’s just say the birding icon wasn’t who he appeared to be. What if he was really just good at “passing”—being a Black man of passable whiteness such that he was able to travel around 1800s America without pause or fear. Look at paintings of Audubon (some of them selfie portraits—J.J. would have LOVED cell phone cameras) and he’s as robust, courageous, and white as any wilderness explorer ever was. An aquiline nose and sun-flushed face always peering into whatever wild place he would next venture to watch, kill, paint, and eat birds. Audubon was a master at marketing his own image and by all accounts sought to distance himself from any ideas about his background that would taint his privileged skin.
Deconstructing holiness is hard work. As I made the speaking circuits over the next few years, talking bird science but also trying to connect dots between conservation and culture, I began to float the idea of Audubon’s questionable heritage. “What about holding him up as a multiracial role model?” I asked. After all, there was a Black POTUS (half-white) and a “Cablinasian” (Tiger Woods’s contrived name for Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian heritage) golfer who found widespread acceptance and acclaim. There seemed to be a different standard for John James, though. The first time I posed the question at a meeting in Arizona, I could almost hear squirms. There were plenty of other issues to dredge up that dealt more immediately with making birding more colorful; why this?
A couple of people got up and left. Maybe their parking meters were running out. But the tone in the room changed. I was amped up by it. I had no definitive answer to the question I asked. I dropped it as an exercise in heuristic exploration, one that might begin to open some binoculared eyes to larger questions of identity and inclusion. I asked again at talks all over the country, anywhere I had an audience. I wanted to gauge attitudes of acceptance, or at least open minds. The question isn’t just about Audubon’s identity but our own. Who are we as a culture, as a community? For years I had assumed that all the hybrid cars at birding festivals with leftish-leaning bumper stickers meant I was in a world of allies who would understand “the struggle” of Black people. I know better now and cast those assumptions aside to understand more realistically who we are—a subset of the whole.
As we tear down monuments that deserve to be dismantled and hopefully melted down and cast into monuments of truly heroic—not perfect, but heroic—people, what difference would it make if an ancestry test revealed the “taint” of sub-Saharan African in John James Audubon? Would the Great Egret flying proudly white on the emblem of the national organization have to be changed to something . . . less white? Perhaps a Common Raven or Sooty Tern? Would those birders who left the room where I made such audacious mulatto claims come back in? And does the possibility that John James Audubon may have been a man of mixed race give him a pass on his racism? Racists do not get passes because of identity confusion or historical context. None.
I do not believe perfection should ever be the standard, but I know we can do better. The public watches unarmed Black people being killed and assaulted daily in high def and the protests that ensue. Meanwhile there are counterprotests, riots, and attempts to deconstruct democracy by white people who’d just as soon have those Black people remain in a certain space. Almost all of this is rooted in a history that Audubon witnessed near the apex of its horrific turn. He chose to watch birds and be inhumane. What choices will be made now by conservation organizations? Will there be excuses of context to brush over with paint the truths that need to be revealed? Seeing beauty and advocating for justice are not mutually exclusive acts. I would argue that one can feed the other powerfully. Perhaps that might appear in a mission statement somewhere.
Whoever Audubon was, he haunts my world. I own a budget reprint of Birds of America, a treasured gift from my older brother Jock. I’ve picked up a palm-size version I keep in my writing shack, as well as a compressed copy of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, John James’s go at mammals; several biographies; and a few replica prints bought from consignment and thrift stores. Audubon’s art is a monument. I look at his portraits of “southern birds”—my birds, the ones I know best from my South Carolina home: Loggerhead Shrikes, Yellow-breasted Chats, Northern Mockingbirds, Swallow-tailed Kites. The beauty of the work is undeniable. The birds would seem to fly or flush from painted page into present time.
But then there’s something behind what was portrayed, and I’d like to know more about what we can’t see. One of my favorite portraits is of Carolina Parakeets (Carolina Parrot, plate 26), the way the now extinct Psittacids poked their dexterous feet outward and looked beyond two dimensions into a world they would disappear from forever. Perhaps it was the final look before Audubon laid waste to them. Maybe in their super-intelligent parrot minds they knew something we didn’t. I’m wondering how many of the Black people Audubon encountered saw what he seemed to work so hard to hide.
I venture deep into Google to try and shake loose some definitive answer as to who he was. I talk to knowledgeable sources who volley identity back and forth with me. Audubon, in any form, seems to have been an arrogant, sometimes prickish birder who had little regard for anything other than himself or the birds he sought. I know some birders like that. Hell, some would probably describe me that way. But then, beyond that, John James Audubon had that elephantine blind spot that opened his eyes wide for birds and shut them tight to humanity.
Maya Angelou advised that when people show you who they are, believe them. Audubon showed his full hand in “The Runaway,” a story he published in the five-volume companion to Birds of America. Whether Audubon was Black or not holds little sway to me considering his own account of a chance meeting in a Louisiana swamp, where the Lord God Birds still reigned and flocks of Carolina Parakeets huddled in the hollows of thousand-year-old cypress trees.
I can see Audubon there in the glow of firelight, probably with a sack of dead birds he intended to skin, eat, and paint. I wonder if he shared that flesh with the likely hungry and exhausted family he encountered, a family that had been enslaved, separated, and sold until the father reunited them all for an attempt at a free life. They are all sitting around the fire. Their clothes have been torn and soiled, fleeing hounds and slave catchers. The children are frightened. Trembling. Crying. Cold. They tell a distracted John James of the cruelties they endured. Audubon barely hears them; he is probably preoccupied with the birds he’s seen and wants to see. He needs to pose the empty skins and paint. But then there are these Negroes in the way. Their stories and pleas fall on ears tuned in to hear a Barred Owl calling. And then John James, who momentarily recognizes something human and perhaps even familial in the faces of the free Black people sitting with him, tells the family that he will return them to their owner. I imagine he’s convinced it is the white thing to do, and here in Louisiana he must keep the story straight. Imagine, if you will, the horror of the moment of being Black and free but knowing you’d soon be re-chattled. I wonder in that moment what I would have done.
If his story is to be believed, the family was “gladly” imprisoned again. Audubon was prone to exaggeration, but even if he made it all up, the lie is almost worse than the truth. Whatever humanity rested in Audubon, it all leaked out into the murky waters that night—or into the story he concocted to double down on his own white supremacy. While America roils in plagues of politics, viruses, and a persistent reckoning with its racist past and present, few have paid attention to the perceived progressive bastion of environmentalism. If the Muir revelation might be likened to one of the giant redwoods he worshipped, rife with heart rot, falling hard in a forest where we can all see and hear it, then John James Audubon’s racism is the albatross rotting around the necks of those who would hold him in reverence. It is past smelling foul and beginning to reek. Audubon enslaved people. He bought and sold humans like horses. That is evidence enough to recast the hero into a different role. The organizations bearing Audubon’s name must press forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be. Most of their members are white people with enough disposable income to dump into the coffers of overwhelmingly white-led organizations who have no need or desire for John James to be anyone other than the myth. No one willingly pays memberships for discomfort, but if “progress” is the end goal, then it’s a likely partner.
Why muddy the ornithological water with race? Because racism pervades everything—even our love of birds. To see it blatantly codified in black and white is sad proof of a deeply ingrained bias. South Carolina Audubon Society reports from the early 1900s blame Black people for the decline in songbirds and waterfowl. Arthur T. Wayne, a luminary among South Carolina ornithologists, placed “negroes” among a litany of agents (alongside raccoons and house cats) deleterious to bobwhite quail in the book Birds of South Carolina. Racism even found its way into later ornithological texts. Sprunt and Chamberlain’s seminal book South Carolina Birdlife, published in 1949, cites the colloquial name of Double-crested Cormorants as “niggergeese”—a name for a bird perceived as deceptive and useless that’s still being thrown around in duck blinds today. Perspective matters, and there is every reason to be concerned if institutions insist on not changing for the sake of tradition or donors easily offended.
The organizations bearing Audubon’s name must press forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be.
Audubon may have passed as white, but most importantly, he passed on the chance to be a better human being. That is weight that should bear heaviest on all the preconceived notions, and I for one will have to tear down any monuments I’ve erected to him. Race and racism are immutable facts of my life. I am proudly a Black man. I am consistently punished for that identity, even among birders. I hold all these thoughts as I hold on to my Audubon books and prints. I won’t burn them, but I’ll see the Carolina Parakeets and every other bird or animal he painted in a different kind of slanting light.
A few years ago I had a close encounter with an elephant folio myself. On a quick turnaround trip to Manhattan, my friend Jason Saul rushed me to the New-York Historical Society to lay eyes on a rare copy of Audubon’s masterpiece. With time growing short, we got there only to find the gallery closed. I strained over the velvet ropes, trying my best to see the ornithological Holy Grail. No luck. As Jason cursed, then implored one staffer after another to let us in for “just a glance,” I caught sight of an exhibit at the other end of the hall: “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.” It was the worst kind of bird exhibit, but I was drawn in.
I wandered through a maze of misery, overcome. Blackness defined and then institutionally defiled. It was an American blind spot wrought over almost a century. I lost sight of the off-limits Audubon and immersed myself in the hard and heroic history of my people. As I neared the exhibit’s end, Jason found me. He’d somehow gained entrance to the gallery. With my mind still lingering in the story of segregation, we entered—and there it was, looming even larger than I could’ve imagined. Beneath the glass, the folio’s pages were opened to Baltimore Orioles—two brilliant orange-and-black males and an equally beautiful, muted brown-and-ochre female perched on a pendulous nest. Audubon’s art lives like none other. That is fact. But that day, the facts of Jim Crow trumped his talent, a genius consumed by a system of bias he bought into. I later posted a photo of me staring at the black birds under glass, just down the hall from an exhibit on Black folks trapped under a ceiling that never let them see upwards. One was a history of which I had become a part, the other a history of which my ancestors had been a part. I made my train to Philly and thought about the irony all the way south.
It's been a long haul from my early childhood flight-and-feather obsession to this complex thinking about just how the lives of birds can be “saved” even as we try to save ourselves from one another. Black lives matter now. They always have. Always will. It’s critical to not just say the words or change some bird’s colonialist name, but also to change old mission to new, by persistent, sustainable acts to make the words live in policy and practice.
These days I sit in my side-yard writing shack, writing less than I should, Zooming more than I want, and thinking way too much. I’m spending hours pondering who I am in the context of who we are as a community of bird adorers, nature nurturers, and Americans divided into extreme factions. It’s no easy feat watching birds without some echo of societal racism interrupting the songs of Carolina Wrens. In one moment, I hope that Evening Grosbeaks will magically show up at my feeders in this finch irruption year; in the next, I think about the eruption of hate. I know it won’t be magic that makes things better in America, but hard work and the people and organizations who say they care showing it.
I know that’s possible. In the wake of racist encounters, I’ve been buoyed by an overwhelmingly positive and inclusive cadre of kindred spirits—good people who treat me with respect and love, people who want better for humans and birds. And, yes, there are organizations trying to do better. In this current call for awareness, they are digging deep and deserving of affirmation and support. But then, painful as it may be, we need to call truth to power—past and present—where it is stuck or regressive.
I look over my shoulder as I work on this essay, and there, on the shelf, is John James Audubon, memorialized on a book’s dust jacket. His eagle eyes are fixed, it seems, on me. His vision of “my kind” is clear. And now, I see him more clearly, too. He was a despicable racist birder of his time, and now of this time. I’m hoping such an identification isn’t one I have to make often. But I know many blind spots remain in the wake of a legacy that can either be ignored to a fate of stagnancy and decline or be learned from to move, with eyes wider open, toward a more equitable, just, and inclusive conservation future. I have a small, framed picture of George Washington Carver, the nature-loving Black man who saved the South’s soil and was rumored to have loved birds as I do. I desire a better view and believe I’ve found just the spot for the Tuskegee professor, between me and John James. There. Blind spot gone.