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.

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Audubon’s work became canon, and John James himself akin to birders’ Jesus.

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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.

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Blackness in America is a function of perception by some, belief by others.

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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.