Great Egret. Illustration: Adrian Brandon

From Audubon Magazine

What Do We Do About John James Audubon?

The founding father of American birding soared on the wings of white privilege. The birding community and organizations that bear his name must grapple with this racist legacy to create a more just, inclusive world.

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.

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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?

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laying 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.

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.

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s 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