Diversifying participation and representation in the outdoors has been a focus on campus in recent years. In this vein, Bowdoin hosted J.R. Harris, chair of the DEI committee of The Explorers Club for a lecture on Wednesday night.
The lecture entitled “Sambo or Superman: The Rocky Road to Recognition,” focused on the dangers of leaving important figures in the history of the outdoors, such as Matthew Henson, an African-American man, and four Inughuit hunters who accompanied Robert Peary on his expedition to the Arctic, to be unrecognized or misrepresented.
Harris’ visit was in collaboration with the Peary-Macmillan Arctic Studies Museum. Susan Kaplan, the museum’s director, explained Bowdoin graduate Robert Peary’s connection to The Explorers Club and its founding in 1909.
“The Explorers Club is an organization based in New York City that was established around Robert Peary … to support his expeditions, but it grew, and more and more explorers joined it,” Kaplan said. “It was a very elite male—white male, usually—club.”
Given the skewed demographics of The Explorers Club and the exploring community at large, many people of color who have made important contributions within the explorer’s community have been forgotten. Now, Harris has established The Explorers Club “Society of Forgotten Explorers” to honor those who have gone unrecognized and make their stories known.
One of the key points of the lecture was a story Harris told about Henson and the Inughuit hunters who had been on Peary’s expedition and not recognized until recently.
“While Peary returned home a hero, Henson’s considerable accomplishments were largely belittled and endured even by Peary himself,” Harris said. “Peary went on to become president of The Explorers Club, but Henson was denied membership until 1937, when he was made an honorary member almost 30 years after his dash to the pole, and 17 years after Peary’s death in 1920.”
Henson was not the only person to go unrecognized on Peary’s mission to the arctic. The four Inughuit hunters who aided Peary on his expedition had been largely forgotten by history until last spring, when they were given charter membership by The Explorers Club. Kaplan explained that Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Museum has also done work to honor these integral members of the expedition.
“If it weren’t for [the Inughuit], a lot of these explorers wouldn’t be alive or have accomplished what they did,” Kaplan said. “So [the museum has] endeavored for many, many years to recognize men and women who make major contributions, but who history has not recognized.”
Harris’ lecture spoke of another just as harmful way in which history has treated people of color within the explorer’s community, the “Superman” depiction. Harris explained that in order to fit a preconceived narrative, historians will sacrifice an accurate telling of history to misrepresent Black explorers as having heightened abilities.
After speaking at length to honor unrecognized Black explorers, including an enslaved Black man on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, Harris spoke about his own experiences in the Explorer’s Club.
“When I joined in 1993, there were no other people of color in the club at all. The club has 3,400 members around the world. Women were just allowed into the club in the late 1980s,” Harris said. “There was this kind of realization that the club needed to change, and that realization was really based on not so much political correctness, but it was based on the quality of exploration itself and the notion that for really good exploration, what you really need are different perspectives and different points of view.”