On May 25, 2020, video of Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper being threatened with police by a white woman during a dispute over a dog in Central Park went viral. Happening on the same day as the murder of George Floyd, Cooper’s encounter with a “Central Park Karen” helped spark the racial reckoning that began in 2020. Cooper joined Blavity to discuss his new book Better Living Through Birding: Notes From a Black Man in the Natural World, his new National Geographic show, Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper, and his place in history.
Helping to spark a movement on racial justice
Cooper told Blavity that he initially had no idea that his dispute with Amy Cooper, no relation, in Central Park over her unleashed dog would become a major focal point in the movement to protect Black lives and bring about racial justice. The attention to Cooper’s video, uploaded by his sister to social media, was “a little disorienting for sure,” he said. But Cooper was “glad to contribute something to the conversation.” Rather than stay “holed up in my apartment until this whole thing blows over,” Cooper said he realized that he was part of a moment and took “an opportunity to say some things that need to be said and to bring out some things that need to be brought forward.”
Pursuing your “weird” passions
When asked to describe himself, Cooper acknowledged the many facets of his life and personality.
“I’m a writer,” he said. “And now a TV host, And an activist, have been for a long time, and of course a birder, and also a Black, gay nerd. I guess there are a lot of labels in there. but you know those are the ones that apply and that I’m comfortable with.”
Cooper’s love for birds and nature and his activism can all be traced back to his parents.
“My dad was a science teacher, so nature was always big in our household,” Cooper said. “He took the whole family camping quite often.”
As a child, Cooper’s love for nature focused on birds, an interest that made him unique among his peers. As an adult, he tells current students to stick with whatever “weird things” that fascinate them. “Don’t let anybody else say, ‘Oh, yeah, you can’t do that because it’s not cool.’ Screw that,” he said.
Navigating Harvard and making history at Marvel
As a young man, Cooper’s interests and talents took him from Long Island to Harvard University, where he studied government.
“Harvard was eye-opening in a lot of ways,” Cooper said. His wealthy classmates and the historic halls of Harvard, lined with centuries-old pictures of wealthy white alumni, were initially intimidating, but Cooper eventually came to the realization that “they’re not really any better at this than I am.”
After graduating, Cooper worked as a comic book writer and editor, introducing groundbreaking gay characters to the Marvel and Star Trek universes, writing socially conscious works in light of events like the Rodney King beating, and creating satirical queer-centric independent work. In one 1990s comic in particular, “an extremely right-wing guy becomes president of the United States and starts taking it in all the wrong directions,” Cooper recalled. “And as we know, that could never happen in real life,” he joked.
'Extraordinary Birder' explores the beauty and fragility of nature
Now, Cooper is the host of a new National Geographic show, Extraordinary Birder. In each episode, Cooper visits a new location — destinations include Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Palm Springs — and explores the local wildlife and environment with local birders ranging from amateur birdwatchers to experienced scientists. The show also calls attention to pressing environmental dangers — for instance, in Hawaii, where “three quarters of their native birds have already gone extinct.”
For all his impact and the extraordinary journey that Cooper has taken so far, it is his focus on nature and its preservation that he sees as his legacy.
“I want people to be inspired to go out and look at birds and be inspired to protect them,” he said.
For Cooper, birds are not only fascinating parts of nature, but they’re also early warning systems for the overall environmental degradation that could endanger us all.
“We’ve lost a third of our birds in North America in my lifetime.” Cooper explained. “That’s something we need to stop and reverse. And by doing that, we’re not only helping the birds but helping ourselves.”
Ultimately, for the birds and the humans who occupy this planet, Cooper said we need to “get [our] act together people and make this planet work.”
Cooper’s book Better Living Through Birding: Notes From a Black Man in the Natural World is out now, and his new National Geographic show, Extraordinary Birder, debuts June 17 on Nat Geo Wild and June 21 on Disney+ and Hulu.