OAKLAND, Cali.—Deep in a redwood forest in California’s Castro Valley, the crowd of about 75 people was hard to miss. Not only because of the DJs kicking off dance parties, tables full of snacks and sparkling water, and people sharing shrooms and cannabis. But everyone there was also “melanated,” as one member described. Some even wore traditional African garments or golden halo crowns.
They’d traveled to the confluence of canyons about half an hour’s drive from downtown Oakland to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Negus (which means “king” in the Ethiopian language Amharic) in Nature. The group, which now has more than 300 subscribers, plans outdoor excursions around Oakland for Black people and provides a space for them to microdose on magic mushrooms, particularly as a way to heal from racial trauma.
“We’re really tapping into what's organic and what's natural to us. And so coming into nature with some psilocybin, with some good people, with some good herb, with some good music, some good drinks, some good food and no alcohol—you're going to have yourself a good time guaranteed,” Negus in Nature founder Langstyn Williams, dressed in an Afrofuturistic top with blue, orange, red, and yellow patterns, said to the group at the June 4 party.
“I believed that there was a space that was needed for Black people to feel safe and comfortable in nature. And I didn't know one that existed. So I was like, ‘I'm gonna go create it’,” he continued into a microphone.
While the vibe was celebratory, the party had an underlying poignancy. Williams, 30, asked people to shout out the names of ancestors they want to remember before leading a grounding ceremony, where he told people to breathe deeply and “let all the bullshit out that don't serve you no more.” His friend Luna Bey, a historian, followed up by instructing guests to set an intention for their shrooms trips.
Oakland is one of a handful of cities and states that have effectively decriminalized shrooms and other psychoactive plants. For Black people in those places, the change has presented an opportunity to claim space in the wider psychedelic movement and the outdoors, which are typically dominated by white folks. Many of the Negus in Nature members who spoke to VICE News said taking shrooms has helped them heal from the trauma, both first-hand and vicarious, of racism—an idea that’s bolstered by a growing body of research. They described psilocybin as giving them room to breathe, allowing them to process pain, and helping them gain perspective or connect thoughts that they might not otherwise put together.
“I'm trying to take mushrooms with intentions and focusing on certain things in my life that I need to heal,” said Brian Edwards, a stand-up comedian who grew up in West Oakland and was attending his first Negus in Nature event.
Edwards told VICE News he’s been in 32 different group homes and that his sister was molested by staff at one of them. He also said one of his group home roommates died by suicide.
“I come from the streets and shit—I sold a lot of drugs. I had some shootouts and stuff, you feel me?” he said.
When he takes shrooms, he tries to reflect on some of the painful experiences of his past and think about positive ways to heal.
“A lot of people here, we shower our love on each other, and we work with each other. We need to work with each other in a way, we need to heal each other,” he said.
Williams formed Negus in Nature because he was tired of protesting.
Over the years, the deaths of unarmed Black kids and adults like Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many others have often catalyzed massive, country-wide demonstrations in the streets. But a couple years ago, Williams said he began to realize he didn’t feel safe there.
“Protesting is dangerous. Imagine if we go out there and try to go fight OPD [Oakland Police Department.] They have a badge. They have guns. They got radios. They've got tanks, trucks. We're not ready to fight them. You know what we can do? We can hone our energy,” Williams said.
In May 2020, Williams, an entrepreneur and event curator, organized a trek on the Yuba River and called it “Psychedelic Sundaze”—a chance to microdose on shrooms and frolic in the water. It was meant to be a one-time thing.
“As soon as we got back, people were like, ‘when are we going to do that again?’” Williams said. So he planned a string of shroom-friendly hikes and outdoor adventures and launched an Aquatic Summer series held at various bodies of water to challenge the idea that “Black folks can’t swim.” He said anywhere from 10 to 45 people typically show up to Negus in Nature events.
“I want to see more Black people getting outside, and I want to see more Black people enjoying nature. I want to see more Black people taking holistic routes to their mental well-being and using these native and natural remedies to fight depression or anxiety or stress that they're just having to deal with in the day to day,” Williams said.
“This is our protest, being able to stick out in the woods. Black joy, negro laughter—that's our protest,” he said.
The night before the forest party Williams’ downtown Oakland apartment was bustling. As his partner, Deja Pinkney made a taco spread, two of their artist-friends spray painted a magic mushroom-themed mural on his balcony.
While they painted, Williams explained that he sees mushrooms as a vehicle for “transformative thoughts.”
“It connects plants and trees. Basically the mycelium is like the underground, like wifi of the world,” he said, referring to networks of fungal threads. “I'm able to bring coordinates of my head together or thought patterns in my head that typically don't communicate.”
But for many Negus in Nature members, the group was either their introduction to shrooms or what helped normalize a drug they’d previously associated with white people. Only 1.6 percent of Black people reported using psilocybin compared to 12.3 percent of white people, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies using 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health data.
“It’s crazy, the stigma,” said Mani Draper, one of Williams’ friends, at dinner, explaining that for a long time his perception was, “It’s some white boy shit.”
In fact, some historians have said the use of magic mushrooms can be traced back to North African cave paintings from 9,000 B.C. One report found that the religious use of shrooms in Mexico and Central America is at least 3,500 years old. But they weren’t used by westerners until mycologist and banker R. Gordon Wasson ate them while on a trip to Mexico in 1955.
Despite those origins, many people of color are just now discovering the benefits of tripping, in part because the laws banning it are easing, though shrooms remain a Schedule I drug federally. Draper said doing shrooms was “life-changing.” Others at the table agreed.
“Psilocybin just kind of gives you that chance to not think about the world pressures because racism is, even though it's like that invisible monster, it’s still there. Even if you don't feel it on a day to day basis, you could be having a wonderful day frolicking and then another Black man gets shot. It's like, that could have been me,” said Natty Rebel, 45, a Bay area artist and Negus in Nature member.
Drew Muse, a 28-year-old yoga instructor and fellow member, said that desire to live in the moment is part of what attracted her to the group.
“I want to live my life because literally you don't know when it's going to end. So finding that joy, going out into nature, running around, being naked, playing frisbee, going whale watching, going to the beach, going on these long hikes, really connecting with your people in this space with just exactly what we all needed,” she said.
“I want to live my life because literally you don't know when it's going to end.”
The group members said they sometimes get stares when they go on excursions together—but that they feel much more at ease in bigger numbers.
“California's a beautiful place. But as melanated people, when you go out too far in the woods by yourself, you can't even enjoy the beauty because you’re nervous. One too many American flags or Confederate flags and it's like, ‘you know what, I need to get back to my car.’ But when you're with a group, 10-20 you're like, ‘you know what? This is beautiful,’” said Rebel.
Those fears link back to a deep history of segregation in parks and outdoor spaces.
The National Park Service was created in 1916 with a white American ideal in mind, according to Myron Floyd, dean of the College of Natural Resources, dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources.
“The underlying rationale for creating parks was this idea of U.S. nationalism, to promote the American identity, and the American identity was primarily white, male, and young,” he said, in an article by the college.
Madison Grant, a conservationist who helped expand the National Park Service, was a believer in eugenics—the practice of manipulating a population by encouraging people with desirable traits to reproduce, often based on racist and prejudiced assumptions. Grant spread racist stereotypes in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race. The text said Black men should be “willing followers who ask only to obey and to further the ideals and wishes of the master race,” according to Mother Jones. And Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was a board member of the American Eugenics Society, which promoted the practice.
The National Park Service didn’t officially start to desegregate until 1945, but some parks remained without any Black visitors until the Civil Rights Act passed nearly 20 years later.
Data from the National Park Service shows the long tail of that history; in 2018, Black people made up just 6 percent of visitors that year—white people made up 77 percent. Would-be visitors reported barriers including not having good transportation options or the travel being too costly. A 2020 report from the Center for American Progress found that communities of color were three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in areas that are “nature deprived.”
“For a lot of Black people, camping, growing up, that wasn’t part of our culture. You don't want to be out in the woods with white people with guns,” said Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist with the University of Ottawa who’s studying the impact of psychedelics on people who’ve experienced racial trauma.
“For a lot of Black people, camping, growing up, that wasn’t part of our culture. You don't want to be out in the woods with white people with guns.”
But she said there’s a natural connection between shrooms and nature and that simply being around trees can have a calming effect on people—an idea that is also backed by research.
Monnica said racial trauma occurs when people have experienced an “accumulation of racism from many different sources” including first-hand encounters and those that they hear about in the news, including the murders of Black men like Floyd.
“Hearing about all these terrible things happening to your cultural group, it causes fear, it causes anxiety,” she said. Often, she said racial trauma mimics post-traumatic stress disorder, and people can suffer from depression and even agoraphobia.
Monnica is currently trying to launch a clinical trial with the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies to study the impact of MDMA on people who’ve experienced racial trauma. She’s also organizing psychedelic retreats in Ecuador and Jamaica for people of color.
While she said there are no clinical trials for psilocybin and racial trauma in the works, people of color are taking shrooms to cope with racism and they’re describing it as “really helpful.”
Whereas people turn to alcohol to distract from their pain, Monnica said psychedelics can do the opposite.
“People can be confronted with repressed memories and painful things that have happened to them,” she said. “With the proper type of guidance and support this can bring about new insights, new perspectives, and learning, and people can grow from their experiences and heal from them rather than being numbed out by alcohol or even frankly many psychiatric drugs.”
With those ideas in mind, Williams is currently building Negus in Nature’s 2023 schedule.
He’s hoping that his vision will become a blueprint that can be replicated around the country. And because San Francisco; Seattle; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Washington, D.C. have all effectively decriminalized shrooms, while Oregon and Colorado have legalized them for therapeutic purposes, there’s a better chance of that happening now.
As Williams thanked the crowd for coming to Negus in Nature’s anniversary party, he encouraged them to lean on each other.
“If you look around, you have community, you have love, you have people to support you, you got people to hold you if you need that.”
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
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