Monday, April 22, 2024
Interviews

Christian Cooper takes flight with NatGeo show

Birdwatcher Christian Cooper became famous over an incident in Central Park that revealed how systemic racism has infected all pursuits and places.

Now the polymath activist has a new TV show that shares his first love. The New York Times reported that National Geographic approached Cooper about eighteen months ago to offer him a show about birdwatching. The new venture, Extraordinary Birder, is described as follows in a press release:

“Life-long birder Christian Cooper takes us into the wild, wonderful and unpredictable world of birds. Whether braving stormy seas in Alaska for puffins, trekking into rainforests in Puerto Rico for parrots, or scaling a bridge in Manhattan for a peregrine falcon, he does whatever it takes to learn about these extraordinary feathered creatures and show us the remarkable world in the sky above.”

To celebrate Cooper’s new project, please enjoy this article published in the February 2021 digital issue of Queer Forty.


Christian Cooper came out as gay in his freshman year at Harvard in 1981. A brave move, I think, and part of his long history as an activist, which included going to protests as a child, and serving as co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD when the organization was doing its hardest work in the AIDS crisis.

Standing up for what is right comes naturally to Cooper, and that extends to observing the rules and regulations of the Central Park Conservancy. When the avid birder asked a woman to leash her dog, as per the rules, the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) called the police twice to complain that a Black man was threatening her life. The Central Park birdwatching incident began as a conflict between a dog walker and a birder and spiraled out of control when she weaponized her privilege to gain the upper hand.

“She made it racial, because up until then, even though we were clearly in conflict with each other, there was no racial dimension to it, at least no overt racial dimension,” says Cooper. “But then once she made it racial, I sort of had a choice: Do I capitulate to this or do I keep doing what I’m doing, whether I was Black, Brown, white, purple, green, whatever. And at that point, I said, I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing, and then she’s going to have to do what she feels she needs to do. And the thing that informed that moment was the death of Philando Castile.”

That incident of police brutality involved a young Black man being shot to death by a Minnesota officer during a routine traffic stop.

“Castile did everything you were supposed to do; everything Black mothers tell their sons to do when you are stopped by police,” says Cooper. “He kept his hands on the wheel.  He was polite and respectful to the police officer. He volunteered that he had a handgun in the car that he was registered to carry. He just wanted the officer to know everything. And he still ended up shot dead in front of his girlfriend and his little child in the backseat.”

Cooper’s takeaway?: “They’re gonna kill us no matter what we do. So from now on, if I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out with my dignity intact. I’m not going to collaborate in my own dehumanization. I am not going to make this easy for you. I’m not going to twist myself into a pretzel to try to make you feel more comfortable. I’m just going to be a human being with my dignity intact. And then you do what you need to do. And that’s sort of what was in the back of my head when I [was] dealing with this woman.”

In dealing with that racist white woman, Cooper was suddenly caught in the matrix of white supremacy discourse of 2020, a year that saw 164 Black people killed in the first eight months. Only a few hours after the Central Park birding incident, George Floyd would be killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

Cooper says his own ‘incident’ was quite minor, would have been a social media blip, if it had occurred on any other day but May 25, 2020. But it blew up, as if the zeitgeist suddenly acknowledged: this persecution of Black people is happening everywhere, in New York, in the Midwest, fatal and non-fatal, and it’s happening every single day — if not hour.

“Any African-American develops a pretty thick skin, and it kind of rattled me, but ultimately, you know, I was not harmed by it and I never actually had to deal with the police, you know? I wasn’t roughed up or thrown in jail or any of that so the incident itself was not traumatic.” 

Surprisingly, Cooper, has empathy for Amy Cooper. “I can only imagine what she went through. The tsunami of approbation that must have descended on her head that she didn’t cause, but she bears responsibility for it.”

Cooper refutes the idea that she was neurotic, nutty, crazy. “It does a disservice to people who are truly mentally ill. It is way too human to be racist. It is entirely within the human palette, sadly, to ‘other’ people and by othering people we somehow become part of a group and elevate ourselves. That is completely human.”

Which would suggest that conflict based on difference is inevitable?  

“It’s an inevitable human tendency that we have to overcome. But, you know, there are other inevitable human tendencies. We have to overcome the urge to constantly have sex!” he laughs. “There are plenty of human impulses we need to learn to curb, and one of them is the tendency to other.”

Professionally, Cooper is a science writer and was also one of Marvel’s first openly gay comic book writers. (He recently turned ‘the incident’ into a graphic novel.) The overlap between science and writing is world-building, understanding the laws of unity, and of applying hypotheses to narrative.

“I probably I married the two passions in the first book I ever wrote. It was an attempt to create a mythos. Mythologies take what people see around them and interpret it. My thought was, We have all this scientific knowledge that we didn’t have back in the day, what would a mythos that incorporated that knowledge look like? … It was just totally absorbing to me to take our understanding of our place in the universe and try to build a complete narrative, an entire beginning-to-end story of the universe around my knowledge, with characters and gods and goddesses and what they do to each other and how they live…”

One of his earliest influences was the original TV series Star Trek. “Very groundbreaking for the late ’60s where they had a Black officer, an Asian officer, a Russian officer, they were trying to be inclusive.  And it took me years before I realized every single planet they go to they run into aliens who are white, as if the entire universe is populated by people who evolved in the shadow of the Caucasus. You’re so steeped in the context you don’t even realize the racist context that you’re in.”

Mythology, science fiction, bird watching…these are all things we are taught are white. But here is Christian Cooper, Trekkie and former president of the Harvard Ornithological Club, currently on the Board of Directors for NYC Audubon. Birdwatching he says, has been overwhelmingly white (and straight) until fairly recently. “I used to joke, when I met another Black birder, ‘Oh, you’re one of the other five.’ But I’m happy to say our over the years our ranks have expanded.” There was a Black birders week in the aftermath of the Central Park incident.

“African-Americans, because we’ve been so socioeconomically disadvantaged for so long, if you’re worrying about where your next meal is going to come from, if you’re worrying about how are you going to pay the rent, if you’re working two different jobs to make ends meet, you don’t necessarily have the bandwidth or the money to buy a pair of binoculars and make a trip to Costa Rica to see fabulous birds, you know?”

LOOKING AHEAD

The results of the election were like surfacing from a submarine that had been underwater for four years, says Cooper. Under the Biden administration there is cause to hope that conditions will improve and the racial divide will narrow in this country. But we need to take that hope and translate it into concrete action and progress, he says.

“When people are suffering economically, they start looking around for scapegoats. And with that tendency to ‘other’, it’s a bad combination. There are folks who are in charge of our capitalist society, the upper echelon, who have vested interest in making sure that people of the working classes don’t identify with each other. And what is the best way to pit them one against the other than race?”

Cooper believes it’s up to us to maintain the pressure on our elected officials to make sure legislation is translated into change. He would like to see the District of Columbia, which is a majority Black city, made into a U.S. state to provide the taxpayers with voting representation in the Congress and full control over local matters.

“That’s where my energy is right now: D.C. statehood. It is tantalizingly close. We just have to convince three or four senators to modify the filibuster so that they can pass DC statehood with 51 votes. But not a single Republican will ever vote for D.C. statehood. And that’s why it’s so critical while we have the 51 votes to get this done in the next two years to make sure it happens.”

He’s positive and optimistic. I ask him, since he is a Marvel comic book writer, what his superpower might be.

“You know, I think to the extent that we all have superpowers, I would say that mine would be a reliance on rational thought and intellect. I mean, if you look at ‘the incident’ when that was going on, everyone was like, ‘Oh, you were so calm. Thank you for being so calm’. I’m like, well, that’s what you should do. Rule number one for me, especially in this age of being watched, is the person who remains calm wins. And in that situation I had control of myself. I was acting rationally. I was making my choices through deliberation. She was spinning out of control. I think if there was a superpower it would be the ability in most circumstances to keep myself rational and think things through and approach things from a reasoned perspective of, OK, this is the objective, how do we get there? My big hero when I was a kid was Mr. Spock and I strove to develop a logical perspective devoid of emotion.”

But as we talk, joy and humor simmer in his voice on a variety of topics: From guest-hosting the fabulous Gay USA, America’s weekly LGBTQ news hour, to dating (he has a steady boyfriend), to becoming an unwitting thirst trap at age 57. “I didn’t know what thirst meant!”

I have one last question: What’s his favorite bird?

“The Blackburnian Warbler. The way I like to describe warblers is they’re sort of like butterflies with personality because they come in all kinds of incredible colors. But birds are warm-blooded, like us, and they have all these songs. The Blackburnian Warbler is basically black and white, but it has this fiery, DayGlo orange throat.”

Of course Cooper has written his own mythos for this bird, which goes like this: The sun was crying tears of joy and the Blackburnian Warbler swallowed some of those tears and whenever it opens its mouth to sing, the orange fire from the sun rises back up and all the joy that made the sun cry is released back into the world…

We might be the dominant species but birds have lessons for us.

“Almost all birds can fly,” Cooper says. “And that freedom is just something that we land-bound creatures can look at and wonder at and imagine what it would be like.”

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 140 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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