Central Park birder Christian Cooper on being 'a Black man in the natural world'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Remember the news story from 2020 about a birdwatcher in Central Park who told a woman she needed to leash her dog because she was in a part of the park designed to attract wildlife and an unleashed dog was a threat to the wildlife? She refused. He started videotaping the incident on his phone. The woman, who was white, called the police falsely claiming that an African American man was threatening her and her dog.
The man, Christian Cooper, has written a new memoir and is my guest. One chapter is devoted to the Central Park incident. The rest of the book is about growing up as an outsider and how he turned that to his advantage. Growing up in the '70s, he was a young Black birdwatcher in a world of white birdwatchers, a closeted gay boy and a Marvel comic book nerd before that was considered cool. While at Harvard, he came out and then became a gay activist. He was one of the first openly gay writers and editors at Marvel and created what he thinks was Marvel's first lesbian character and was in on the creation of Marvel's first openly gay male character.
Now Cooper hosts a new show for the National Geographic Channel called "Extraordinary Birder," and he serves on the board of New York City Audubon. His new memoir is called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World." As you can guess from the title, the book is also filled with his stories about birdwatching. Christian Cooper, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHRISTIAN COOPER: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: The first chapter of your new book is titled "An Incident In Central Park." And I thought, yes, I know about that incident. And you write, I am - you're describing what's happening at the moment. You said I am a Black man running through New York's Central Park. And you describe how your heart is pounding, and you say, I know what this looks like.
And I'm thinking, I don't remember the part about you running in the Central Park incident, but then you explain you're really running because you got an alert on your phone about a rare bird sighting in the park and you don't want to miss it. So when you say, I know what this looks like, what did you think it looked like as you were running through Central Park to get a sight of this rare bird?
COOPER: A sloppy-looking Black man racing through the park. Because honestly, at that point in the migration I am a visual mess.
COOPER: My hair is likely uncut. I am almost certainly unshaven for several days. My clothes are from the bottom of the closet, something that I would never otherwise wear except that I haven't done laundry in three weeks. So I'm a mess, and it looks awful, and my shoes are, like - I deliberately wear the worst shoes I can get away with because I'm stomping around the park for hours, and if they get wet or muddy or whatever, I don't want to ruin good shoes. So I look awful.
GROSS: All right. So let's talk about the Central Park incident that you were involved in. It was Memorial Day 2020. The park was quiet because it was, like, the COVID era. Few people were birding during that period, apparently. And, you know, New York was a real COVID hotspot. There wasn't a vaccine. There wasn't treatment. And so I think you were masking outside as well as inside at the time. So you were in the part of Central Park known as the Ramble. What makes this part of the park special and different?
COOPER: The Ramble is designed to make you feel like you are in the Catskills in a wooded area that you would normally find maybe about two hours north of the city. But here you are smack in the middle of Manhattan and because of the dense forest, because of the extensive undergrowth, because the paths were deliberately laid out to be windy and twisty so that you don't have necessarily direct sight lines everywhere - which is why it's called the Ramble. So that's what makes the Ramble special.
And because it has these plantings and lots of waterways go through it, it is particularly attractive to birds because they can find cover, they can find food, they can bathe in the streams and drink from the streams. So it's really a haven for wildlife. And there are also raccoons that live in there. Lately, there's been a coyote hanging out in there. It is designed to replicate a wild space, and it's got all kinds of wild creatures living in there. So we birders adore it.
GROSS: But dogs have to be leashed there because of all the wildlife, because the dogs can attack the wildlife.
COOPER: The wildlife, the plantings - it's a sensitive area. I don't know if you've ever seen a dog run, but nothing grows there. And that's because, you know, the constant foot traffic from dogs tears up the turf. You know, and you can't blame dogs for that. Dogs are just being dogs. But in a city like New York, where there are so many people concentrated in one area and their pets concentrated in one area, it means that there's a concentration of dogs going through that, if they were off the leash, the habitat wouldn't stand a chance. And then on top of that, the wildlife wouldn't stand a chance.
GROSS: OK. So on that famous Memorial Day of 2020 - I should say infamous - first you saw a dog unleashed. Then you saw the woman who turned out to be Amy Cooper, no relation to you. So you told Amy Cooper, the woman, I should say, the white woman, whose dog was unleashed, and you told her the dog needs to be leashed. And you pointed to a sign saying that the dog needs to be leashed. Just to refresh everybody's memory, described the dialogue that you had with her.
COOPER: Sure. Basically, you know, heard it first.
GROSS: OK. OK.
COOPER: That was the first thing. Yeah, the sound came first. Knew there was an unleashed dog in the Ramble, saw it tearing through the very area I was hoping to find a particular bird, and then saw the owner walking along a path that intersected the path I was approaching on. So - and I knew there was a sign right where the two paths intersected. So I just waited where I was, which was about 20 feet away from the intersection, and waited for her to - until she was right by the sign, because it always helps to have the sign right there.
And I said, you know, excuse me, ma'am, but dogs in the Ramble have to be on the leash at all times, you know, in a voice that was loud enough to carry the distance between us. And she said, you know, oh, well, the dog runs are all closed, and he needs his exercise. And I said, I get that. But all you have to do is take your dog about 100 feet that way - and I gestured down the path in another direction - and I'm like, and you're outside the Ramble and you can let your dog run off the leash to your heart's content until 9 a.m. And she was like, that's too dangerous. Which makes absolutely no sense if you know anything about the Ramble.
So the bottom line was that she was just not having it. And she, you know, was going to do what she wanted to do, and that was that. So at that point, I was like, well, look. If you're going to do what you want to do, I'm going to do what I want to do, but you're not going to like it. And she looked at me and said, well, what's that? And so I called her dog.
And she said very confidently, he won't come to you. Well, I've been birding the park for 35 years, so I have been dealing with this problem for a long time. And so I carry dog treats because it's a great way to coax dogs out of sensitive areas. So I started to pull out the dog treats. That's all she had to see. And she zoomed from unconcerned to frantic in .5 seconds.
And that's where things started to spiral downward. She got nervous, grabbed her dog by the collar, and started hoisting it around by the collar, which made no sense. The logical response if you don't want your dog to eat treats is to put it on the leash. But I don't think she was thinking logically at that point.
GROSS: Then she started threatening to call the police. And you kept saying, yeah, please go ahead. Why did you say, please go ahead?
COOPER: Actually, there's an interesting moment before that, which is that because she had picked up the dog by the collar and was hauling it around by the collar, which was hurting the dog, which was not the idea here, instead of putting it on the leash, I was like, all right, well, that's not working. So I put away the dog treats, which I hadn't even tossed at that point. And I grabbed my cellphone, and I'm like, all right. Instead, I'm going to photograph her scofflaw behavior with my cellphone until that dog is on the leash.
And I started recording, and that's what set her off. She did not want to be recorded. It infuriated her for some reason. And so, I mean, you know, I imagine nobody wants to be recorded against their will, but I don't know if it was necessarily, again, a rational response. And that's the point at which she said, if you don't stop recording me, I'm going to call the police and tell them there's an African American man threatening my life.
GROSS: So before we get to the African American part of that, why did you start videotaping her? What were you going to do with the videotape?
COOPER: A lot of us birders, because the problem was so out of control, particularly that year - it was the worst I had ever seen it - we started recording with our iPhones because we figured, look. We've got to present this evidence to the Central Park Conservancy, to the Parks Department, to try to get some enforcement to show them how bad the problem has become. So that's what some of us had started doing. And it also creates a big incentive for the scofflaw dog owner to actually obey the rules 'cause most of them don't like to be video recorded while they're breaking the park regulations.
GROSS: And then she actually called the police and said, there is an African American man threatening me and my dog. So once she started using the word African American man, how did that change the situation in your mind?
COOPER: Well, it injected race into the situation for the first time. Up until then, it had been the second-oldest story in the Ramble, which is dog owner versus birdwatcher. But now, suddenly, it had a racial dimension because it took us to a place where a white woman is saying, a Black man is putting my life in danger. And that has led to so many dark places in our nation's history, you know, most famously, Emmett Till, the lynchings in the South, so many instances of a white woman making a damsel-in-distress call and the full weight of the authorities coming down on, sometimes, entire Black communities as a result.
So that gave me serious pause 'cause I'm not an idiot. I've spent my whole life living as a Black man in the United States, and I know what it can mean if a white woman accuses you of something like that. So her attempt at intimidation almost worked. Part of me was like, oh, shoot, if I stop recording, maybe this'll all go away. And that was the intent on her part. And that's when, I don't know, something inside me said, oh, hell no. I am not going to be complicit in my own dehumanization.
GROSS: So she did call the police. And she also leashed her dog. And then what happened?
COOPER: Well, that's it, is that - you know, calling the police was immaterial to me. You know, she had to do what she was going to do. And there was - you know, I was not going to cooperate with her by stopping recording or whatever. I was going to stick to what my plan was, which was to record until the dog was on the leash. And the second she put that dog on the leash, I said thank you and stopped recording 'cause I was done with her. She did not get to further disrupt my morning, and I went back to birding.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christian Cooper, and his new book is called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, host of the new National Geographic show "Extraordinary Birder." He's a former Marvel Comics writer who helped introduce the first gay character and wrote the first lesbian character. His new memoir, "Better Living Through Birding," is about birdwatching, being closeted, then coming out when he was at Harvard and being obsessed with Marvel Comics and then writing for Marvel. You probably know him from the 2020 incident in Central Park when he was birdwatching and asked a white woman to leash her dog, which was mandatory in that part of the park. She called the police and said an African American man is threatening her and her dog. And his video of the incident went viral.
The Manhattan DA wanted to press charges, which he did. It was Cyrus Vance Jr., who's also investigated Donald Trump. But anyhow, so he wanted to press charges. You declined to participate in that. Why? He was going to press - he pressed charges for, you know, like, falsely accusing you.
COOPER: Right. That was a very hard call for me because I got the principle involved and how important it was. But, on the other hand, you know, her life was in ruins. It was a shambles. If that has not served as a comment on what she did, if that does not serve as a deterrent to other people who might try and do the same thing, I don't know what will.
GROSS: Yeah. She lost her job. Her dog was taken away from her.
COOPER: Right. She was sort of, like, this national pariah. Her past indiscretions were splashed on all the front pages. It was just, you know - and then there were people who were, you know, sending death threats to her, which is, like - makes absolutely no sense. If you think that what she did put my life in danger, to then make death threats against her - that makes no sense at all.
So, you know, there was a lot going on. And I just thought, you know what? It's not proportional to what happened to me, 'cause a lot of people, you know, think, oh, what happened to you was terrible. And, you know, it was bad. But, you know, I ultimately was not thrown to the ground by the cops. I never even had to deal with the cops. I was never arrested. I was not shot dead on the spot. None of that happened. What upsets people is that it might have happened, and I get that. But none of that happened, and as a result, you know, my sense of justice, of proportionality kind of made me very hesitant to participate. Plus, on top of that, it was an election cycle. This was a very high-profile case. And I just had the feeling that it was too much a political motivation and not enough of a justice motivation.
COOPER: There were a lot of things involved. It was a very hard call. It was really right on the line for me, and ultimately, I was just like, I have to err on the side of mercy, forgiveness - I don't - whatever you want to call it. But that's what I did.
GROSS: So a twist in this story is, you know, when she called the police and said, an African American man is threatening me, you thought of Philando Castile and how he was shot by the police. The same day that this happened to you - later that day, George Floyd was killed by the police, and that set off, like, a whole movement. So what was your reaction when you found out about George Floyd?
COOPER: A sinking feeling that - here we go again. Because I'm old enough that I lived through Amadou Diallo, who was an African immigrant here in New York City who ended up shot dead as he sat on his own doorstep, doing nothing much at all, and guilty of no crime but shot dead by plainclothes police officers in a hail of bullets in the Bronx.
And I've lived through Patrick Dorismond, who was a Black man, a bouncer, and some undercover cops went up to him to try to see if he would sell them drugs. And he got incensed, outraged that they would approach him to try to get him to sell them drugs. And they ended up shooting him dead. And then Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to paper over the death of this innocent guy by saying, oh, he was no altar boy. Well, actually, he had been an altar boy and, in fact, an altar boy in the very church that Giuliani had once attended.
So, you know, these things keep happening. The bias that infects our society, the bias that was on display that morning in Central Park and my encounter with Miss Cooper - it filters into policing, and then we end up dead time and time again.
GROSS: You think that, among other things, the Central Park incident helped bring more Black people into birding, because here you were, you know, a passionate African American birder. Why do you think birding had been such an almost exclusively white passion in the U.S.?
COOPER: That's a good question. I think there's a couple of reasons. One is that there is sort of a barrier to entry in that binoculars are a key component of the hobby. It doesn't mean that you can't bird without binoculars, but it's harder without binoculars. And binoculars can be a very pricey piece of equipment.
I will add that I have never bought a pair of binoculars in my life. Every pair of binoculars I've ever had have been hand-me-downs or a gift because they can be super-expensive. So I think that's a barrier to a lot of people.
Also, if you think about, you know, the socioeconomic structure of the United States - you know, because of a lot of legacy reasons, a lot of built-in structural reasons, Black people have a hard time clawing our way up the economic ladder. And if you're struggling, worrying about where the next meal is going to come from or how you're going to make the rent, it doesn't leave a lot of room to do a pastoral pastime like birding if you're working two jobs.
If you are trying to figure out how you're going to make the rent on - to keep a roof over your head, you're not going to have the second home in the country where you can develop an appreciation of nature. You're not going to be sending your kids, necessarily, to summer camp someplace in the Catskills, where they're going to develop a love of nature.
So I think a lot of those mean that Black people have not been involved in birding as much as we should because the birds belong to no one. And they for - they are for everyone to enjoy. And it is an incredibly healing thing to be out there in whatever habitat the birds are in, to connect with the wild and to just see these feathered wonders going about their business of life.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and there's plenty more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christian Cooper. His new memoir is called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Christian Cooper. His new memoir, called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World," is about growing up as a birdwatcher, as a closeted gay boy and a Marvel comics nerd - and then as an adult, writing for Marvel Comics, becoming a gay activist and now hosting a National Geographic show called "Extraordinary Birder." But a lot of people know him as the birdwatcher who asked a white woman in Central Park to follow the rules and leash her dog. And instead, she called the police and said an African American man is threatening me and my dog. He made a video of that. It was posted on Twitter and went viral.
So let's talk about your youth. What was it like for you being Black, a birder, a closeted gay boy and a comic book nerd? And this was - you were deep into Marvel comics. And this was way before Marvel was famous for its Marvel universe movie franchise. So Marvel was actually kind of having financial problems at the time, right? It wasn't that cool to be so deep into Marvel comics.
COOPER: I don't know if Marvel was having financial problems at that time, but they had not discovered the formula to fame and fortune that they have discovered now. So if you're asking me what that was like, having that pile-up of...
GROSS: Yes, exactly.
COOPER: ...Nerdy things all at once...
GROSS: How much on the outside did you feel?
COOPER: I was doomed.
COOPER: I mean, you know...
GROSS: That's concise (laughter).
COOPER: But you know what? What I like to remember is that I embraced it. It was who I was. And I was like - you know what? - I've got to go with this because it's what I love. It's what I enjoy. And that would be my advice to every person, every young person out there, is embrace whatever weirdness is yours, and go with it, because you will find a way to a wonderful life if you do in the future.
GROSS: One thing that happened when you were going through puberty is that you realized you were finding some of the superheroes very arousing. And let's face it, I mean, they're usually muscular. They're sometimes dressed in tights or (laughter) very revealing costumes.
COOPER: Well, and quite honestly, for me, it didn't even wait until puberty (laughter) for that realization.
GROSS: Right, OK. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. What did that say to you? And what was your reaction to realizing that you found the male superheroes, you know, sexually attractive?
COOPER: That I needed to keep it under lock and key because it was the '70s, and it was Long Island. And being gay was not a thing, at least not a thing if you wanted to live. So you know, there was no Ellen. There was no Anderson Cooper. None of that had happened yet. Stonewall had barely happened at that point. So I just had to keep it all locked up inside. And that was very difficult - very, very difficult.
GROSS: You write in your book that you felt as if you were locked inside a coffin under six feet of earth.
GROSS: What did you do to try to cover up your actual feelings and appear as straight as possible?
COOPER: It was more a matter of I couldn't let anything slip. And don't laugh at me but again, I'm a nerd. And for me, my idol, probably largely because of that reason - the fact that I had to keep my gayness under lock and key - was Mr. Spock from "Star Trek" because he was intellectual, he was smart and he had that troublesome human half because he was half-human, half-Vulcan. And Vulcans are supposed to be completely rational and keep their emotions under complete lock and key.
And, God, if there was one thing I had to do, was keep my emotions under lock and key because if my emotions got out, I might betray myself, might betray the fact that I'm actually interested in this person romantically or that I'm gay in some other way. And so I had to have strict emotional control. So that was sort of the approach I took to things back then. It was, you know, outwardly, you know, affable, genial - inside feeling like I was buried alive, but keeping that that dichotomy under careful control.
GROSS: You write about how some African Americans who aren't LGBTQ dismiss the gay experience as being terribly oppressive because, unlike Black people, gays can blend in at will. They don't have...
COOPER: Yeah, that's a curse, not a blessing.
COOPER: That is a curse.
GROSS: Can you talk about that and what your response to that is?
COOPER: Well, no, exactly that, which is that the fact that many - not all, but many - gay people can, you know, blend and pass and disappear into the norm so that we can get by is a horrible fate. It means something essential about yourself must be neutralized and hidden at all times and at all costs.
It drives me crazy when Black people dismiss the queer experience in that regard because we Black people should know there is a point where that experience intersects with the Black experience, and that's what - the experience of light-skinned Black people who were passing, who hid everything about their Blackness, disowned family members and everything that might reveal that they had African American heritage so that they could get by in society. That's a horrible way to have to live, and we know that. And so the fact that we should, you know, think that, oh, it's easier for gay people because they can do that - no, that's not easy. That's horrible.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christian Cooper. And his new book is called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christian Cooper. His new memoir, "Better Living Through Birding," is about birdwatching, being closeted, then coming out when he was at Harvard, and being obsessed with Marvel comics and then writing for Marvel. You probably know him from the 2020 incident in Central Park when he was birdwatching and asked a white woman to leash her dog, which was mandatory in that part of the park. She called the police and said an African American man is threatening her and her dog. The video of that incident went viral.
You love Marvel comics. You were a Marvel Comic nerd growing up. And then you actually got to work at Marvel. What did Marvel mean in the culture at the time? Like, when did you first start working for Marvel? And you moved up in the ranks over the years.
COOPER: Yeah, I started working at Marvel in 1990. So I had just gone through reading Marvel comics for my whole life, but particularly intensely during my college years. Believe it or not, that's when - probably when my Marvel reading peaked before I actually started working there. And there had been some amazing storytelling in that era, principally in a comic book called X-Men, which really resonates, I think, for a lot of gay people because the X-Men are mutants. They look like everybody else, but they're born a little bit different. And that difference doesn't manifest until adolescence. And then, you know, it's sort of like, oh, what do I do with this new me that I have? And, boy, does that resonate with gay people. So I was a big X-Men fan.
GROSS: So one of the comics that you worked on was called "Alpha Flight." And you participated in the episode in which a Marvel superhero came out for the first time. Would you describe the character?
COOPER: Sure. We say issue in comics, not episode. But that's OK.
GROSS: Right. Of course (laughter).
COOPER: And the character is a speedster, so sort of like the Flash, who is probably a much more familiar character if you know anything about comics. In fact, there's a movie about the Flash that's about to come out. So the character is called Northstar. He is a mutant, so he was born with these powers that manifested at adolescence. And he can run super-fast. And I remember when I was reading "Alpha Flight" back in my college days. And I read one or two issues because it was a brand-new comic. And I was like, hm, Northstar is gay, because the seeds had been planted even way back then. So fast-forward many years and now I'm working at Marvel. And I happen to be working on "Alpha Flight." And we hire a new writer. And I say we - I was the assistant editor, which means head Xeroxer.
COOPER: But my boss had hired a new writer. And he, in his proposal for where he wanted to take the comic book, he was like, yeah, and I think we should bring Northstar out of the closet. And, you know, my boss, Bobbie Chase, has a gay brother. And, you know, she's a modern woman. She was like, yeah, that makes sense. And me, being gay myself, I'm like, yeah, that makes sense. And so we did it.
GROSS: So what was Marvel's reaction to the gay character, the character coming out of the closet?
COOPER: Oh, (laughter) it caused a bit of a stir because you have to understand - I don't know if Marvel is still structured this way but back then, each editorial office was its own little fiefdom with control over a particular stable of characters and a particular bunch of comic book series. So you know, Bobbie had become head of "Alpha Flight," of that comic book series. And within her office, she could pretty much do what she wanted with her characters and with her titles. So she decided she was going to do this with Northstar in conjunction with the writer. And then they went ahead and did it.
The higher-ups, when they found out about it (laughter), oh, blew a gasket or two. It was not a pretty sight. But it was too late. It had already gone to print. And, mind you, what's so hysterical about this, particularly in retrospect, is that it's not like anybody, like, takes their clothes off or has a kiss or gets it on. The only thing that happens in the issue is that in between punches, one of the things that Northstar says is, I am gay. That's it. And that just, you know, made the sky fall.
GROSS: That is really offensive.
GROSS: So - OK, so here you are, a gay comic book writer sitting with execs from Marvel being told you cannot have gay characters, which is basically erasing you as a legitimate person (laughter).
GROSS: So what was the experience like on your end?
COOPER: I was very glad to be in that room because they had to say it to my face. They had to say it to the face of an openly gay person who they worked with every day. And that was important. It didn't change the outcome. (Laughter) It was a really silly outcome because the issue made so much money for them in which Northstar came out, that issue of "Alpha Flight," that they scratched their heads and they said, oh, let's give Alpha - let's give Northstar his own limited series comic book to capitalize on this and make a lot of money. Oh, but nothing gay in there (laughter).
So of course, they come out with this. I think it was a four- or six-issue limited series. And of course, it flopped because it was ridiculous. Everyone - you know, they wouldn't touch the gay thing at all. And it's like, well, duh. So yeah, that was kind of bad. And it made things awkward for me and how I felt about Marvel because I loved Marvel. It was my dream job. And suddenly, I was at odds with Marvel for the first time. And, you know, that didn't last very long because I was just like, well - you know what? - I'll just have to be a little bit more under-the-table about what I do. And I was, and I did it.
GROSS: In one of the stories that you ended up writing, you know, one of the comic books that you were the writer on, you introduced what you think was the first lesbian character at Marvel. And this was for a horror comic that you were writing called "Darkhold: Pages From The Book Of Sins." So how were you able to do that? And how lesbian were you allowed to make her?
COOPER: (Laughter) Well, Bobbie was the editor of that comic, so Bobbie was not tying my hands. But there was the edict from on high. So I had to be a little bit subtle, but really not all that. I mean, when you meet her in the beginning, she's having lunch with her roommate, who's another woman. It's clear that they're quite intimate with each other. And then when the bomb goes off that cripples her roommate - hey; it's comic books. Things like this happen.
COOPER: You know, she is clearly devoted to this person way beyond just friendship. And then, of course, there's the scene where a young, tough character finds out that she's lesbian because she's not turned on to him. And he goes, wait. You mean you're a duh (ph) - and she grabs him by the collar, and he says, yikes. So that was my way of sort of, you know, getting it in there.
GROSS: What was the reaction to that at Marvel?
COOPER: Eh, nobody batted an eyelash, you know? I - the...
GROSS: Was this years later, after...
COOPER: It's a little bit later. You know, the thing was that Marvel was a very accepting, open place. I mean, we were all weirdos in some way or other, and we all loved each other in some way or other. So, you know, nobody really cared that much. It was just the high, high muckety mucks who, you know, for what they thought was financial necessity, had laid down this edict. So, you know, I don't remember there being any sort of reaction at all to that happening. And now Vicki Montesi - that's the name of the character, the lesbian character - is out and proud in the comics.
GROSS: You developed your own digital comic called "Queer Nation: The Online Gay Comic." What did you do with the freedom that you had?
COOPER: Oh, I had so much fun doing that. In fact, every once in a while, I consider bringing it back 'cause we never got to finish the story, and it's a good story. But I was basically able to throw off the shackles, you know? Where X-Men can be read as a coded reference to the queer experience, I was like, ain't no codes in this. It's right there in front of you. So the basic premise of the comic is that a comet passes too close to the Earth. And in the tail of this comet is fairy dust that falls to the Earth, and it contains lambda rays that trigger the hypothalamus part of the brain in gay people across the planet. And all the gay people start developing superpowers - and what happens as a result. So it was very tongue-in-cheek, very over-the-top, and really a lot of fun. But it had some important points. Like, a right-wing president gets elected named President Pat who drags the country in all the wrong directions. And, as we know, that could never happen in real life.
GROSS: Absolutely - so true. So something that ties together very nicely some of the aspects of your personal story is that after the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police and said, a Black man is threatening me and my dog, after you told her to leash her dog and started making a video - so after that, DC Comics - and I'll remind everybody you wrote for Marvel Comics and were a total comic nerd when you were a kid - DC Comics did an issue based on the Central Park incident. What was that like for you? It's like tying together two different aspects of your life in what, I would imagine, is a very meaningful way.
COOPER: It was a real privilege. It was actually Bobbie Chase, my old boss at Marvel, who was now working at DC, or, at that time, she was working at DC and Marie Javins, another old Marvel alum and dear friend of mine who was - who is now the head of DC Comics, and they approached me about writing a comic, which - I hadn't written a comic in years at that point. And I was really nervous that the old comic-writing muscles had atrophied. But it was a joy to bring that story to life on the page once we figured out what it was going to be 'cause they had a title. And once they told me the title, it just fell into place for me what I wanted to do, a story that was magical-realist to bring the points home. So that was a joy to do.
GROSS: You should say the title 'cause the title's great.
COOPER: Oh, yeah. The title is "It's A Bird," which, if you know anything about the Superman legend, of course, it's a reference to Superman. Look up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman. So they took that phrase, it's a bird. And once they told me, well, we want to call it, it's - because we had talked about it. And I'm like, Bobbie, Marie, I don't think I can do a superhero thing around this story. I don't know how that would ever work. And they said, well, we have a title, "It's A Bird." And as soon as they said it to me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and it just fell into place. So...
GROSS: Yeah. Did you end up having a lot of birds in the issue?
COOPER: Birds all over the place.
COOPER: It's about a birder who starts - who gets a special pair of binoculars. And through those binoculars, he starts seeing things. And what he - I won't give away what he sees, but through these things he sees, he starts to develop a consciousness that - by the end, there is no good resolution to the story. But there is a moment of grace for all those people who we've lost to unjust violence, to unjust societal criminal justice violence, police violence. And I was very happy to be able to do that. Plus, it was drawn beautifully by Alitha Martinez, the artist. And so it's just something I'm very proud of. And you're absolutely right. It brought together a whole bunch of threads of my life into one beautiful, little summary.
GROSS: My guest is Christian Cooper. His new memoir is called "Better Living Through Birding." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christian Cooper, author of the new memoir "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World."
I think we should end with a couple of birding tips. And here's one I particularly like, and this has to do with binoculars. You write, first, find the bird with your naked eye. Then, keeping your eyes on the bird, bring the binocular to your eyes, not the other way around. That's, I guess, in some ways really obvious. I never would have thought of it.
COOPER: It's the key technique to master because once you master that, suddenly you're locking on to birds that slipped out of your grasp before. And Elliot Kutner, my birding mentor from when I was a child, taught me that. And once I learned that, the birds just came.
GROSS: You write, the best way to learn bird songs isn't by listening to recordings. With that method, they all start to blend together. So what is the best method? And do you sing bird songs? Do you know them well enough to sing them? And if so, can you replicate a couple of bird songs for us?
COOPER: Oh, you had to go there; didn't you?
GROSS: I did. Yes, I did.
COOPER: OK. So, yes, the way I've learned all my bird songs over the years is whenever I hear something I don't recognize, I spend the time to track it down until I see that bird with its mouth moving and its tail bobbing because that's the only way to be sure you're actually looking at the right bird that's making the sound because otherwise you could be faked out. And when you do that, you know, you spend so much time hearing that sound over and over again, and you're - it cements into your brain. And now you associate that sound with an experience. So you're much more likely to remember it. Some bird songs...
GROSS: And now the bird song part.
COOPER: OK, let's see if I can whistle right now. Hooded warbler is a good one to do because it's easy for humans to do. (Imitating hooded warbler). That's a hooded warbler. A friend of mine has come up with a mnemonic for my favorite bird. In fact, it's a bird in the frontispiece of the book called a Blackburnian warbler, which has a dayglo orange throat. And it's got an incredibly high-pitched song. But - and the last note sounds like the bird is being strangled. So the mnemonic is, come on. Come on. Come and see me. Kyu Lee is responsible for that. But it's a good one. There's a bird called the Canada warbler that I use the gay mnemonic for. It's very variable, but it's a short note and then an explosive jumble of notes after that, which I summarize as, chicks - I don't think that's really for me.
COOPER: Yeah, there's a whole bunch. You could go on for days. And people come up with their own. You know, whatever helps you remember, go for it.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for that. My final question to you is - you're now hosting the National Geographic TV series "Extraordinary Birder." Does that mean that you get to go to places with a camera crew, with a whole team that you wouldn't feel safe going to birding as a Black man alone?
COOPER: Absolutely. I mean, the most important episode to me is when we go to Alabama. And I was like, go to Alabama to go birding - not going to happen. Now, I had gone a year before at the invitation of Alabama Audubon, and that experience was so important and moving that I insisted that one of the episodes, we need to - we needed to replicate that experience. So, you know, going to Alabama in the arms of Alabama Audubon or in the arms of the film crew - you know, it makes it possible for me to go places where I would not otherwise go.
And the reason why Alabama is so important is because we're in Selma. We're walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. My family - it turns out we're all northern people, northerners for a couple of generations. But like all African Americans, we have our roots in the South eventually. My dad's family came from Alabama. So all of this history and birds and civil rights history is colliding. And I hope we did that episode justice because I think that's going to be the most interesting and moving episode of the series.
GROSS: Well, congratulations on the series. I think it's great that you have it. And congratulations on your memoir. It's just been, like, really a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
COOPER: Well, thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Christian Cooper's new memoir is called "Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the American Catholic Church, for about a century, relied on the profits from enslaving and selling Black people to fund the building of schools and churches, support its clergy and keep expanding. My guest will be Rachel Swarns, author of a new book about the Catholic Church's involvement in slavery and the families it enslaved. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Therese Madden. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. FRESH AIR'S co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "ALABAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.