a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
On June 17, 2015, as my husband Jonathan and I began our third month of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, eight African-Americans were murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white supremacist gunman who prominently displayed the Confederate flag alongside pro-Apartheid images. This hate-crime reignited discussions concerning whether South Carolina enforced state-supported racism by flying the Confederate flag from its capitol building. A few days later, while resupplying in a town in northern Virginia, we read about Bree Newsome who scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol, removed the Confederate flag, and was arrested for her actions. States across the country began to question official state displays of the Confederate flag, including on government buildings and license plates. Social justice advocates across the country criticized contemporary displays of the Confederate flag as a testament to white supremacist attitudes within American culture and indifference to racial and ethnic inequality and violence. In response, people who argued the Confederate flag symbolized “heritage not hate” displayed the Confederate flag in numbers not seen since before the civil rights era.
I didn’t understand the controversy. I grew up in rural West Texas, surrounded by Confederate imagery and rhetoric in one of the few school districts in the country that still does not observe MLK Day. Even as a teenager, I could sense the racism and discrimination that was caused by covert and overt white supremacist attitudes in my community. It seemed obvious to me, even then, that heritage could not be separated from hate within the violent history of both the United States government and the Confederacy. The imagery and rhetoric of the Confederacy and white supremacy; however, continues to be at the center of controversy in my home community, in the Appalachian Trail region, and throughout the United States.
We didn’t know it then, but these events foreshadowed a future where Confederate monuments and iconography would once again be at the center of racial and ethnic violence that pre-dates the United States and have been woven into our cultural and physical landscapes since the beginning of American colonization. Our journey on the Appalachian Trail revealed a history of the ways in which rural and wilderness spaces have been weaponized against people of color and have been used to perpetuate the myths that attempt to erase the presence and contributions people of color from rural and wilderness spaces altogether. We couldn’t ignore that our beloved Appalachian Trail was not only place for adventure and personal reflection, but was filled with the blood and ghosts.
At the beginning of 2017, in the weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump, Dahlonega, Georgia, a small town an hour north of Atlanta and a popular last stop for hikers before beginning the Appalachian Trail, became embroiled in a racial controversy that received national attention. In the middle of the night, someone hung a Confederate flag, a Ku Klux Klan flag and a banner that read “Historic Ku Klux Klan Meeting Hall” from an abandoned, yet prominently visible, building downtown. Horrified, protesters began to organize, holding up signs saying “Love Lives Here” and “Not in My Town.” One of the Indigo Girls showed up in solidarity. Counter protestors, though much smaller in number, retorted saying those protesting the banner were the angry ones. A cherry picker and a local roofing company truck came to remove the flags and the banner, but the tension between the sets of protesters remained for days. Pickup trucks bearing Confederate and Make America Great Again flags drove around the square and the Unitarians organized a unity march. Though the flags and banner are gone, the community still remains on edge. Dahlonega, like many other communities along the Appalachian Trail, continues to embody rural America’s violent, tenuous and complicated relationship with people of color.
Rural spaces, and by extension, wilderness spaces, in North America historically have been understood and experienced as “white spaces” where people of color do not belong and are viewed with suspicion. This notion began with the European self-proclaimed doctrine of discovery, continued with colonization, and remains today with the erasure of people of color’s presence in and impact on wilderness areas. According to Department of the Interior and state parks statistics, only one in five people of color visit state and national parks and recreation areas in the United States each year and the rates of backcountry wilderness access are even lower at five percent. The Appalachian Trail, a national scenic trail that runs almost twenty two hundred miles through the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to Maine, is no exception. While thru-hiking the trail in 2015, my husband and I met hikers of every age, education, socioeconomic and professional background, but with few exceptions, they were white.
While reasons for this disparity are multi-faceted, some of it arises from individual and collective memory of violence and discrimination in rural and wilderness landscapes. From the systematic extermination of Native Americans and seizure of ancestral lands to slavery and Jim Crow era lynchings that helped fuel the Great Migration, the Appalachian Trail occupies land that historically has been marked by violence and oppression. National parks in the South had segregated parks facilities that remained de facto “off-limits” to African-Americans long after official desegregation orders had been sent from Washington in 1945. The battle to desegregate Shenandoah National Park, which is home to the famed Skyline Drive and approximately 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, lasted 11 years (1939-1950) and many state parks and public recreation areas prohibited use by black people long after the integration of federal lands.
In 2000, when Robert Taylor was interviewed by Backpacker magazine shortly after becoming the first black man to thru-hike both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, he noted the most difficult aspects of his hikes were the racists interactions he faced saying, “In towns, people yelled racist threats at me in just about every state I went through. They’d say, ‘We don’t like you,’ and ‘You’re a nigger.’ Once when I stopped at a mail drop, the postmaster said, ‘Boy, get out of here. We got no mail drop for you.’”
In addition to systemic discrimination, the presence and influence of people of color in America’s wilderness spaces as agriculturalists, naturalists, explorers, conservationists, artists and enthusiasts has largely been erased or minimized within the historical canon. While walking the Trail I felt I needed to remember that I was not walking in a vacuum outside of time and space and I needed to remain conscious of the ways in which past violence, injustice and erasure continue to reverberate today.
On our thru-hike in 2015, my husband and I crossed Civil War battlefields, slave plantations, the Mason-Dixon Line, and land once occupied by Cherokee, Powotan, Delaware, Iroquois and Wabanaki nations. We spotted Confederate flags in every state along the Appalachian Trail, even as far north as New Hampshire and Maine. By and large people along the trail did not engage in political conversation, but it surfaced every now and then. The Stars and Bars tattoo of a shuttle driver. The offhanded remarks here and there about foreigners and Black Lives Matter by a few people, who perhaps, thought they were in like-minded company. The blaring of Fox News about the dangers of undocumented immigrants from the TV of generous strangers who let us stay in their house for the night. Our experiences with people along the trail were overwhelmingly positive, but what if we weren’t white? Would our experiences have been different? The conscious and subconscious aggressions and microagressions that define racial realities in 21st Century America were not absent from the Appalachian Trail. I felt unsettled knowing that the denial of this fact was not an option. I would have to hold the contradictory experiences in my mind. There would be no easy reconciliation. It seemed that there was little respite from racism, past or present, even in the wilderness.
However, as we traveled, we also discovered that the Appalachian Trail contained spaces of resistance. We had our official trail photos taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the home of Storer College, the first college for African-Americans, and the location of John Brown’s raid and failed slave insurrection in 1859. We walked close by purported Underground Railroad stops, mountain homesteads where free black men and women settled after the Civil War, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of W. E. B. DuBois. We saw Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry displayed on a quick stop in Boston and hiked near locations where the Federal Writer’s Project (later the Works Progress Administration) recorded narratives of former slaves during the Depression in a project that became known as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves and is now publically available through the Library of Congress’ Digital Archives. The Appalachian Trail was lined with courage and resistance, both marked by historical markers and in places yet unknown. I wondered what other traditions of resistance were waiting to be uncovered, buried alongside the Trail.
In seeking to understand the legacy of people of color on the Appalachian Trail and the surrounding areas, I learned that not only is there a strong tradition of wilderness presence among people of color along the Appalachian Trail, but there are a number of contemporary voices who are protesting the erasure of this presence from the historical canon by reclaiming wilderness spaces through recreation, conservation, eco-justice activism and literature.
Shelton Johnson, an African-American and Native National Park ranger who was interviewed in Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: Americas Best Idea,” was a guest of President Obama, and appeared in an Oprah special filmed in Yosemite National Park, maintains that “one of the greatest losses from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth.” He has worked tirelessly to make wilderness spaces more accessible to people of color since the 1980s, saying, “kids, just like me – in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia – today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the Buffalo Soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them.” Though Ranger Johnson has been stationed at Yosemite National Park for the majority of his career, his influence in the National Parks in the Appalachian region is undeniable, evidenced by his nationwide advocacy to connect people of color, especially children and youth, with wilderness spaces.
Building upon the legacy of Ranger Johnson, Audri Scott Williams, activist, educator and author of Awakening the Heart of the Beloved Community, organized the Trail of Dreams Walk in 2000, which covered five hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia to bring together Native American and black youth and to recover and rebuild the legacy of people of color in the wilderness. Hiking part of the trail under the cover of darkness as an act of remembrance of those who travelled the Underground Railroad, Williams and the teen walkers said their experience on the Appalachian Trail made them feel connected in both body and spirit to the struggles of their ancestors like never before.
More recently, in October 2016, Outdoor Afro, one of the nation’s first black-led conservation organizations, organized a hike that followed a possible route of the Underground Railroad (the secrecy of the Underground Railroad and gaps in the historical make it difficult to confirm exact route intersection with the Appalachian Trail) forged by Harriet Tubman through forty miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Mason-Dixon Line to Harper’s Ferry. In addition to honoring Tubman’s legacy, Outdoor Afro wanted to highlight Tubman’s often overlooked role as a naturalist. Historian Dr. Dann J. Broyld, noted in the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s article “A Hike through History: Following the Path of the Underground Railroad,” that chronicled the Outdoor Afros’ hike, argues that Tubman’s success as a guide for runaway slaves “took knowledge of the waterways, wind patterns, geography, forestry, interpretation of astronomy, even the understanding of herbal medicine and healing.” Outdoor Afro is committed to fighting inequality in the outdoors in Appalachia and beyond, and with sixty groups operating in twenty-eight states, they are a witness to the history and future of people of color in wilderness spaces and conservation movements. “Nature,” Brittany Leavitt, an Outdoor Afro trip leader from Washington D.C. contends, “has always been a part of black history.”
Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean-American writer and backpacker, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 to fulfill a life-long dream of hiking from Georgia to Maine that was inspired by a visit to Bear Mountain, a state park that intersects the Appalachian Trail along New York’s Hudson River. Along the way she built “a library of black excellence” by leaving books at shelters and hostels. Some of the books in the library included Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Zora Neale Hurston’s I Love Myself When I am Laughing, books which examine black identity and have strong connections to wilderness landscapes. For Rahawa, a large part of what fueled her journey and library building was to confirm to herself and others that black people and black books belonged in wilderness spaces like the Appalachian Trail. As Confederate iconography and suspicious townspeople greeted her, Rahawa struggled to have her fellow hikers understand the insecurity she felt as a black woman in America in general and in the Appalachian region specifically. In a Buzzfeed article titled, “How Black Literature Lit My Way along the Appalachian Trail,” she writes, “Here, they [white hikers] were free, truly free, whereas I was only a little freer than before [and] the difference between the two held centuries of slaughters in its maw…I can confirm that one does not walk 2000 miles across the face of this country as a black woman without building up an incredible sense of self.” In an interview for Atlas Obscura she reflected on her experiences as an advocate for people of color in wilderness spaces, saying “What gets lost in talking about diversity isn’t just how we can get more people of color outdoors. We have to address how we can get white audiences to acknowledge there are barriers and why that matters. One of the most the important things I did on the trail was talking to people. I shouldn’t have to be a black ambassador, but I know I got through to a lot of people, and I hope I can get through to a lot more.”
Before hiking the Appalachian Trail, Jonathan and I assembled our own trail library that served as our literary motivation as we resupplied in towns along the trail. We made thirteen ready to drop packages, each with two books (we read one and then swapped) that a family member sent to far-flung post offices along the Appalachian Trail. While we packed some collections of political and ecological essays, most notably, Chris Hedges’ The World as It Is, and David Suzuki’s The Sacred Balance, I was particularly interested in immersing myself in poetry and collections that decolonized travel writing. Martín Espada’s Alabanza, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Wanda Coleman’s The World Falls Away, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and a collection of travel narratives titled Go Girl!: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure were some of my mainstays and sustained me in the evenings after hiking day. As a poet and burned-out activist and educator on hiatus, these books rekindled my love for language and storytelling and strengthened my belief that the healing nature of wilderness spaces and the fight for social justice are intimately connected.
Not long after we finished the Trail, African-American poet and activist Nikki Giovanni gave a reading in Floyd, Virginia, where we were working on a farm. Her tales of growing up in close commune with the Appalachian wilderness inspired and reenergized my journey with books that centered people of color in wilderness. Some of my favorites were Diane D. Glave’s Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry and Philip Burnham’s Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks because they wrestle with the erasure of people of color from wild spaces and the fact that wilderness spaces now considered national treasures were acquired through violence and systemic dispossession.
Of the many voices I encountered post-trail, I was struck most profoundly by bell hooks’ collection of poems Appalachian Elegy, which invokes her childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky to celebrate and reclaim the presence of African-Americans in the wilderness. In “7” she calls together past, present and future to the wilderness—a place of mourning and healing and a place of woundedness and resistance.
again and again/she calls me/this wilderness within/urging me onward/be here/make a path/where the sound/of ancestors speaks/a language heard beyond the grave/this earth I stand on/belongs to the many dead/treasure I find here/is all gift/tender solace/holding back the future/the dead that will not let us forget/late ones/and even further back/the ancients/dreaming achieving/they will not let us forget/time is aboriginal eternal/they carry us back/take us through the sacred portal/that we may come again then again/into the always present
For Jonathan and I, the Appalachian Trail served as the “sacred portal” hooks described. We ended our journey at the Trail’s northern terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine. Katahdin is a sacred mountain to the Wabanaki Confederation. Wabanaki means “People of the First Light” and every year since 1981 some tribal members, whose ancestors were forced from their land, which included Katahdin and what is now known as Baxter State Park, onto a reservation, have made a pilgrimage to Katahdin that traces the migratory movements of their people. They make their way on foot, bicycle, and canoe. It is a private, invitation-only ceremony completed over the course of forty hours—a temporary reclaiming of the wilderness that was once theirs. Using the powers they gained under the 2010 United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, the Wabanaki Confederation is fighting to protect their land and water and is building alliances with indigenous and non-indigenous environmentalists alike. Jeaba-weay-quay, a leader within the Wabanaki community, whose names translates as “The Woman Whose Voice Pierces,” argued for alliance building saying, “Within the Wabanaki territory we’re looking for allies that are going to stand against the total annihilation of our land and water and air. We’re looking for allies who will help us to put our nation back together, and put it back in order. And in the process of doing that, they will be decolonizing us and they will be decolonizing themselves.”
When we summited Katahdin in mid-September of 2015, we were ecstatic to have finished our own pilgrimage of sorts, but we were also sobered by the land’s history and tenuous present. The dead and the living will not let us forget, but they also transport us to the eternal present where we understand that though the wilderness bears the weight of violence and injustice, it is also a space of beauty and refuge that belongs to everyone—and that people of color not only have a place in its past but also in its present and future. As we continue to figure out the path of our lives post-trail, in an age where Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists march in the streets chanting “Blood and Soil” and demand the preservation of monuments that glorify the confederacy and our nation’s legacy of genocide, enslavement and erasure, I hope that we and others along the Appalachian Trail can come together to do the physical, intellectual and spiritual work required to raise awareness of the violent and sacred history of Appalachia’s wilderness, to break down access barriers for people of color, to protect the trail’s land and people, and that by doing so begin to free the land, ourselves and others from the ghosts of colonization, oppression and slavery along the way.