BLACK COWGIRL White America
For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and damned rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a great line of poets, one of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off. We cannot be free until they are free.
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
PROLOGUE In the final week of March of this year, I saw an exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem called Black Cowboy which contained mixed media depictions of African-American cowboys in Philadelphia, Louisiana, Nevada, California. Some of my favorite images were those of young black men riding horses through the streets of North Philadelphia or a horse tied up on the side of a basketball court in southern Los Angeles while his owner played ball; they were a few examples of the stark contrast my friend and I termed the Trap Cowboy (a combination of trap niggas/black cowboy), the black man (or woman) at the intersection of the spatial immobility of urbanity and the symbolic freedom-to-roam rurality of horse ownership, and these two things together emphasized the discrepimage source: Carphone Warehouse ancy of freedom. The images made me think about black people and containment, black people and the West, black people and the land and the relation of all these things. One image in the museum was of an event called the Angola Prison Rodeo where all the performers/participants were incarcerated men from Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola. It is a maximum-security prison marked by racial tensions and the manual labor performed by inmates in fields has likened their operations to slavery; somewhat ironically, around 40% of slaves brought to America were from Angola and the neighboring Congo. Photographer Chandra McCormick captured the powerful juxtaposition of the imprisoned controlling the wild. The idea of “taming” while in containment combined with the artificial reality the rodeo exacerbates the physical and conceptual juxtaposition of the incarcerated black man as part of a performative display to wrangle and contain, when he is not truly free. Historically, we have defined physical containment as necessary for domestication. When we want to tame and/or control a thing, we contain it, usually in some space what smaller than what they need. The summer of the year prior, I went to visit my friend Ephrat for three days in Arizona while on my way to California. In that time we drove the entirety of the length of the state to visit the Grand Canyon and then Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, located at the border of Arizona and Utah. She informed me at the end of our short trip that she and her cousin, Yidi, were considering doing a grand road trips of sites in the US, including other National Parks like the Grand Canyon. I tentatively agreed then, despite the fact that the idea sounded far-fetched at inception. As I casually brought it up over the next few months to many of my friends (and some family) here on the East Coast, I extracted that many people did not expansively travel domestically, and when they did, it was rarely outside of metropolitan cities. My knowledge of the western states was notably limited to the college-town/economic epicenters—Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in Arizona and Cal-
ifornia—the rest was little more than sensational depictions from westerns my grandfather watched and vague knowledge of Native groups living on reservations throughout. My final semester of college, with the intention of learning more about the region, I took a course called “Farms, Food and Society” where we often talked about the economic, environmental and agricultural problems facing modern dairy and cattle farmers in the United States, much of which took place in the West. Many people I asked did not visit the West because they had no stake in the region—this fell notably across racial lines, even in the make-up of the course itself. This observation made me wonder, who owns the land? It turns out, of all private, agricultural land in the United States, Whites account for 96% of the owners, 97% of the value and 98% of the acres. Combined, minority groups (blacks, Hispanics and Natives) own less than 4%. From my brief but extensive search, most of the literature on the subject is supported by a comprehensive census/surveys done in 1997 and a report written in 2002 about agricultural land ownership and little else has been produced with respect to it since. Land was a trope equated with the possession of power when I was younger; there was often talk that we would be able to do and have more things if we had more ownership of it. My grandfather earned his living by the work of his hands on the land from the time I entered the Earth to the time he closed his eyes to leave it. He spoke about it often: tending it, buying it, hunting it, fishing it and I invested little in thought of it other than his sincere promise that he would buy a horse for me to ride when his sickness past and he acquired more of it. Some of our greatest family tragedies on both American and Crucian soil involved loss or seizure of land. In hindsight, I eventually realized that while we did not own much land, I had been afforded the pleasure to fish from it, hike through it, kayak by it; a luxury denied to most, if not all, of the other black children that lived in my urban neighborhood. It was then I realized the symbolic importance of our proposed trip. The advancement of this narrative that estranges African-Americans from nature limits their inheritance both economically and culturally reinforcing rhetorical equations of ghettoization and urbanity with blackness. This view of the black experience in America is as incorrect as it is one-dimensional. The perpetuation of this narrative then serves as a political tool by which large-scale black possession of land, particularly in the West and South, is conceptually constructed as an oddity, normalizing the absurdity that is 98% white land ownership in this country. Representation of black people, people of color (Latinos/non-white Hispanics), and indigenous people as active agents on American (North and South) soil, rather than spoils and victims excluded from it, is particularly important during a domestic and global wave of nationalism where many attempt to arbitrarily decide who are “real” Americans and who are not. The Black Cowboy(/girl) represents the reclamation of an American history that has for centuries run wild neglecting the contributions and existence of black people and people of the color in the West. This is the gist of the short essay that I wrote in order to win the scholarship that helped finance this trip and has resulted in this short photo-book which I’ve titled Black Cowgirl, White America. It contains images, thoughts and reflections from my time in the American West. Hope you enjoy.
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Vancouver, BC
On May 20, 2017 I graduated from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business with a BSBA in Marketing and Operations Information Management, with a concentration in Operations, Analytics and Systems. When you graduate/are about to graduate college, it gives your family, friends, and strangers alike license to ask you a breadth of existential questions like “what are you going to do?” “Where are you going to go” “what/who do you want to be?” On our first and only day in Portland, Oregon we went to a place for lunch/dinner called the Kennedy School, which was a middle school refurbished into a restaurant/bar/theatre. In response to our inquiry “what should we do in Portland?”, our waiter, Matt Benedict unknowingly posed the most existential question of all: “that depends--are you gals outdoorsy?” Were we outdoorsy??? We had camped the night before and hadn’t showered in over a day, so one could say we were? Or maybe we were just dirty? Is dirty and outdoorsy one and the same? Are clean and outdoorsy mutually exclsuive? Was our choice to vintage shop over his suggestion to visit a “cool lake” evidence of peak indoorsiness?
So we set out to Sasquatch! and beyond to answer my life’s newest question: What does it mean to be an outdoorsy gal?
A day ago we stopped at a “hidden” (referred to this way online, but driving past it was quite apparent) beach in the Yurok Tribe Region which for the sake of this epithet I will call Yurok Beach. Yurok Beach hailed dirty white sands, jagged-edged rocks similar to Zuma in Malibu or Canon outside of Portland and a shoreline with a lone, pretty cabin in a field of lavender wildflowers overlooking the sea and I considered jokingly that I’d live in that forever, but quickly, silently refuted this and how wrong it would be to be provided knowledge as I have and take it and hide it, rather than give back to a world where it could be readily applied. I read the other day that Kanye West said he went to the Wyoming mountains to find inspiration for his next album and I told Yidi and Ephrat if he needs inspiration for art these days he doesn’t need to exile himself to the mountains but simply step outside and listen to the people.
I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold--that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, “I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go. Dr. Maya Angelou talking about her mother in an OWN interview
May 27, 2017 George, Washington On one side of our camping site at Sasquatch! was one couple who didn’t seem much like a couple, or at least not a happy couple and all Thursday I don’t think they spoke one word to one another and I wondered how they’d ended up in that situation like that. Aided by drinks of our own, we had developed a few theories that they might had bought the tickets, decided to attend, broken up and decided to still go anyway (who wouldn’t do that for Frank/Chance??) The few times we saw them yesterday, too, they also appeared silent; alternating between their tent and air mattress outside it shaded by an umbrella. They didn’t appear wealthy, not in an impoverished way, but an average-American kind of way and used the same grill as us to make cheap bacon in the morning. Today, however, their countenance changed entirely, specifically the girl who is now chatty and excited after running into a childhood friend she hadn’t seen in 10 years earlier that morning. The awkwardness which had been palable about our the two tents was allieviated and aside from this, I do authentically love to see people happy especially with romantic love. I believe it’s one of the greatest things that can be part of our otherwise mundane lives, the most powerful drug, the real opiod of the masses. That being said, I’m equally attracted to the idea of attachment as I am to freedom. Perhaps the most authentic form of love is a form of freedom. Freedom from the fear of being abandoned, freedom to be oneself, freedom to be gentle and freedom to not feel the need to protect yourself. Freedom to remove the mask.
May 28, 2017 Moses Sumney serenaded us today beneath red light, surrounded by harmonizing layovers of his own smooth voice recorded a few moments prior right there in front of us. He had played but a few chords on his electric guitar when he told us to turn around and look at the sky. It was a deep navy blue by this time at night, but this deep naby blue faded to light blue and although it was after 9PM, it seemed the sun had just barely set, and there was a crescent moon shining with only a few stars, which reminded me of the star and crescent symbolic of Islam. Today was also the third day of Ramadan, I imagined those who faithfully broke the daily fast beneath this sky. Looking at the moon like that, though, I thought “wow this is my life right now, this beautiful sky, all the way in Washington from Washington, D.C. in only three days. Damn. We’re really out here.”
May 27, 2017 George, Washington Our decision to not take entirely “scenic” routes was not only faster but also allowed us to have many encounters American populations outside of the big cities. One of the most common questions that’s been asked of us thus far is how we (from New York, Arizona, Georgia) know one another, which made all three of us cognizant of how comparatively wide the scope of our existences were. We saw many bumper stickers while in Yakima (Yakama), Washington that read things like “Trump or Traitor,” that ended up being less indicative of potential negative experiences/encounters than I thought they might be but I think enountering one another is the only way to understand one another. Dez, Jason and I had a discussion on Toqueville’s America a few weeks ago that if we were to view the modern era through his lens, he might conclude that social media has exacerbated the tendency for us to opt out of a negative converstion rather than engage and attempt to understand others’ perspective. Social media has made it incredibly easy to extremify and sensationalize our own views. By eliminating entirely the voices of others (deleting, blocking, unfollowing), we’re far less likely to engage in (productive) conversation with conflicting view points over media as we are in person when we encounter someone with beliefs different than ours. While I’ve talked shit immeasurable about people on this trip/in general, I authnetically believe the incldination of humanity is toward goodness, away from hate and evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. said (and was later quoted by President Obama) that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” a concept that I think is a deeply spirtual, one that charges that from inception, God’s creation was inclined toward goodness and as such, people are innately moved toward goodness but socialized to be evil, commit evil acts and be skeptial of goodness. This is not an excuse for evil behavior so much as a diagnosis, starting primarily with myself, and finishing with the understanding that any of the systems informing our morality can be deeply and inexusably flawed.
On our last day in Seattle we went to the Central District near Mount Rainier High School to eat at a place called Ezell’s Fried Chicken which was a tiny, walk-through local restaurant chain. MRHS was where Ellis’ mom had attended high school and it was adjacent to Medgar Evers pool, a man I learned about from the first “black” movie I’d ever watched (and first Whoopi Goldberg movie) “Ghosts of the Mississippi.” It was a public pool that was central to the black community which lived around there, particularly during the summer as it was the place many kids first learned to swim. The street-facing side was a stone statue adorned with tiled imagery of Evers and the shape of waves that were a visual motif around the city of Seattle apparent from the first day we entered. It was around 7pm when we climbed over there and sat on the stone edifice, the sun was not setting but flirting with the horizon casting a deep orange glow over the layers of the sun rays. It was the first place we’d been there where we could sit, idle (not solicit) in the blackness which once was much of Seattle, and this was greatly comforting compared to the slew of gentrified neighborhoods we’d been in all week. I remembered this moment and experience because it felt like home, like much of Seattle did. Between the familiarity of Kim’s face to Aunt Vip’s, the sound of the word okra or gizzard rolling off my tongue in Ezell’s and the way this vividly invoked memories of Ma in her most recent consciousness. Few places have ever felt like home like Yonkers, Cape Town, Nevilles K-27 and now I’d go so far as to add Seattle. As a post-adolescent, pre-adult (which Ephrat so eloquently put one day), we are still grappling with the definition and creation of home in a world/society/existence of nomadity and constant motion. Perhaps “home” is a combination of safety, familiarity and comfort. Its loved ones in a beautiful place where might be content to just be there, be in each other’s company and do nothing. The
place isn’t defined by what you can do there, but who you are there and who is there, and how that makes you feel. While there, I had some deja vu of other places I’d been, similar car rides I’d taken past strip malls and at train stations and I thought they might unfortunately inform this in different ways, but in spite of this, Seattle in my mind was able to exist outside those confines and became something of its own- authentic, novel, beginning, full. There’s an incredible feeling in young adulthood when you start feeling this liberating autonomy over your own little life. June 3, 2017 - Seattle, Washington
Medgar Evers Pool, from Seattle Historical Archives
THE RED WEST Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Right now we are at Flathead Lake in Montana, a beautiful, large lake (the largest west of the Mississippi) that’s bordered by towns all around its perimeters. The drive to Montana was stunning, particularly through Idaho with the thickest, untouched forests of evergreens I’d ever seen, then rocky shores with blueblue rivers and creeks that coursed through the forests similar to the ones we’d seen in Northern California but somehow grander. The ride was long, nearly 8 hours, with 7 full driving hours and there was often hours of the mind-numbing straightness of open road. We came terribly close to a collision today which shook me to my core, in equal parts embarrassment and parts terror. I’d had a dream of an identical event before this occured and to see if play out in real life (without death) was indeed horrifying but comforting because after it happened I’d never dreamed about it again. The wave of anxiety I’d felt was lessened by a hit from a certain pen purchased in Seattle and the understanding that my fear/aversion to driving must be overcome for the most practical of reasons; simply, we have so much driving left ahead of us and within the next few days that it is simply not an option to be scared into paralysis. In the fourth book of Philippians, the author writes “be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” I had memorized this passage from the Bible some time ago and recitation of this brought some peace but another hit could only help. June 4, 2017
Today we’ve driven the six hours from Montana to find ourselves in Yellowstone National Park, the United States’ first national park. It’s hard to believe after months of “planning” and weeks of actual planning here we are, here I am, bundled in 2 shirts, 2 sweaters, 2 pairs of pants, a hat, a jacket, and $5 gloves from the giftshop in a tent where the temperature will be slowly dropping all night to just above freezing at 3am or 4am and hopefully rise while we’re getting up at 5:50 or 6. Right now I just heard wolves howling at the moon now which should be close to full by now, considering its cresecent shape at Sasquatch, and for some reason this makes me remember the view of the drive today, the land touched by the hand of God and little else such that even with the necessity to keep my eyes on the road it was hard to look away. June 6, 2017
There is a certain type of silence you seek in camping in the woods that doesn’t actually exist in the comfort of a campsite. Briefly, we encountered this idealism, hiking in Glacier a few days ago where there is a cushy silence where the loudest sound, humans walking, is absorbed by a spongy, mossy ground, the lightest of breezes amplified by contrast as they pass through the leaves of the trees. More often than this, while camping you hear passing cars and RVs, the patter of children and dogs, the ranger’s truck, the morning bells, it is not silence, but as close to it as you might come being outside with ready access to flushable toilets. This is how I would describe Yellowstone, or at least our encounter with it, which had some neighborhood to nature, wildlife but was often lacking in wonder or magnificence. While geysers are beautiful in person and on film, conceptually Yellowstone felt like little more than a conservationist’s most perfect idea of a zoo or the closest America could come to offering safaris. But don’t get me wrong, we did have encounters veering on wonderous- this morning in the early light heading to Norris Campground north of us with the intention of walking-in there to stay another night we were blessed to see a baby elk on the side of the road, buried in the bush peeking out beneath the pines, the fog and the sunrise. Then, along that same road, we were called to a halt by a slow-moving bison in the middle of the road who slowly pulled to the side that we might past and when we did he either angrily or jovially shoved his large head/horns at us as we drove by. Then later today, we were fortuitiously stopped by a park ranger I won’t name (more on him later) who prevented us from walking down a path which I was curious to walk down, despite warnings of bear sightings withing some 300-yard radius of it in the past few days. We also ran into a white, Wyoming couple who had adopted a Somali boy and a mixed Habesha-American girl who were immediately identified as such by Yidi. His excitement and curosity at the park was so precious it made me briefly forget my annoyance with the commercialization of the outdoors at the park. Later I told my friend about seeing the wildlife, the lanscape and he jokingly referred to my observations as “imperial human voyuerism” which was ridiculous and hilarious because of the way its precise accuracy captured the strange sentiment I felt at Yellowstone.
“We had blood all over us. With a dark blue uniform, you don’t see it. But we had to wash our hands. It looked like red paint. We cleaned our badges, we cleaned our faces, then we went out to direct traffic.” Mark Fuhrman, Ex-LAPD officer, on tape, edited for The Run of His Life: The People vs. OJ Simpson
June 8, 2017 Yesterday we were pulled over for speeding in Afton, Wyoming a town with a population of less than 2,000 in Lincoln County. The cop was nice, friendly, even, and non-threatening. He sincerely asked us if there was a reason as to why we were going 55 (okay, maybe it was 65) in a 45 and where we were headed with out-of-state plates and all that stuff in the back. He seemed genuinely interested in our trek about the western US to see a bunch of national parks and glad that we had decided to make a stop in Wyoming. I wondered if he would give us a hard time or search the car for weed or assume the worst when Ephrat leaned into the glove-box to pull out her license and registration. None of this happened, though. He charged us the minimum fine, wished us well and sent us on our way. We’ve had only positive encounters with law enforcement on this trip, despite blackness but in line with looking young and being female. We’ve seen the Confederate flag flown at that Montana antique shop where I swiftly suppressed a wave or horror when its owner came out the sidewalk at the edge of his property to stare at us from across the street as we walked to a general store that if I remember was called simply Grocery Store. This wasn’t entirely unusual, though, as the three of us were a relative novelty, considering the Black/African-American population of Montana was 0.4% according to the 2010 US Census (it’s 0.2% in Afton, in case you were wondering).
In a moment of Peak Blackness and Trough Outdoorsiness, I left my Shea butter out on our camp siteâ€™s picnic table in the heat so that it would melt to that liquidy texture that makes it so much easier to apply. I thought little to nothing of this. Anyway, we returned to this violation information, at right, informing us that Shea butter should not be left out because it can attract bears. The Shea butter had melted (just the way I like), this was at the risk of a bear encounter, but anything for the *glow* feel me???
â€œ...But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful--the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you--the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you will know. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.â€? Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Written June 16, 2017 After an entire month of exploring America, it’s landscapes and deciding its a beautiful place I call home, today, June 16th, we learned that the police officer who killed Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and child was acquitted of all charges today. This land, however beautiful, is poisoned from the blood its been watered with. The sweat of back-breaking labor on stolen bodies, on stolen land. We love to talk about accountabiilty but never hold ourselves so.
Written later In hindsight, there was a scathing irony in the rhetoric about conservation and environmental protectionism at Yellowstone. Upon Ephrat’s inquiry about when/if to use bear spray on the off-chance one runs into a bear, the ranger-on-duty (a brilliant woman who was well-informed on all issues of conservation/safety regarding the park, and an excellent showwoman who made the hour-long wait at 6AM in the cold not so bad) went into a long and detailed soliloquy about de-escalation methods and ways to calm the situation. When a bear wanders into a campsite attracted by food, for example, it seems that hundreds of protocol are employed instead of the bear being shot on sight. This includes coralling, scaring, tazing, distracting amongst others. When these fail, or are impossible to do given some extraneous circumstance, the bear is delivered a kill shot, which if done corectly, should immediately kill said bear. Her audience of people also waiting in line for walkin reservations was palpably saddened, grieved, even, when she recounted a worse-case scenario being forced to shoot a bear who had wandered into the bathroom smelling coffee grinds and banana peels left in the garbage. For some reason unknown to me then, I, imperial human voyuer, was made gravely uncomfortable by this visceral emotional reaction from the other vistors to the park. It wasn’t until the day of the officer which killed Philando Castile in his car, in front of his child and girlfriend that it became grossly apparent. Not unlike the park ranger, the officer felt his life was in grave, irrevocable danger which could only be released by complete neutralization of the percieved threat, by means of their death. The police officer was literally deathly afraid, spiraled into a deadly panic feeling threatened by the law-abiding man following his instructions and reaching for his ID/registration when he knew he head a firearm. The fact that he was carrying a firearm was a mootpoint; he was legally registered and permitted to do so, and disclosed this to the officer in an effort to prevent the escalation that inevitably occured. The police officer fired four shots at pointblank range, I didn’t hear the park ranger mention any more than two shots to kill a bear when at a reasonable distance. They took special notice of bears’ protection during this time of year, since many of them had young children.
AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE There is a form of liberal activism which revolves around the policing of speech. Often, this speech-activism is evidence of a lack of dimensioned understanding of some issue, such as correcting someone’s reference to a population notwithstanding the historical exploitation which left it in the state we try to classify. Censoring and censuring of this form is a lazy form of activism, and ultimately reductive rather than progressive. This brings us to our sign, The Sign, which simple read: “Don’t say nigga unless your black. ”We originally created the sign with the intention of holding it during Chance the Rapper’s set at Sasquatch where he has several (but not as many as other rappers’) songs that prominently repeat the word. Ultimately, in an unanimous vote, we decided against including it as part of the “Chance 2020” sign to avoid attracting (negative) attention to ourselves during a set that we wanted to simply enjoy. It could often be taxing to be black in America, to be a singular point of contrast in a sea of whiteness and the temporary moments that you are afforded the ability to be unaware of this, there is a release from anxiety, relaxation and peace. At the Broad Museum in Los Angeles in 2016, I saw an exhibition by Glenn Ligon that includes an oil printing on wood entitled “Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored)”; the work was created through Ligon rubbing an oil pastel through a stencil over and over onto the white surface of a door. On it, was printed “I do not always feel colored I do not always feel colored I do not always feel colored” over and over, declining in clarity with each repetition, delving into increasingly aggressive pressing of the oil stick into the stencil. I was reminded of this because before Chance’s set, I had decided that I did not want to feel colored during it, I wanted to be briefly separated from blackness, from womanness and be sweatlessly inducted into the congregation of Chance’s Be Encouraged Tour. So, instead of attaching it to the Chance 2020 sign, we left it in the car where it stayed for the rest our journey. The Sign began to take on a symbolic importance from its inception at Sasquatch to its perpetual display in our passenger window thereafter. Its display wrought mixed reactions. Most black people were authentically amused and, if not explicitly, tacitly, aware of the attention it would draw given the context of the road trip. Non-black folk rarely addressed it. Most of the time, I would notice their recognition of it: a pause to read it, then a tentative look at us, back at The Sign, back to us. Then nothing
more would happen and we’d drive through the park entrance, past the drive-through, out of the parking lot, etc. Occasionally there would be some visible discomfort in those instance if we happened to start conversing, maybe because the language itself “nigga” was cause for discomfort even when glimmering in shiny, silver glitter. Effectively, it served as a tacit enunciation about our stance on race, in general, and about us a black women travelers: our blackness that affected us daily, race was something we were overtly prepared to bring up and confront, including historical injustices (use of “nigger”) and their implications in the modern context (use of “nigga”). More importantly, our insistence to display this represented the “type” of black person we’d chosen to be and the absorption of the consequence of doing so. We knew little more about many of the states we visited than the color they happened to swing during presidential election (specifically the election of 2016). A few cursory searches of electorate districts revealed how deeply red some of the states we were traveling through were. In many districts in Wyoming, for example, (Lincoln County included) over 50% of the participating electorate voted for Donald Trump and in other smaller pockets, this number was as high as 80-90%. This was enough provide ground for sweeping generalizations about the “type” of people we might encounter and, informed by that, the type of encounters we would have. The Sign was much like something one would see shared on Facebook or Instagram which brings us back to the Tocqueville America; if someone was to see something similar to The Sign online it might be verbally trolled or the share-er deleted entirely, exacerbating the ideological divide between the two people and minimizing the probability of a constructive exchange between them. But instead of this, because The Sign was directly attached to three, real persons, its readers were forced to confront the humans that existed behind the sharing. From The Sign and the states’ redness we (or I’ll speak for myself, I) had created sensationalized caricatures of one another that made for many hesitant and/or uncomfortable introductions. It would not be a stretch to say that discomfort could be defined by palpable distrust and sometimes even fear; distrust cannot be eliminated with kindness, but it definitely alleviated. In the countless gas stations, general store, and local restaurant interactions, there was a mutual socialization that occurred through our respective confrontations of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. While decidedly not in-depth, the skimming of the surface of a people and a place, was the first step in understanding (but not necessarily accepting) the broad swath of American political, ideological and psychographical diversity. The response to The Sign, I imagine, would have been different had it read “Black Lives Matter” or something equally “inflammatory” or “divisive” (to borrow some rhetorically-GOP language) but the relative innocuity of pinpointing the cultural association of the word “nigga” as part of music or colloquial speech, in some respect, isolated the statement itself from a broader contemporary social context but efficaciously emphasized our relationship to it.
“LYNCH” UNLESS UR
Our first day at Yellowstone we were determined to see geysers at Black Sands Pool which was slightly over one-mile round-trip from the Old Faithful Visitor Center. While NPS has made it quite easy for many of the major sites to be accesible by driving we found its often more fun and more convenient to leave the car parked in one area, hike around and return to it at the end of the day. There had been rumors earlier that morning waiting on line for other walk-in campsites at a ground north of the one we’d stayed in the previous night that there was a mother bear spotted in the area with her two cubs for the last few days. The park ranger on-duty then informed us that this was one of the worst times as bears with cubs can often be hyper-aggressive. Bearing in mind (LOL), the warnings we’d heard earlier we did some hikes around the perimeter of the temporary-bear-territory that were all crowded with people taking similar walking tours. However, when we reached the trail to Black Sands, Flag hanging outside NAACP office in NYC, source: Getty Images it was notably deserted relative to other paths. Yellowstone has many backcountry, “all-terrain” trails, invitation, changing countenance from park-employbut just as many wooded and paved paths; Black Sands was one of the latter, safer, and I’d go so far as ee-friend to law-enforcer-of-public-lands. Luckily, shortly to say kid-friendly, trails. This is the paradox of many ahead of us, the path forked one way forward and another national parks and Yellowstone, specifically. The de- way back to a main trail and he suggested that we return velopment of the area for tourism makes wildlife and back the way he was going on his bike. For reference, we were having this conversation “wilderness” so accessible that you tend to forget that in a wooded area that was adjacent to an open field, a in all of our environmental invasion and imperial voyeruism, many of the animals never get “used to” common landscape found at Yellowstone due to the seeing humans (except maybe bison) and can and do chemical properties of geyers and hot springs that disrupt instictually lash out on unsuspecting guests. Now we the soil’s chemistry making trees and grasses unable to did not at all intend to get close enough to anything grow as they do in other parts of the park. The path that that it might feel threatened and thereby necessary took a u-shape, I would aliken to a wooden pier, stretched to launch into the defensive, so we thought it best if horizontally across half the width of the field. More committed to self-preservation than obedience, we followed we found a third-party to come with us down this behind the ranger on his bike and began the loop back to trail; at best, we’d have someone familar with the area with us and at worst, a person to utilatarianly the main pathway/visitor center. We had walked but ten sacrifice to the bear that wasn’t one of us (note-joke). feet when he put a hand back to stop and silence us for in We lingered around there for some time until a park the field upon our turn was, in fact, the bear in her two ranger we had met earlier in the park (not the same cubs. Now don’t get all alarmed,Mom, they were all one from the campground that morning) came down far away from us —I guessed around 100 or 150 yards the path on his bike. We exchanged plesantries of familarity and decided that he would be the perfect —wandering in the mostly open field. The ranger had fourth-person to accompany us to Black Sands. But a DSLR camera (not so powerful as some of the others he promptly and sternly declined both our idea and I saw in the park, which were the largest telescopes and
camera lenses that money can buy, probably) that he was able to capture a descent image much closer than our naked eye. I was so excited then — I mean, wow! How extraordinary! Our second day here we saw the one bear that’d been spotted around for only a few weeks! People stay at Yellowstone for months and never to get to see this kind of action basically alone with just your two good friends and a park ranger! Nothing could ruin this moment! “Wow, thank God we ran into you,” I’d gushed to the ranger, “That woulda been crazy had we went down that path and walked right into them!” My illusion of awe and wonder was promptly and sternly dispersed when our ranger-friend, public-lands-protector-of-persons responded, “Yea, that bear would have lynched you girls had you gone down there.” Lynched??? Surely, I had misheard him for the definition of lynch by
Lynch (v.)- to put to death (as by hanging) mob action without legal approval or permission
was fundamentally incompatible with any capacity of a bear. This was without question the first time I had heard that word used in any colloquial context. Its application was and should be exclusively historical. Part of me authentically believes that I did not entirely “hear” this when it happened because it is so deeply divorced from normative, everyday rhetoric that to use and/or process it, I am forced to access a place in my cognition exclusively reserved to discussion of slavery and violence against African-Americans. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin notes his distrust of uniformed men after years of being warrantlessly stopped-and-frisked: “All doormen, for example, and all policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.” Baldwin describes is a form of distrust unique to
the “American Negro,” who because of his history, must move cautiously through his sole homeland (“formed by this nation, for better or for worse, not belong[ing] to any other”) because of the way it has time and time again rejected him. When one becomes acutely conscious of the treatment and position of the Negro in society, this distrust manifests itself in various ways, most detrimentally at the expense of genuine filial, that is, brotherly, love. Baldwin is often finds himself at the crux of this paradox--filled with love for people and humanity, but operates with skepticism and paranoia to the end of self-preservation. I used to relentlessly believe in the existence of innate good in the heart of men. I would refute the sweeping generalizations of aunts and uncles as antiquated resentment or imagined injustices stemming from decades of trauma in a changed society. But soon, I began to notices the sources of their resentment affect me in my own life—the way I felt when watched Trayvon Martin’s killer go free, when I was ignored in classrooms and conference rooms filled with white men, when I decided to stop straightening my hair and felt obligated to explain the choice to do so—the chip on my shoulder matched my dad’s, my grandma’s, her brother’s... But, because, even beyond the full-bodied ignorance of my youth, I had known and sincerely loved white people, non-black people, non-American Negroes, I often chose to extend the benefit of the doubt, assume the superiority of their humanity over race or class and go forward in commerce, fellowship, friendship with that has my hope and guide. On this trip, I determined to exacerbate that tendency. A tendency which often leaves me disappointed with individuals, humanity, America. The election of 2016 left my spirit of hope gravely soured; I’d never felt the breed of obtuse distrust I now remorselessly and generously applied. I had formed some hard-lined beliefs about red states and their inhabitants and had to make a choice to carry them — wield them as dually shield and sword against potential confrontation — or to release them, if but temporarily, and believe in the good, be disappointed endlessly rather than give up the hope that people are and can be better than they are. And it is for these reasons exactly that I didn’t want to believe what he had said. Who uses it that word knowing its violent and inextricable history related to American lands probably in places not very far from where we stood? Says it casually to black people? Black girls, at that? Was I over-reacting? Why did the rec-
itation of that word by a man in uniform make me taste bile in the back of my throat? Was our self-endangering venture on to lands that, while if stupidly, we had every right to be on so transgressive? What was did his statement intend to condemn: our decision to potentially endanger ourselves? Or disobedience? I’d like to believe that the inclination of humanity is toward goodness; when we deviate from it, its because we’ve been educated poorly, socialized wrong. That part of me says ignore it, move on, it didn’t mean anything, he just confused definitions of basic words. Mauled, lynched—easy mistake. The other part, though, cynical, critical thinks that it can’t be a mistake and if it was, it was a convicting one. The word “lynch”: buried so deep in the consciousness of many — How was that word so top of mind? Who’d he hear it from? Who was using it? And most importantly, why? In that moment, I made a decision similar to the one where I did not want to feel colored. I wanted to stand and watch the bear, that I’d driven all this way to Yellowstone to see, in awe and wonder, like any other person who had stumbled into the fortune that we did. But now, the ranger who’s presence at first was a comforting safety now felt like it was burning my side. So I said thanks, goodbye and left him alone photographing the bear.
Cub Editor’s Note about this addition: Ok, so I’m not saying the bear we saw with her two cubs at Yellowstone (at left, top) is the same as the one captured in the New York Times a week after (at bottom), but I’m definitely not saying it’s not the bear we saw
Mama Bear Cub
SLAVES CAN’T RELAX Slaves can’t relax Less massa finds he a lazy slave And be sold den at auction block, Forty bucks on an old soap box Black folk can’t relax That man think he God ya’ll think you’re god spent so many years writin’ the rules ‘bout man’s life then breaking ‘em; never gave life but still take it and black folk can’t relax Slaves can’t never rest beneath The shade of the poplar tree, Lest he hanging from it. Finda ‘cuse to ‘scape from burn o’ hot sun, Massa watch ya there, too Get back to work! He said but Looked all ‘round the earth So his chillun never hafta work And slaves can’t relax.
Written April 28, 2017
Was anyone gonna tell me to open my right eye???
Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona , Southern Califnoria
It reminded me a lot of when I was really young. My dad would take my brother and I with our dog to this place upstate to go fishing. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the city or village or whatever it was now, but all these rich folks moved in and suddenly all this land was now “private” and this and that trail were exclusively for horses and trail riding now, and you need a permit for here, you can’t fish here now, a bunch of shit. Sometimes we’d still go but eventually the streams dried up so you couldn’t even fish. There’s always some romanticization of our memories of things in hindsight, but still that was one of my favorite places in the world when I was younger. I’d gotten into social media like MySpace and Facebook really early, probably too early and this framed a lot of things I did for some time. But not when I was here, that never mattered. I don’t even think I took a damn picture of the place all the times we went. I waded in those streams before I’d ever been to the ocean, my tiny feet, then suddenly Mommy-sized feet would gently find their ground on smooth rocks, until they went numb from the cold. The water was ice cold and crystal clear until Woody scared a mudfish that was lying lazily at the bottom. Daddy always told me not run beyond where he could see me but I always did anyway, always came back home. June 9, 2017, Zion National Park
Some cacti flower right before they die Tour guide in Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ said this, but the picture is Saguaro National Park, also in Tucson.
It seemed that Zion didn’t belong on Earth or humans weren’t fit to occupy the same planet as Zion. While we had “hiked” up to four miles in one day in Glacier, Yellowstone and Bryce Canyon (excluding Grand Teton which we never actually hiked so much as toured), many of these were not at the elevation and difficulty Zion’s trails offered. The hike to Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools was nearly entirely uphill, a combination of dirt paths, rock scrambles, and switchbacks that wrapped around canyonside, overlooking the blue-green Virgin River that cut through the canyon. It offered us some of the most spectacular views of the trip as it was a comprehensive mix of desert and forest and freshwater that we’d encountered in other parks. The interesting thing about canyons is that they’re pretty overwhelming when your up close on them; their height and breadth are so much that they can’t even fit in the scope of your vision. But the most effective way to appreciate their beauty is looking back behind where you’ve gone or forward to where you late about to go. So then, as you keep moving forward, and get up close on them the memory of the perspective frames how you now view this overwhelming part (because that’s what it is), part of a magnificent whole to large to fit within the scope of your vision. That’s probably what I love most about canyons--the beauty in perspective. Some days in June, written in Moab, Utah and Tucson, Arizona after Sabino Canyon
Some day in June The National Parks in Utah felt more isolated from their surroundings than any other place that we visited. Our days in-transit and in-slumber in Utah were defined by bizarre occurrence after bizarre occurrence. I won’t get to it all in detail, but it started at a shitty, overpriced (there two are definitely correlated, as it would not have been so bad, had it been cheaper) diner/lodge at the next small town we ran into after leaving Moab but probably before passing through Springdale. At this diner called Restaurant you didn’t get a menu unless you asked, you would be charged over $8 for a latte with flavor and a double shot (“we ship the espresso beans from Italy here to the middle of nowhere so its really expensive”) and despite what the waiter assuring you, you’ll leave hungry if you get the classic combo plate with the intention of feeding more than one (hungry) person. One day we found ourselves in a small town that my iPhone could not even identify at a gas station/motel/Chinese restaurant frequented by authentic cowboys with ten-gallon hats, gaudy turquoise and gemstone belt buckles and trailers full of horses and steer attached to four-door GMs, Chevys and Fords. They nodded politely and looked away when I exited looking like I had stolen the toilet paper from the single-stall when, in fact, I had brought a roll from the car because the one already in the women’s bathroom was stained by some mystery liquid on one side that I was not prepared to let graze my hands, nonetheless any other part of my anatomy. Our days in the state ended with an uncomfortable trip to a much-too crowded campground bathroom that, for once, offered free, hot showers but the combined forces of exhaustion, one-meter-length hairs covering the shower drain and the stifling smell of sewage from under our tent site made the idea of getting clean at that point, at that place, seem ironic. A lot about Utah felt like that: dramatically ironic. It was palpably religious with relics of and allusions to the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints on every corner but some of the state’s most famous sites visited by tourists, heftily contributing to the state’s prosperity, were allusions to the Devil himself, the heat of hell and the fall of Angels (Angel’s Landing, in Zion, for example). People appeared controlled and contained while the land they lived on was anything
but--rugged and mountainous and dangerous and wild. In a sense it was fitting that we passed towns defined by their ranchers and cowboys; we saw wild horses on these rugged lands waiting to be broken, that is, fit to be ridden, that is fit to be a work horse, that is, fit to be contained in field, trailer or stable until he is too old to work and dies. In many of the towns there were churches every 300 yards or so, often plain white shellacked edifices with one simple steeple, a simple cross on top maybe a single adornment in the form of a stained glass window. I am inclined to believe the Spirit of God visits any place where folks gathering his name (with some notable exceptions), but I canâ€™t imagine His permanent residence being anywhere but the magnificence of those hills in Zion or resting beneath the shade of the hoodoos in Bryce or the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains in Montana all at once. I think Jesusâ€™ most overlooked practice is taking His disciples into nature, onto mountaintop because never have I been so sure of Godâ€™s presence about this Earth as I am on some mountainside.
Best part of that restaurant was this feeder that hummingbirds came to outside the window
June 10, 2017 We realized two days ago that we had made an unfortunate miscalculation in the distance between Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and Arches. The distance between Salt Lake and Bryce/Zion and Canyonlands/Arches was 4 hours for both, but these locations formed an equalateral triangle with Salt Lake rather than one straight line. This distorted entirely our plan to travel to Joshua Tree and added New Mexico as a logical extension of shortening the drive back to Tucson. On the night of our discovery of our unfortunate geography, Ephrat, moping, showed us a picture from the Moonasi series by South Korean artist Daehyun Kim called The Value of Suffering. The image is a black and white print which depicts two individuals crying white tears in a pool of lotus flowers. One lifts a lotus flower in his hand as he weeps. Yidi recalled that she had always liked lotus flowers because they bloom out of muddy waters. I realized then that that’s what being an outdoorsy gal was all about. Like many things, the representation of who had/or readily accessed the outfoors had been (and not necessarily by some fault of their own) monopolized by fit, straight, white males. Anything outside of that was considered an oddity or anamolous. We jokingly began calling ourselves “outdoorsy gals” until it became a serious rallying of resistance, that we, deserved the outdoors just as much as the rockclimbers scaling walls with tons of expensive and intricate gear. The more we persisted, the more we realized that its not so difficult to pitch a tent, cook over a stove, or follow a reasonably well-marked trail 4-miles in the forest, desert or mountain. Like the story of the black cowboy/girl, Coates’ diagnosis for the black body becoming “outdoorsy” was about seizing some narrative and forcibly demanding your part in it because it belongs because you exist. You don’t have to be super fit or hike all the time or know how to read a compass (that helps) because reading the trail maps isn’t so hard once you’ve done it two or three or ten times, Youtube can teach you everything books can’t and nice people (like us!) are willing to fill in the gaps. Shit, bottom line is, anyone can be an outdoorsy gal, just get a few friends, a few hotdogs and get out there.
APPENDIX AND LEGAL
This is a short prayer I wrote for us for our trip on April 30th of this year. I said this to myself (when I remembered) before leaving on a long drive. I’ve included here for anyone that wants it. This I give full license for folks to reproduce and edit as your spirituality sees fit. I bless you Lord, O my soul, all that is within me. I bless your Holy Name, you’ve forgiven all my iniquities, healed all my diseases. I thank you for your continued protection over all us, that no harm shall befall us on our journey from City #1 to City #2. They who dwell in the shelter of the Most High shall rest in the shadow of the Almighty whose power no enemy can withstand. I will say of the Lord, He is our refuge and our fortress, our God, in whom we trust He will save us from the trap of the fowler And from the deadly pestilence. He will cover us completely Protect us with His feathers And under Those wings we will find refuge. We will not be afraid of the terror of night and though a thousand may fall at our side and 10,000 at the right, danger will not come near us. Because you have made the Most High your dwelling place, no evil will befall you or plague come near thine dwelling. I thank you Lord that You’ve commanded Your angels in regard to us, to protect and defend and guard us in all our ways. They will lift us up in their hands, so that we do not even strike our foot against a stone. Whenever we call on you, you will answer, You are with us in trouble, You will rescue us and we will honor you We are convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, no powers, nor things present nor things to come, no height, not depth nor any created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus. And let our days be filled with life, grace, beauty and fullness of what you have created on Earth, as it is in Heaven. And I thank you Father, that you bless us and keep us, now and until the end of this trip and the end of the Earth. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Legal All contents of this photo-book represent my own views and not that of my employer or university. All inquiries to reproduce or republish this photo-book in its entirety or partiality wherewith-in should be directed to and solely approved by the author. Any violation of this stipulation should be considered an infringement on copyright and intellectual property law and is punishable by the full extent of the law. This book does not and does not intend to represent the organization of the National Parks Service.
For nearly a week, we stayed in the three states (which the inclusion of Colorado) that legislatively pioneered the legalization of marijuana, an important step in decriminalizing the recreation of smoking weed. Itâ€™s hard to enjoy legal marijuana when you think about who actually profits from its legalisation because save for a few interventionist public policies (such as Oaklandâ€™s preferential treatment for blacks who had been previously arrested for possesion for growing/selling licesnses) a lot of the money goes into white, already-wealthy hands. The barriers to entry are not necessarily many, but a costly license and sizable target market are the minium competitive requirement. Dealers still operating on the low now have to absorb much lower prices, specifically losses on premiums charged to, letâ€™s say, the less-knowlegeable of weed smokers.
Black girl reflections in the American West.