The Continuing Fight for Women's Rights

Last week at the Legislature, I made a speech on the Roe decision, women's rights, and the pervasive misogyny of our society. A slightly edited version was printed in the Ithaca Times this week , and I'm posting it here now. The fight for equality must continue. ~~~~~ Today is an important day. 174 years ago today, on July 19, 1848, 300 women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, NY, to speak out about the inequality facing women, demand the same rights and freedoms that men held, and make known their discontent with the way this country was progressing. The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention was the first convention of its kind in American history. From that convention, it took more than 70 years for women to gain the right to vote in 1919. Voting is a key right, for sure, but there are so many other freedoms not afforded to women. Sometimes the fight for equality goes slowly. Sometimes it goes backwards. Like right now, after the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe

On Nature, Outdoor, and Hiking Books by People of Color

One of the things I love most about living on this beautiful planet is spending time in the natural world. I have walked thousands of miles across many trails and through many forests, and while I may tire of the bugs, my legs may ache, or I may curse the wretched uphill climbs, I would never trade one day outside for one inside. Just give me a tree to hug and I'm feeling better already.

As a white person, I've long noticed that I saw few People of Color in the places where I hiked or camped, but my privilege allowed me to not really ever think about it. When Christian Cooper was bird watching and then verbally assaulted by a white woman in Central Park a few years back, I began thinking more critically about this topic. This planet is for all of us to love and enjoy and traipse across. I wish for everyone to feel safe and comfortable in nature. I believe that if we are going to save the planet, we need to help ourselves. And if we are going to save ourselves, we need the planet's help. 

While I sure don't know how to fix the problems of the world, I do know that taking the time to dig deeper and educate myself is one thing I can do. Here are some of the resources, people, and books I've learned from along this path.

A good place to begin is with Carolyn Finney, a leader in the study of African Americans' relationship to nature. I watched her presentation to the Cornell Botanic Gardens, in which she told some powerful stories. Much of what she said echoes her book, Black Faces, White Spaces (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Her book includes numerous other resources and studies to read for further information. 

"Africans believed in 'good use' of the land and the connection between the health of the land and their community (Blum 2002). The 'woods' induced both positive and negative feelings: a place that was resource-rich, a place of transformation and refuge (forests were often used for religious services), but also a place of fear (Blum 2002; Dixon 1987). Forced labor was often regulated through the threat or actual use of physical violence, and the fear engendered through mental and emotional trauma was another constant that enslaved Africans had to contend with in relation to the natural environment. White women put fear in to the hearts of slaves about the woods in order to maintain control. Whites also told slaves stories suggesting they were 'like animals' in the woods, in order to keep them thinking of themselves as subhuman (Blum 2002)."


Though I adore a good book of nonfiction or research, one of the best ways to get to the heart of something difficult is through our stories. While Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (Anchor Books, 2016) is a work of fiction, it looks at the realities of what enslaved Africans faced. Despite the fact that slaves worked the land each day and knew it more intimately than anyone, they never owned that land, and weren't able to commit to it fully because they never knew when they might be sold to another owner in some other place. As for the woods, as Finney notes above, it was a boundary to cross if one undertook the terrifying attempt at escape. In Whitehead's book, when the characters Cora and Caesar do attempt to flee their plantation, they are met by fear in the cotton fields.

"They moved through the tall plants, so knotted up inside that they forgot to run until they were halfway through. Their speed made them giddy. The impossibility of it. Their fear called after them even if no one else did. They had six hours until their disappearance was discovered and another one or two before the posses reached where they were now. But fear was already in pursuit, as it had been every day on the plantation, and it matched their pace. 

They crossed the meadow whose soil was too thin for planting and entered the swamp. It had been years since Cora had played in the black water with the other pickaninnies, scaring each other with tales of bears and hidden gators and fast-swimming water moccasins. Men hunted otter and beaver in the swamp and the moss sellers scavenged from the trees but never too far, yanked back to the plantation by invisible chains."


A lighter, though no less important book is Derick Lugo's The Unlikely Thru-Hiker (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2019). Lugo hiked the Appalachian Trail and earned the trail name Mr. Fabulous. This is a playful read of his journey, but he touches on something that makes him stand out from the historically white thru-hiker crowd, when a fellow hiker says, 

"'You know, I've been hiking the trails of the Smokies for over fourteen years, and you are only the seventh black thru-hiker I have ever seen...'

Even though his words are far from malicious, I'd prefer it if the greeting could go unsaid. He is pleased with his observation--so much so it doesn't occur to him that skin color is not a factor for me in this venture, or for anything else in my life. 

Yeah, I have dreadlocks, café con leche skin, and Afro-Puerto-Rican-ness running through my veins. It doesn't mean diddly squat. I'm no different than my friend Overdrive, standing right next to me, hiking the same trail with the same goal. I'm not offended. How could I be offended at the benevolence emitted from this senior hiker?... The joy he gets from seeing me out here in turn becomes my joy, and I begin to realize how important it is for me to be on this trail."


And speaking of the Appalachian Trail, another Black hiker, Rahawa Haile shared her story with Outside magazine. The story itself, published in 2017, can only be read with a magazine subscription, but this Outside magazine interview with Haile is a good introduction to hiking and to Haile's experience. 

"So here you are in rural Tennessee, surrounded by Confederate flags and firework shops. When you started out, were you most worried about being a woman alone, a Black woman alone, or a queer woman alone? I’m thinking of the violence against queer women hikers in the past.

Well, I am a queer Black woman, but I can’t parse the three—they’re not three separate parts of my identity. But it felt like a vulnerable position. There were so many targets on my back, but I stood out most as a Black thru-hiker. There were many women on the trail but very few Black people."


One of the challenges facing Black people, and other POC, is that there simply aren't many representations of POC in the environmental movement, nor in National Park and Forest and outdoor recreation marketing materials. And those representations that are found are not always good. Back to Carolyn Finney again and her article in the New York Times in November 2021, "Who Gets Left Out of the Outdoors Story?"

"But those inspiring stories of Black adventurers that I craved? They do exist — just outside the familiar canon. These are the Black women and men who made their way through the wilderness to create homes, raise families and foster their dreams, despite living in a country at a time in which they were denied their basic rights. The American story of the Great Outdoors, with all its complexity and fault lines, is their story as well."


As a hiker and a writer of hiking stories, I've read a lot of hiking books. But one of those Black stories that never made its way into the mainstream was of John Francis. Francis is an environmental educator, professor, public speaker, and the author of Planetwalker (National Geographic Books, 2008). He walked America for 22 years, much of it without speaking. Francis founded Planetwalk.org.
"Planetwalk’s core mission is the development and coordination of a global network of Planetwalkers. Planetwalk will sponsor walks nationally and internationally with the purpose of promoting environmental education and responsibility and a vision of world peace and cooperation. Planetwalk is modeled on Dr. John Francis’s worldwide pilgrimage that works to transcend cultural, social and political boundaries by fostering communication between young people, scientists and environmental practitioners."
In the Botanic Gardens webinar, a participant asked Carolyn Finney what white folks could do to support People of Color entering wilderness spaces. Finney suggested that when you come across a Person of Color while in the woods, give them a smile, a nod, a hello, as you would anyone else you meet. Simple as that. 

It's hardly my place to draw conclusions or pontificate on why I see few People of Color in the wilderness, but it is my responsibility to read, to learn, and to amplify the voices that know more. And it is my place to make space for People of Color in the woods, to acknowledge their equal right to be there, and when we pass on the trail, to simply say hello. 

This article in Lithub lists a bunch more books. "Finding my Climate-Conscious Tribe: Black Nature Lovers and Writers"

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