The N-Word: Nature, Revisited
By Carolyn Finney
(This essay was originally published in Leaf Litter #8: The Storyteller Issue and is the inspiration for an upcoming one-woman show by the same title.)
In 1903, John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt spent four days together in Yosemite National Park. There is a famous photo of the two men, standing on Overhanging Rock on Glacier Ridge both looking quite erudite and philosophical. I wonder at the nature of their conversation. On the National Parks website, it states that Muir spoke of environmental degradation and the need for additional protection of Yosemite; their sharing of ideas resulted in the “joining together of the 1864 state grant lands with the 1890 national park lands.” (1) No small achievement, to be sure. But I am curious about the things unwritten but not necessarily unsaid between the two men; about agreements made that day that were informed by the commonly held beliefs of the time about Others; the certainty and ease of camaraderie that often comes with power, privilege, recognition and opportunity; and how the nature of this conversation might look and sound different if it took place today.
So, in response to the question, “Is John Muir relevant today?” my first reaction was to sigh deeply; as an African American engaged in ongoing practice and praxis concerning race and the environment, I must admit to a kind of weariness at hearing his name. He takes up so much emotional and historical space in environmental conversations centered on the U.S. that part of me did not want to further contribute to that seemingly indomitable wall of knowledge about Mr. Muir and his contributions. What could I say? Yes – John Muir’s ideas about wilderness can be found in the tenets of our National Park system and in The Wilderness Act. Yes – Mr. Muir was a deeply committed man whose activism is arguably most clearly realized in his founding of the Sierra Club. And yes – Mr. Muir’s perspectives on African Americans and American Indians were at best, evolving and at worst, were racist (yes – I said it).
After some thought and a metaphorical long walk in the woods, I realized that I had done the very thing that I abhor; reduced the man and his accomplishments to a one dimensional and singularly unimaginative (and short) narrative that only hinted at the intellectual and emotional rumblings that lie beneath my comments. More importantly, I believe the question of Muir’s relevancy today lies in our understanding of the relationship between his ideas and experiences, and the lives lived by Others, particularly black and brown women and men whose very presence on any landscape demanded (and demands) different rules of engagement. Is there a way to generate, as scholar and artist Theresa Jenoure says, “spontaneous and critical response to new information” without diminishing or dismissing the experiences of John Muir (Jenoure 2000, 4)? Can I call him out while also calling him in? What other modes of writing/thinking/critical analysis might open up a space to more fully engage, not just the “facts”, but also the possibilities?
So, setting aside the conventional tools of scholarship in social science, I started thinking, “what if”? What if a Black woman from his time wrote an imaginary tale of her experience of actually walking through the south, much the way Muir did in 1867 in his A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf? Author Alice Randall did something similar with her parody of Gone with the Wind that exposed the complexities around race and gender in the Antebellum South glossed over in the “original” narrative. What would my version look like? What would it read like? And what if I could talk with John Muir? I mean, I served on the National Parks Advisory Board from 2010 to 2018 (the only African American) and have worked in some advisory capacity with the National Park Service for at least nine years so we would have a common starting point. What would I say to him if I had the chance?
With these two ideas in mind, I’m going to use a kind of “informed improvisation” for the rest of this essay that will require me to leap into “what if” territory with a very different set of metaphorical shoes than traditionally used for writing an essay.
On the surface, the goal of this exercise is to bring greater historical and cultural dimensionality to the original moment and consider something that scholar and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson calls “plural visions of truth” to see what might emerge (Dyson 2015). But I am also playing with feminist geographer Cyndi Katz’s idea of minor theory that can, among other things, “displace major theorizing to make room for imaginative practice” (Katz 1996). (2) What is revealed when we consider “alternate temporalities and spatialities” as part of a conceptual exploration (Katz 1996)? (3) Finally, and in all honesty, I just want to have a bit of fun with some admittedly serious issues about race, Nature, and privilege in order to loosen up my (our) collective hold on John Muir’s ideas and what we think they mean, and begin to imagine what they could mean now.
IMAGINARY SCENARIO #1:
“This is my book. If I die tomorrow, nobody’ll remember me except somebody who find this book. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I didn’t see me in it. Uncle Tom sounded like Jesus to me, in costume. I don’t want to go in disguise. I don’t want to write no novel. I’m just afraid of forgetting…If I forget my real name, won’t be anybody to tell it to me. No one here knows. I’m going to write down everything. Something like Mr. Frederick Douglass.”
– Cynara, from The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall p. 7
In 1936, Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer for her epic romance, Gone with the Wind, a fictional historical account of the Old/Antebellum South. (4) The story was contentious for some who felt it glorified slavery and played into stereotypes of both black and white southerners of that time. Alice Randall, a Harvard-educated African American journalist/novelist, decided she wanted to tell an “alternate” version of the story, from a black perspective. She called it “The Wind Done Gone” where the primary character, Cynara, the mulatto half sister of Scarlett O’Hara who lives as a slave on her plantation, gets to tell her story (Randall 2001). (5)
Taking Randall’s lead, I want to play with Muir’s piece, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) which is about a journey he undertook in 1867, noting the impact of war on the landscape in the South. (6) At 29 years old, he set off from Indianapolis, in his words “on the first day of September, 1867, joyful and free, on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico” (Muir, 1916, 1). Filled with observations and recounting of his day-to-day experiences over the course of a year, Muir traveled by foot and by boat through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida and Cuba engaging with diverse humanity as well as flora and fauna. Here are some highlights from his story:
September 31, 1867 – Muir “escaped from the dust and squalor of [his] garret bedroom to the glorious forest” (Muir, 1916, 2). Enjoyed the “hospitable Kentuckians” (p. 12). Met many “Negroes” who were “fat, happy and contented” (Muir, 1916, 13).
September 27 – Muir “witnessed the most gorgeous sunset” and was “directed by a very civil Negro to lodgings” (Muir, 1916, 53).
October 16 – While in Florida, Muir sees an alligator. He learns that “alligators are said to be extremely fond of negroes and dogs” (Muir, 1916, 96).
1868 – In Havana, Cuba, Muir “saw the strongest and ugliest negroes” that he had met thus far on his journey (Muir, 1916, 167). He remarks on the “good natured ugliness” that he believed the “negro” women to possess.
Ultimately, poor health sent Muir back to California, but make it back he did. Near the end of his book, while on a boat, Muir muses about how nice it would be “to walk the glassy plain [of the ocean] in calm with flocks of birds and glittering flying fishes” (Muir, 1916, 178). He then goes on to say “But even of the land only a small portion is free to man” (Muir, 1916, 179).
A number of years after Muir’s book became available to the public, an alternate version of that experience was also published. It was entitled My Thousand Mile Walk was Rough, written by Sojourner Washington Douglass (picture a newly updated version of the book with Black artist Kara Walker’s piece, Mississippi Mud, on the cover). (7) Washington Douglass was inspired by the story of Ellen Craft and her husband William Craft. In their book, Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), the Crafts recount their story of becoming known as “Georgia Fugitives” for their daring escape out of slavery in 1848 to Boston in order to, in William Craft’s words, “obtain those rights so vividly set forth in the Declaration” (Craft, 1860, preface). Their story of escape from bondage inspired poems, speeches and hero worship. Dressed as a white man in ill health, Ellen Craft traveled with her husband who played the role of her slave. While ultimately successful in achieving freedom, their journey and their lives were continually under threat and the Crafts committed their lives to the abolition of slavery through their writing and public speaking.
With this story in mind, Sojourner Washington Douglass decided to write a story that reflected how danger and uncertainty were omnipresent. Her thousand miles took longer than a year to walk because walking while black across a thousand miles of American landscape in 1867 could be your last walk and so you did so carefully. The author first details some background in order to give the reader a better understanding of what she was up against on her journey. Here are some of those highlights from her story:
1852 – Sojourner was born with no last name on Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana (she later adopted the nom de plume of Washington Douglass). (8)
1862 – The Homestead Act had passed and white folks were getting “free land”. Black folks were dreaming of being free. Rumor had it that a new day was coming…
1865 – Emancipation Proclamation – Black folks began the long walk to freedom across a metaphorical and literal landscape of discarded chains and bodies and dreams deferred and reborn, ducking and weaving as fast as they can.
1866 – 400,000 acres of land were given and taken, given and taken, given and taken…to free men and women, ducking and weaving across a hostile landscape.
1867 – Sojourner sets out for the Promised Land of the North. Since she is not light skinned enough to pass for white she sticks to back roads and woods, surviving off nature’s bounty.
1868 – Race-related massacres take place across the country including 200 in her home state of Louisiana.
1873 – More massacres, another seventy in Colfax, Louisiana.
1880 – Jim Crow was the MAN; 1890, Jim Crow was the Man; 1900, Jim Crow was the Man; 1910, Jim Crow was the Man; 1920, Jim Crow was the Man; 1930, Jim Crow was the Man, 1940, Jim Crow was the Man;
At this point, the story ends abruptly and an editor intervenes to let the reader know that, according to newspaper clippings, Sojourner Washington Douglass had passed away in 1946 at the ripe old age of 90. Like the Crafts had done earlier, she too, was living in Boston at the time of her death. And Jim Crow was still the Man.
So that’s where Sojourner’s truth – I mean story – ends.
IMAGINARY SCENARIO #2
Baldwin: “White people are in some sense a tragic case”
Mead: “Yes, but you see it’s part of you also”
-From A Rap on Race, a conversation between James Baldwin
and Margaret Meade, p.31
For the past six years, I have served on the National Park Advisory Board and am the only African American on that board at this time. What would John Muir say if he saw me on the National Parks Advisory Board? Would he notice my presence as rife with possibility or squinting, would he try to see/imagine some one else? Behind his white beard and white skin from some other time, could he reach into his “what I know” and take a deep breath and expand into the stories of Future Present that he had not previously been able to imagine? So I was thinking about what a brief conversation between us two would look like and I used the book Rap on Race, a conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Meade as a primer.
The setting would be my home. Hardly a neutral space, but then Mr. Muir’s presence has dominated so many spaces for so long, I figure it’s time to turn the tables. And anyway, he’s back in Kentucky where his original journey began. As bell hooks says in Belonging about returning to her home state of Kentucky, “We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering” (p. 5). Let’s see if we can’t help each other remember…
Mr. Muir walks into my living room.
Me: Please sit down, Mr. Muir.
Mr. Muir: (utterly distracted by his surroundings) Thank you.
After dispensing with niceties (I was brought up right), I would waste no time and have to call him out on some of his views expressed in his A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867, speaking of “Negroes” as largely lazy and easy going, not being able to “pick as much cotton as a white man”.
Me: “Whoa, my Wilderness brother! What you saw was not laze in their eyes, but glaze in their eyes and fire in their heart. Can you imagine the crushing blow to their humanity that black people (we don’t use the term ‘Negro’ anymore, Mr. Muir) felt on a regular basis, being enslaved while planting and harvesting and building the backbone of our economy? While being another human being’s property? Can you imagine the depth of spirit necessary to survive that wilderness of pain and gain, of life not imagined and lived on one’s own terms?
Muir: (eyes wide) Silence.
I might offer him some green tea in a recyclable cup right about now as he appears to look a bit shaken. I could forgive Mr. Muir his confused and stunned silence. I imagine that at most, he might have envisaged me cleaning his house, not snapping his retorts into reluctant submission. So, I soften.
Me: Take a deep breath, Mr. Muir. Close your eyes and see yourself in your beloved Yosemite – find your center, my Wilderness brother, and let me share with you a few thoughts.
Muir: I can do that (he closes his eyes, somewhat reluctantly).
I tell him stories of my parents and the land they cared for deeply. I tell him that I’ve never been to Muir Woods (the steam rising from his green tea could not hide his surprise), but I do have a fondness for the baobab tree and the cherry blossom tree. I tell him that I’ve gone to Yosemite where I have met a black park ranger, who is holding it down with his heart and music from his flute. I tell him about the City and the rose that grew from concrete even when no one else cared (I leave out Tupac because that would be too much new information at one time). I tell him that the wilderness is not only those vast, natural expanses we can see, but they are also those places, vast and unfamiliar that many of us occupy in our daily lives. And they are worthy of preservation and our care – the stories, the natures, the lives – that he did not know how to know.
Me: I know that was a lot, Mr. Muir. Perhaps you need to take some notes.
Muir: Yes, yes. (As he is writing) I would like to meet that park ranger with that flute.
Me: Ahhh – Shelton Johnson. I think he would like to meet you, too. He brought the story of the Buffalo Soldiers back to Yosemite (he also got to meet Oprah who did a special on her experience in Yosemite National Park, but again, I decide not to share this as that story would be more information than he needed).
Muir: Hmmm…Thank you for the visit. I need time to process all you have shared with me today. I must be going. Nature calls…
Me: (thinking – does he mean he needs to use the bathroom? But before I can ask, he is out the door). (I shout out after him) No worries, Mr. Muir – I’ve got your back even if you don’t have mine.
It’s interesting for me to think about Muir’s experience of the world, of Nature, from his place of privilege, from his perspective, through his eyes. In many ways, I couldn’t be more different. I am an African American woman raised in New York by working class parents from the south. I didn’t go to a National park until I was in my late 30’s. But that didn’t mean I did not have a relationship with Nature. I have never been to Muir Woods. But I think of trees, often. Back in the 1950’s, my father thought a job with the National Park service would be a “good government job”, but was told in Virginia “they don’t hire Negroes”. But he developed a body of knowledge about the natural environment that evolved out of his day-to-day commitment to the work of caring for his family and the land.
Muir’s presence in our collective consciousness/memory/story gives us an opportunity to remember what was and what wasn’t; for whom and for who NOT. Muir might not have been able to see me, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing him. He becomes relevant on my terms – translated, transcribed – a touchstone of where we’ve been and a tacit reminder of the flawed imperfections of one man’s dream. His story asks me to look for the story beneath the story. And reminds me/us of how far we have to go.
I was asked to be a Yosemite Centennial Ambassador as the National Park Service celebrates it’s first 100 years, along with a number of other African Americans who continue to define and refine the nature of their engagement with the great outdoors. While I have been to Yosemite, I have never been on Glacier Ridge. I wonder – what would that picture look like?
2. Dr. Katz made these comments in a lecture she gave at the Critical Geography conference at the University of Kentucky in October 2015.
4. Gone with the Wind was made into an award-winning movie in 1939 that for more than 25 years was the highest earning film ever made. Hattie MacDaniel, who played a maid in the film, became the first African American to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress).
5. While it became a NY Times bestseller, the Mitchell estate sued Randall’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. The lawsuit was settled, but all further copies of the book had to have the label “The Unauthorized Parody” on the cover.
6. Interestingly, also published by Houghton Mifflin.
7. Kara Walker is a well-known African American artist and MacArthur Genius recipient who uses large paper silhouettes to explore gender, race, history and black identity. Mississippi Mud is a piece she did in 2007.
8. Magnolia Plantation is now Cane River Creole National Park.
Baldwin, James and Margaret Mead. A Rap on Race. 1971. New York: Dell.
Craft, William and Ellen Craft. 1999. Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom. Athens, GA: UGA Press.
Dyson, 2015. “The Ghost of Cornel West: What happened to America’s most exciting black scholar?” In The New Republic, April 19, https://newrepublic.com/article/121550/cornel-wests-rise-fall-our-most-exciting-black-scholar-ghost
Jenoure, Theresa. 2000. Navigators: African American Musicians, Dancers, and Visual Artists in Academe. New York: State University of New York Press.
hooks, bell. 2009. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge.
Katz, Cyndi. 1996. “Towards Minor Theory” In Environment and Planning D Society and Space. August. Vol 14, no. 4, p. 487-499.
Muir, John. 1916. A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Randall, Alice. 2001. The Wind Done Gone. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Copyright 2020, Carolyn Finney. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without explicit permission from the author.
Artwork by Diane Jacobs. Do not reuse without explicit permission from artist.