As I have sat in “bloody” quarantine (been watching British Netflix shows) contemplating the great outdoors and missing my wintertime treks into the desert, I have continued to read vociferously (between rounds of Spider Solitaire) and to watch some outstanding movies on a variety of smart tv apps. For the record, I was officiating high school basketball in AZ and knew something was not quite right so I went and got an instant Covid test that was positive on February 27 and I will address that at some other time.
Since my hiking times have been put on hold, I’m going to highlight a book and some “quarantined” movies that have deeply impacted my thought process on why Blacks in America just might be a bit angry and without any politics state that yes black lives do matter since that was not always the case in America. I will get back to hiking at the end as some recent articles allude to hidden racism in the outdoors. For the record, I am a rural guy having lived my formative years in rural Ohio, then my career years in rural Arizona.
My interest in the prevalence of racism in the USA has led me to some fantastic movies. I started with HBO Max and the new film Judas and The Black Messiah. It is a powerful, well acted film about Fred Hampton, (The Black Messiah) the young charismatic leader of the Chicago area Black Panthers in the 1960’s and how the FBI, used William O’Neal (Judas) to infiltrate the organization to keep tabs on Hampton. It is a powerful film and it sparked my interest in reading about the events and it appears to be fairly accurate and of course some events are glossed over which is to be expected in movie making. The movie clearly portrays the assassination of Hampton by the FBI and the Chicago police. The movie really did make one think especially given the times we live in with the focus on not only equality but equity amongst blacks and whites. Clearly in the late 60’s, Blacks were treated quite different by law enforcement in Chicago. Highly recommend watching and should lead to some interesting conversations with those around you. Also it should be pointed out that J Edgar Hoover and the FBI were the ones to call Hampton the “Black Messiah”. It has garnered six Oscar nominations including best picture.
Next up on my watch list, was a Matthew McConaughey film Free State of Jones. This movie is from 2016 and never got much traction but it is a hidden gem about Newton Knight and his desertion from the Confederate army and his fight against the Confederates as he leads runaway slaves and other deserters in stands against the army. Taking place during the Civil War and the end of the Civil War in Mississippi, Knight is seen as a white person who fights for equality against the racists who eventually enact laws that attempted to negate many freedoms that had been awarded to those of color. The movie also touches on the them of the poor southerners versus the rich elite southerners. Some interesting points in the movie include how the blacks when given the right to vote all registered as “Republicans” since it was the “Democrats” that opposed “equal rights”. They don’t sugarcoat that in the movie. Also laws preventing blacks and whites from legally marrying are mentioned and the movie ends with the great grandson on Newton Knight who is described as 1/8 black being found guilty for violating the law of interracial marriage in 1948 almost a hundred years after the end of the Civil War and we still had made little progress in the South for equal rights. The film I found to be very powerful on noting that the Civil War did not bring about equality in the Southern USA. It also reinforced in my mind that things may have been quite different if President Lincoln had not been murdered. The Reconstruction years were disastrous under President Johnson and the states in the south were basically allowed to put into places many laws limiting the rights of freed slaves. The film is quite touching and once again an eye opener for me on many of the “glossed” over parts of years after the Civil War.
Next on my film journey was a new docudrama Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. Using transcripts from the FBI wiretaps and some real interviews this film touches on “White Privilege” and the wealthy elites who cheated and bribed and did many unsavory things to get their privileged children into what are considered the top-rated elite universities. Excellent film that really does point out how pointless it is that kids think they have to go to these specific schools when in reality it doesn’t matter where one gets a degree, it is only about prestige and privilege. It will make your blood boil at times especially when they list the punishments as being so little. Once again the white wealthy elites definitely get an unfair advantage in our court systems.
While searching for another film, I discovered another gem of a movie Mudbound. Mudbound is from 2017 and Netflix bought the distribution rights and it also received several Oscar nominations. Fantastic well acted film that takes place during WWII and at the conclusion of WWII in of all places, Mississippi. It follows two families, one black and one white, that farm the area. It really shows us how the racist mentality was running full throttle and the reign of terror on black people by the KKK and how blacks in the south had little rights as were still subservient to white people. The most telling part was how the son of the black family who served in WWII and was treated like a hero overseas had to return to Mississippi and be completely mistreated and denied basic rights simply because he was black. Once again a gem that really grabs a hold of you and should make you uncomfortable since this period piece takes place a mere 70 years ago right here in the USA. Fantastic film. Mary J. Blige is great as the mother and the song that she wrote and sang Mighty River is powerful.
Prior to being quarantined, I had picked up several novels by Jodi Picoult at yard sales with the idea of reading eventually as they sat in the garage collecting dust, Plain Truth and Small Great Things. Picoult is an outstanding “liberal” writer who really has a knack of writing about family and social issues. One of the most meaningful novels I had read was written by Picoult, Nineteen Minutes about a school shooting and the impact on a community by a 17 year old male that was bullied at school. Incredible story. I finished Plain Truth prior to quarantine and it is a great story that takes place in an Amish community in PA. It’s an amazing book.
Finally, I pick up Small Great Things and start reading. Picoult picked the title from a quote of Martin Luther King Jr. “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”.
Wow, is an understatement. The book is the most timely novel that I have read concerning race, racism, equality, and equity. Told in her style through three main characters, Ruth Jefferson, a black widowed single parent labor and delivery nurse, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, and Turk Bauer, a white supremacist who’s wife delivers a baby in New Haven, Connecticut. The book is tedious at times as she develops the characters but never becomes “preachy”. You might think it is about “overt” racism but Picoult gets into the often overlooked areas of racism that include the difference in how blacks might be treated from whites. For example, as a white person when I walk into a convenience store or even a high end department store I don’t have eyes following me around. Still happens where a black person walks in and they eyes may follow as if they should be watched. The idea of who do you sit next to on public transportation or how does law enforcement respond to a black man vs response to a white man. Picoult in telling this sad tale of Ruth Jefferson, gets into these things and how it impacts her teenage son. This story has a heart warming ending which is not always the case with Picoult stories. It is an excellent book that I’m glad I discovered.
Back to the outdoors. Is racism inherent in being an outdoors person? I read the following in an article “Racism In The Great Outdoors: Oregon’s Natural Spaces Feel Off Limits To Black People” Cooper said when she did go out for a hike, she felt unwelcomed, invisible and that she didn’t belong. She said she was ignored by white people in these spaces. If she did interact with white people along the trails, she felt a sense of hypervisibility.
As a white person who loves to hike, I can assure you that when it comes to hiking I’m quite colorblind. Most of Carolyn and my hikes are away from people and we often discuss how few we see on the trails that we choose. I don’t go hiking to hang out with people. I don’t typically talk and strike up conversations with other hikers unless it is in area I’m resting. We always say hello when passing others no matter what the color or condition of the hikers. I take a bit of offense to the statement of feeling unwelcomed. I don’t hike many urban trails due to the sheer number of people on them because part of me being outdoors is just being away from others. Over the last 15 years, I have definitely noticed an increase in the number of people of color hiking. That’s a good thing. The outdoors is a wonderful place for healing, relaxing, and getting rid of stresses and should be colorblind.
No matter the color of hikers, what I most detest and probably show some contempt for are people who hike blaring their music. Sorry but it doesn’t belong on the trails. Trails are about connecting with your hiking partners, conversation, and the quietness that nature brings. Blaring music detracts from the sounds of wind rustling through the trees, the squawk of birds in their pursuit of food, and in the desert, hearing is essential for avoiding rattlesnakes. For me, diversity and racism is not something I would ever notice on my hikes due to the solitude of the trails we usually are on.
I would argue that due to Covid, it does seem that fellow hikers you encounter are much less friendly and often turn their heads and backs to avoid you. Also, if they are hiking with a mask and your aren’t (I don’t) you will often get “dirty” looks and being a white guy I don’t think it is due to race since all colors and creeds that hike with masks seem to give you a condescending look of contempt.
As soon as I feel up to it and my Covid fatigue has dissipated, my plan is to get back outdoors, away from as many as I can, and enjoy the feeling of being isolated and alone along the trails. In the meantime, check out Mighty River by Mary J. Blige. Great song about healing and coming together. After these weeks of solitude, I do believe that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism in America. Not certain why we think we have to honor those who fought against the Union and got beat. No where in the world do you see monuments honoring the ones who lost the war or ones who fought against democracy and the unification of the country. Just an honest observation.