Sunday mornings after yoga Shamane and I typically head to the grocery store. This week instead of a big shopping we went to Woodman’s on the Westside of Madison just to pick up a few odds and ends. My wife would be eating dinner alone with our two dogs over the next few weeks as I was heading for a month-long assignment in Alaska. As a freelance journalist I have been given the rare privilege of writing a book and documentary film script to chronicle the first all-African-American ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America.
“Excited about your trip?” She asked from the passenger seat.
“I suppose,” I said on the driver’s side. “I’m just a little bit nervous. Funny, I’m more freaked out about this trip than I was in Africa.”
In 2010 I spent almost three weeks traveling through Ethiopia. There to report on a fascinating NGO that builds economically sustainable schools in remote villages I struggled to overcome the final onset of osteo-arthritis. This chronic condition made me walk with a limp and would ultimately require me to have both my hips replaced. But three years later thanks to a revolutionary surgical procedure called MAKOPlasty I’m heading out on the single most ambitious project of my career. But oddly enough having just learned how to walk on two titanium prosthetic implants was the least of my worries.
“I understand,” Shamane said with a kind smile. “There’s a lot more at stake this time.”
Any freelance writer is only as good as his next assignment. So the job always comes with a certain amount of risk and performance anxiety. But this latest project carried with it the ominous specter catastrophic failure. I had to get this one right or my career would be over.
OK maybe I’m being a little melodramatic. But with this assignment came my very first book contract and the role of writer/co-producer on my first feature-length documentary film. I say “first” as if there would be others and the only thing more frightening than failure is success. Everything I had ever hoped or dreamed for my future was riding on this and the only thing standing between me and destiny was my own sense of impending doom.
Much of my angst stems from the over arching thesis of the project. Expedition Denali aims to demonstrate that despite a disproportionate lack of participation among people of color, African- Americans in particular, there is indeed a welcome place for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity to enjoy an active lifestyle through outdoor recreation. By ascending to the tallest peak in North America the climbers on the Expedition Denali team want to create a positive example to encourage minority youth to dream big and set goals to achieve great things in life no matter how high. As the journalist on this project the responsibility falls to me to tell the story and make the case for the merits of diversity in high profile sports like mountaineering.
The world is definitely changing. But as we shift to become a more inclusive society there are elements of resistance that I find frightening. Something as simple as the reaction to a recent ad for Cheerios on television gives me pause. In the commercial an adorable bi-racial little girl earnestly asks her mother, who is white, about the heart-healthy benefits of her morning breakfast. When she’s told about its cholesterol-lowering affects the child apparently pours the entire box of cereal over the heart of her father while he’s sleeping. Her dad is black.
Though meant to be infinitely cute and endearing the ad was immediately met with angry expressions of bigotry and hatred. The video on the company’s YouTube channel was inundated with racially insensitive statements from some viewers to such a degree that the comments function of the page had to be turned off. Once locked out there the haters spilled over into different videos on the channel that featured African-Americans and other minorities, spewing all kinds of hurtful language that decried having “multi-culturalism being shoved down our throats.”
The reality is that images that depict people of color engaged in all aspects of American society are on the rise. Many of those images reveal cultural expressions of modern life that up until the middle of the last century were prohibited by law, things like inter-racial marriage. Other images like those depicting African-Americans involved in sports like skiing, rock climbing or high altitude mountaineering were absent simply as a matter of social convention because so few people color had been involved in these pastimes. But that too is changing.
At the end of last week leading outdoor equipment and clothing manufacturer the North Face commissioned a profile video of a young African-American man who is a professional snowboarder. In a compelling short film produced by Anson Fogel of Camp 4 Collective the story of Ryan Hudson unfolds to illustrate his long journey from homelessness to became a competitive board rider. Having overcome the limitations of his childhood Hudson continues to be inspired and motivated through his personal passion for the outdoors. Not only is he a pro athlete but Hudson has become a role model to young people in the African-American community who might one day follow his example.
Expedition Denali has the same goal. Also supported by The North Face and outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. this climb intends to reach out to those under-represented communities of color with vibrant images of black climbers actively engaged in the sport they love. Lead by the National Outdoor Leadership School Expedition Denali hopes to encourage African-Americans and other minority groups to seek out experiences in the natural world and perhaps future careers dedicated to protecting it.
So now with less than 48 hours before I arrive in Alaska to begin my own efforts toward this goal I find myself a little less anxious. Inspired by the Expedition Denali team and other athletes like Ryan Hudson I’ve come to realize that my role as a writer is far less daunting than the task to climb this very high mountain. Less then three months after hip surgery it’s not advisable for me to make a 20,328-foot ascent. But with the help of a very successful Kickstarter campaign and a small grant from MAKO Surgical Corp, the makers of my new hips, I’ll be doing much of my reporting from Denali National Park and the NOLS branch office in Palmer. Though no longer part of the official climbing team still I’m excited to play a vital part in the success of this mission by sharing the story.Though there will likely be trolls out there to hurl hate speech and cries of racism I plan to put my personal fears aside and do the job for which I’ve prepared much of my professional life. Please follow along. It is our hope that you might also become inspired and find for yourself a place of your own in great outdoors and ongoing fight to protect it. ~JEM
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