At the young age of 14 Kai Lightner is doing amazing things in the world of sport climbing. In the spring 2013 he ascended exceedingly difficult routes that included Southern Smoke (5.14c) and Transworld Depravity (5.14a) in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky. On the same two-week road trip he climbed Proper Soul (5.14a) in the New River Gorge of West Virginia. I wrote about him in the August/September issue of Rock & Ice magazine. And in August of last year Kai took his fourth champion title at the national Sport Climbing Series in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a spot on the US team to compete at the Youth World Sport Climbing Championship in Vancouver, British Columbia. He finished fourth.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Kai told me in a phone conversation. “Ever since I started climbing I’ve always wanted to be in a world championship. The fact that I got to compete in it was really overwhelming.”
With the support of his mother Constance Lightner, a professor of Mathematics at the University of North Carolina Fayetteville, Kai is on track to fulfill one of his life’s ambitions. After many years of hard work and discipline he’s earned the respect of his coaches, teammates, fellow competitors and a few journalists. Smart, articulate, polite and a straight-A student this young climber epitomizes the very best that America’s young people have to offer. Kai is a fine example to represent his country in a world-class competition. But unfortunately these are character traits that many in our society refuse to see.
In the fall of 2013 while traveling through Washington DC on one of many weekend road trips Kai and his mom Connie stopped at a gas station to refuel and use the restroom. On the way out of the facilities Kai was physically accosted by an attendant, frisked and accused of stealing. With no evidence of wrong doing the boy was released to run back to his car reduced to tears.
“Anyone that knows my son knows that he is a mild-mannered, respectful kid, that’s always maintained an A average in school,” Connie recounted on Facebook. “Despite these facts, his physical attributes (race and size) in the past have type-cast him.”
From a very young age Connie has taught Kai to comport himself in a manner void of anything that may be perceived as aggressive or threatening. Tall for his age but slightly built, like a climber, it’s hard to imagine Kai as anything but gentle and kind. But there are people who will never see past the color of his skin. It’s these people who will ascribe to this talented young man all manner of horrible attributes and character deficiencies to perceive him as a threat. Without knowing anything about him, there are those who could falsely identify Kai as a menace to society, person that should be treated with suspicion or even violence. That’s what happened to a young black man two years ago in Sanford Florida. His name was Trayvon Martin.
As he walked home to his father’s house in a gated community Trayvon was accosted by a neighborhood watch volunteer armed with a handgun. George Zimmerman believed that he did not belong there and challenged his presence. Blows were exchanged and shots were fired. Trayvon was killed. In a sensational trial that drew national attention Zimmerman was acquitted of murder. And when news organizations reported the verdict many across the nation were outraged to learn that a man could kill an unarmed teenager and be allowed to go free. Black mothers of young sons began to worry.
“As the mom of an African-American boy, incidents like the gas station and the Martin case scare me,” Connie wrote on Facebook. “Do I tell my son to defend himself if he feels threatened? To run? I understand that for some, if you have never experienced similar scenarios, you may not understand. For me, it’s not anger, it’s fear.”
And now she can add to that fear the very real possibility that should her child ever be injured or even killed by a person carrying a gun who feels threatened by a black teenager will be acquitted of the crime. There are many people in the world today who would look at Kai Lightner and never assume that he’s a A-student and a national sport climbing champion. Among the first African-Americans ever to represent the US in a world climbing competition it’s heartbreaking to know that we live in a nation where some individuals are prepared to shoot first and ask questions later. And worse, our court system will fail to hold them accountable.
But Connie takes comfort in the fact that Kai has always been supported and encouraged throughout his career as climber. Since the age of seven he’s had every opportunity to excel in the sport he loves.
“I am fortunate that my son is surrounded by a rock climbing community that has never seen race,” Connie wrote. “Despite being a predominantly white sport, he has never felt different or outcast despite the fact that he is usually the only black person at events. My fear is that outside of this community, his reality is very different.”
That’s likely true of most African-American youth. It’s possible though that many might find the same safe and supportive place among the community of climbers and adventurers as Kai did. But when we choose the assume the worst of the young people in our midst we put them dangerously at risk.
Just as the gas attendant believed Kai was a thief Zimmerman assumed Trayvon was up to no good in a neighborhood where he didn’t belong. If Kai and Trayvon’s positions were reversed how likely would the outcomes have been different. If Kai were Trayvon on a Florida street instead of a Washington D.C. gas station, all other things being equal, would he have also been killed? It’s difficult to imagine the future of such a talented and bright young man snuffed out in an instant. But today Trayvon’s mother can only wonder what her son might have become.
But for Kai Lightner a whole world of opportunity is open to many possibilities. As a climber he can go as far as his talents and his ambitions will carry him. And in the outdoor industry, a global business that has so much to offer aspiring young people, it’s important for us as conscientious adults to do all that we can to encourage these under-represented boys and girls to seek out and explore as many expressions of their skills and abilities as they possibly can. We must learn to see in them the incredible potential to not only meet but exceed our best expectations to grow and build a bright future beyond our wildest dreams.
Author’s note: This week I will be traveling east to meet Kai and his mother Connie in the New River Gorge of West Virginia. A favorite climbing spot in the Appalachian Mountain Range, The New is a wonderful community of outdoor enthusiasts and a great place for aspiring climbers to hone their skills while ascending some of the most challenging routes in North America. I am incredibly excited to share a little more of Kai’s story and experience what it’s like for someone so young with such great potential at the beginning of his climbing career.
I suppose that it might go without saying that as an African-American man in the outdoor recreation industry I have a vested interest in seeing Kai succeed. And as much as I want to support any young person pursue a career as an outdoor athlete I am particularly drawn to this family who with few financial resources and limited opportunities to climb outside has come so far in this sport to compete at the very highest levels. I want to do all that I can support this young man in achieving his goals and hopefully by telling Kai’s story encourage other young people to watch with interest and perhaps follow his outstanding example.
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