22 Feb This Way To Gloryland
Like much of the viewing public it was through the documentary film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, that I was first introduced to Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson. As a principal character in the film he shares much of his own love and passion for the outdoors as well as the history of these wild places. It is these compelling narratives that help to ground modern people in the present to the land that they love. This connection to the past through the power of storytelling can help to affirm a person’s place in the natural environment so that regardless of the enduring pain and trauma of racial discrimination, everyone can see themselves as part of the landscapes and ecosystems that are our collective obligation to protect.
In January of 2009 my life changed forever. Before he gave the keynote address at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, the great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns agreed to sit for an interview (Ken Burns On The National Parks). Eight months before the release of his epic 12-part PBS miniseries, we talked about how he intended to make the story of our public land more accessible to a broad audience of viewers, which includes people of color who are too often excluded from the narrative of our natural history.
“Let me tell you about Charles Young of the Buffalo Soldiers, the first stewards and custodians of our national parks,” Burns said. “Well before there was a National Park Service, there was no money to pay for them, so it was the cavalry essentially that was maintaining order. And in many parks particularly in California, in Yosemite it was the African American Buffalo Soldiers. It is a heroic wonderful story.”
Despite having grown up in California, after a long career in the outdoor industry and more visits to Yosemite than I could count, this was the first time I had ever heard this story. Little did I realize that as a Black American I had a direct ancestorial relationship with the creation of the National Park Service. Through the Buffalo Soldiers story, I could, for the first time, trace my own personal legacy back to the idea of publicly accessible natural spaces. That one conversation was all that it took to send me spiraling down the rabbit hole of discovery to find more remarkable stories about the Black American experience in the great outdoors.
Shelton Johnson’s novel “Gloryland” was published shortly after the Ken Burns film made him an international celebrity. It was during his rise to fame that he and I became friends. Frequent visits to Yosemite that year and those that followed throughout the last decade Johnson has offered amazing insights to better hone my understanding of vital role Black Americans have played in the preservation of public land. Through the journey of Elijah Yancy, the story of the Buffalo Soldiers unfolds to reveal the life and times of brave Black men and women who worked and fought to protect the best idea of a nation that refused to recognize them as full citizens or even as human beings. But it is through their relationship with the land that they and the generations that followed discovered that true freedom can be found in natural wonders of our national parks.
It is by their nature that our public lands in the wild expressions of flora, fauna, soil, air, sunlight, wind and water compel all those who visit to realize the virtues and vulnerabilities we share in common. It is only through the discrimination of the law, land management policy and social custom that our national parks are made to feel unwelcoming. If we could just embrace our shared humanity and the heritage of stewardship that began when the idea was first realized more than a century ago, perhaps then we can celebrate a history that is inclusive of everyone. The Buffalo Soldier Story should not be reserved for telling through Black History Month in February but instead, we must celebrate to contributions of all citizens as American History.
As part of the Joy Trip Reading Project we are pleased to welcome Gloryland author Shelton Johnson in an interactive discussion of his book. Join us at 4PM Central Time via Zoom on Wednesday February 24, 2021 with your questions and comments as we explore the story of this most remarkable chapter in the history of our National Parks.
Registration is required click here => https://uwmadison.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJYtd-6rrD8qE9x0MmTGboAhUOcmqoo4G9nd
The Joy Trip Reading Project is made possible thanks to the support of the University of Wisconsin Madison Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies