08 Nov Woke From Haunted Dreams
At the end of October I had the great honor and privilege to host a distinguished guest to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Author and explorer Eddy L. Harris made a rare appearance on campus to share his experiences paddling the Mississippi River from its source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico at the City of New Orleans. Depicted in his film “River to the Heart” Eddy paints an intimate portrait of what awaits those willing to venture out into the unknown world and discover all that it has to offer. He graciously visited with students at the Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies to encourage their interest in not only adventure travel, but also the importance of land and water conservation. His remarkable journey to me was all the more exciting as he navigates the challenges of being a Black man in America.
In the fall of 1993 I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. At the age of 25, I had just been promoted to be the Midwest regional sales representative for a little outdoor equipment and apparel company called The North Face. As a newly minted junior executive just three years out of college I was ready to take the world by storm. Armed with nothing more than a passionate desire to succeed, I traveled East of the Mississippi River for the first time in my life to take up residence in a community that I had never visited and knew nothing about. I was keenly aware of only one thing. I would be a stranger in a strange land, an African-American man in a city that is mostly white. This was the beginning a great adventure.
I wasn’t particularly worried about what I might encounter. Naive to the prospects of being mistreated or made to feel unwelcome, I gave little concern to what lay ahead. It was my then sales manger, Mike Burns, who imagined the inevitable loneliness and isolation I would encounter shortly upon my arrival. And before I left the safe confines of my home in Berkeley, California, Mike recommended a book for me to read that might ease my passage, South of Haunted Dreams by Eddy L. Harris.
Published earlier that same year, this exquisite narrative is a detailed account of the author’s experiences as a Black man riding a BMW motorcycle through the South while fly fishing. Profoundly vulnerable to the whims of travel on the open road, Eddy, who also wrote the books Mississippi Solo and Native Stranger, unpacks the baggage of a lifetime spent searching for his place in the world. Subjecting himself to the prospects of abuse from those he might meet along the open highway, he presented himself deliberately, without the benefit of the Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green, to the small towns and backwoods trout streams of the former Confederacy. Fully aware of the lingering beliefs of white supremacy he steeled himself against the possibility of racial discrimination.
“Somewhere in the South someone is waiting to call me nigger. A man who does not know me. A man, perhaps a woman, perhaps a child. Waiting to reject me without knowing a single thing about me, except that I am Black, not caring to get to know me, not caring even to try,” Eddy wrote. “Waiting to hate me, or someone who looks like me – some other man, some woman, some child, waiting to tell us we don’t belong. Waiting to call us nigger. His mind is already made up. Evil lives in the world. Always has. Always will. But Evil is not all there is.”
Despite his awareness of the evil that is American racism Eddy resolved himself to understand that there is more the world has to offer. As a person of color he decided to look not just for evil, but good as well.
“Suppose I asked myself now, suppose that somewhere in the South someone is waiting to offer me a cool drink, to invite me home, to be my friend,” Eddy wrote. “Suppose someone is waiting to understand me a little. Suppose somewhere in the South the future is taking root, a flower among the weeds. Suppose someone somewhere is sorry.”
From Eddy’s book I learned the importance of being vulnerable, to seek out the good in the world around me. I awakened to the understand that my place in the world is largely determined by my own sense of who I am and my willingness to present myself exactly as I am. Ever since, my experience in the Midwest has been much like his in the South.
“If Eddy could survive being Black in Alabama,” Mike Burns told me many years later, “I knew you’d have no problem in Wisconsin.”
Rather than presuming that those I meet may do me harm, I know now that I am far better off to assume instead that they are just as fragile and may themselves be even more in need of kindness. Sometimes the greatest strength can be found not in defending ourselves from the evils of racism, but in our willingness to feel empathy for those too weak to resist it. They need our compassion, not the compounding hostility of anger or even fear. We can resist the evil of racism. But first we must stand up to face it, to live our lives deliberately as people of color and dare those we meet to treat us with love and kindness.
“Worse than racism itself is believing in racism and affirming it, loosing yourself, letting racist ways and racist thinking define who you are and what you think and feel, instead of acting you can only react,” Eddy wrote. “There is evil in the world yes. But evil is not all there is. And yes! Evil can be overcome.”
In 1997 Eddy wrote a stirring essay for Outside Magazine that first defined for me the apparent disparities of participation between those who spend time recreating in nature and those who do not. Over the years his words resonated in my mind until finally I began my own career as a writer and started to explore the divide that I describe in my book “The Adventure Gap”. As a literary hero his work inspired much of own and set me on a course of thoughtful inquiry beyond the binary notions of experiences in nature that are either black or white.
“The natural world, however, is neither black nor white,” Eddy wrote in Outside. “It is forest green, desert ocher, deep ocean blue. If there are barriers that keep us all from immersing ourselves in it and savoring its riches, they may be reducible, in part, to economics, to geography, to history, and to culture. But mostly they exist in our minds, in the fears and misperceptions that continue to keep us suspended in our separate limbos, unable to come together, even in a place as universally inviting as the world outside our doors.”
It is with this understanding of nature that Eddy has ventured out into the world. Much of his spirit has inspired my own work and I am excited to share his philosophy that suggests that often the people we meet on the trails of life, along the great rivers and open highways of every continent on Earth are a reflection of what we see in ourselves.
Special thanks to the many sponsors whose financial support made Eddy’s visit to Madison possible