I recently traveled to the west coast of the country. I flew into Las Vegas, drove from there to Los Angeles and then on to Fresno, Calif. The round trip logged 1,000 miles by car, train and bus.
I wish there was some way to transfer those miles to my frequent flyer rewards. While travelling through the Mojave Desert, skirting the edge of Death Valley, I could not help but think about the pioneering settlers who, several hundred years ago, made the trip by wagon, on horseback and/or on foot.
Of course, I thought about the black settlers who were freed to move about the country, what their visions were for themselves, their families. What drove them to surmount the odds of that desolate terrain?
It was the first time I had driven across such harsh landscape. The mountains were ever present, surrounding me, and I had to strain my imagination to envision how trail ways, now highways, could get through those rocks. Where was the water supply? How much food does one take into the unknown? Of course, I imagined that the “ghost” towns and small settlements along the way represented the last desperate stops before provisions ran out.
I played tourist during the drive and ride and I remained in awe of the wide vistas, still trying to understand what prospects —land/gold/oil — propelled the recently emancipated human beings into such
inhospitable territory. In the end, I’m glad so many made it over and through the mountains to the other side. The sight of the Pacific Ocean must have been a reward in itself.
All that travel westward also had me thinking about the current challenges and perils faced by those blacks who choose to leave the familiar. We all do it, all the time. June is graduation month, finding students preparing to leave home for college, for military enlistment, for travel, for jobs — many for the first time. That’s a universally accepted rite of passage.
There are many other leave-takings — the familiar, the ordinary, the expected, marriage, job transfers, camp for adults as well as children, etc.
Yet, none of these carries the weight of what continues to plague black folk who decide to take a leave from being “boys,” “mammies,” the N-word and assorted other denigrating roles that have been ascribed to them.
Pity the black child who chooses to speak “standard” English while growing up in the ’hood.
What about black parents who move to the exurbs because of the “better” schools, who are accused of trying to escape from their people?
Or the black who learns to speak Chinese, goes vegan, does not attend the traditional church or decides to live abroad. And what about the advocate who still shakes a fist at the establishment, taking shots at the “system” and raising questions about the status quo?
I contend that some of these modern choices could be as daunting as crossing the desert and mountains to get to California in the 1880s.
I read a book by a medical doctor assigned to an experimental base on the North Pole in which he described the challenge of finding privacy in a very confined space. There were several times more people housed in the facility than it had been designed to accommodate, which required that they create their own private spaces — in their minds — leaving familiar expectations and charting a new course to a place seldom before traveled: the frontier of the mind.
Like this doctor’s experience, I believe that one of the biggest challenges for modern-day blacks is exactly that: to explore the outer edges of the mind, or mindset; to go beyond the borders of the familiar; to explore the wilderness of change throughout the world — the world of knowledge and technology, or experimentation, deep questions about a new way of being black, of being American, of being a black African American.
One of the most foreign notions is for blacks to actually practice total freedom — freedom to be, as well as freedom from familiar stereotypes, from group-think, from programmed responses, i.e., chants, mass demonstrations and the like.
I wonder what it would be like if there were mass movements of black Americans crossing our own Rubicon into organized battle to fight against all the barriers that have kept so many of us from crossing the desert of fresh ideas, to devise strategies to flatten mountains that keep us from enjoying total freedom.
Here is a poem I wrote in 1980 and which I believe is still very relevant today, more than 30 years ago:
And in being,
Antonia Williams-Gary is a consultant with Miami-based Savings and Grace Enterprise. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org