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The Questing Human Spirit and the African American Legacy

Need some inspiration? The REI Blog invited Audrey Peterman from Earthwise Productions to share stories of African American outdoor adventurers. It’s an interesting perspective on Black History Month.

Audrey and Frank on boatRecently my husband Frank and I headed to our favorite spot in Everglades National Park. The Anhinga Trail is only 5 miles or so past the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, but it may as well be a world away for the plethora of wildlife that congregates there in the wintertime. Stately great blue herons, great egrets, wood storks with their stark bald heads and fearsome beaks, anhingas and double breasted cormorants feed side by side in the alligator-laden sawgrass marsh. 

Enjoying this serene environment from the comfort of the boardwalk, the thought intruded suddenly: “How different my ancestors’ experience would have been in this place. How profound the drive for freedom that would have made the Florida swamp, with its denizens of teeth and claws and venomous stings, more preferable than a life in bondage. What courage, fortitude and resilience must they have possessed to make it through this swamp, plunging ever further south until they reached Florida Bay and the waterways that would take them south to the Bahamas, to Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica, ever farther south away from American soil?”

The Florida Everglades was part of the Underground Railroad route braved by enslaved Africans and their descendants in pursuit of freedom.

The hazards of their journey—successfully undertaken without benefit of “gear” or preparation—underscore a key feature of how African Americans have experienced the land. Historically, we have not had the luxury of determining where, how and under what circumstances to “test” ourselves against the land. We have done so out of necessity, often at the risk of our very lives.

York watercolor - copyright by Michael HaynesTake York, for example. The enslaved African bondsman to William Clark was the only person among the Lewis and Clark expedition who did not have a choice about being there. Yet his very presence on the famed Expedition of Discovery proved invaluable to its success.

In more than 4 years of traversing the lands west of the Mississippi, experiencing places and people that no American had ever seen before, York distinguished himself in every capacity where physical strength, tenacity, inventiveness and even charm and wit were required. His unusual appearance as a Negro was a source of fascination for many Native Americans, and York won them over with his engaging performance that made them more kindly disposed to the newcomers. York is also known to be the first African American ever to cast a vote in the democratic process, as the expedition voted (on November 23, 1806) on the vital issue of where they would spend that winter.

Harriet Tubman in 1885My foremost hero, Nana Harriet Tubman, the renowned “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, was born into enslavement.  With a peerless determination to win her freedom, she finally succeeded in fleeing to free territory in Pennsylvania. While the perils Harriet had undertaken might have been enough for a less hardy soul, she continued to risk her life, slipping back into Maryland 19 times and leading more than 300 enslaved people north to freedom. Negotiating her way by the North Star, with a bounty on her head and pursued by men on horseback  with bullwhips and bloodhounds, she even smuggled out nursing babies, and escaped capture every time.

Arctic explorer Matthew Henson reached the North Pole not once but twice. In 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Matthew Henson its highest honor—the Hubbard Medal.

Henson, “valet” to explorer Robert Peary, spent 7 years with Peary in the Arctic (on and off from June 1891 to August 1902) covering 9,000 miles on dogsleds across northern Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island. On April 6, 1909, deep into their second expedition, Henson arrived at Camp Jesup, 89°47', 45 minutes ahead of Peary, and concluding by dead reckoning that he had reached the Pole. According to records, Henson greeted Peary, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world."

Contemporary African American explorers include the Master of the Amistad, Captain Bill Pinkney, who in 1992 solo-circumnavigated the globe for the thrill of it.

Audri Scott Williams and her Peace WalkAudri Scott Williams led a “Peace Walk” across 6 continents over a 3-year period, sometimes never knowing where the group’s next meal or bed would come from. Today she and her small band of peace walkers are engaged in a 13-month walk around the United States, meeting with people in communities nationwide to demonstrate the reality of peace.

Clearly, the questing spirit lives on in human beings. In my own case, Frank and I recently moved back to Florida to buy a sailboat, and we intend to live aboard and sail off wherever our questing hearts take us.

Long live human spirit that thirsts for freedom, and desires always to see what's just around the next corner!

Below: Photo of Audri Scott Williams (right) with dancer Matahara Yousef (left) at a Peace Walk event.

Posted on at 2:52 PM

Tagged: African Americans, Audri Scott Williams, Earthwise Productions, Harriet Tubman, York and audrey peterman

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JT Reynolds

Good stuff Audrey. It was great going back to my ol' stomping, boating, and sloshing grounds. And yes, it definitely stimulates the mind to visualize those who gave so much before us seeking refuge in the Glades. They also mixed with the Native Americans who also sought refuge and escaped the weapons of the military. The Glades has provided refuge for many species, including humans. Too bad the masses do not understand the value of these protected lands, and how we must use them on a more sustainable bases. I think we humans have done enough damage to these resources. It is time, long over due time, for all of us to WAKE UP!

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