Longreads

Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

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Minda Honey | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)

“And sometimes you meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
—Yrsa Daley-Ward

I sat alone at a picnic table sipping a hot can of beer in Sequoia National Park under the stingy shade of a nearby tree. I was surrounded by families. White families. Sequoia was the first of four national parks I had planned to visit on my summer road trip from Southern California to a writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe, and from Lake Tahoe to my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I needed to get out and away. I’d just completed two years as a POC in an MFA program. Two years in classrooms at long tables surrounded by faces as white as the paper we printed our work on. I felt like the black text on that paper, forcefully marching across the landscape of my peers’ white lives.

I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.

It was July, the busiest time of year for the National Park Services. A narrow road ran past my campsite and the gravel grumbled in protest at the occasional passing car. No one bothered me. No one acknowledged me. I was just a lone Black woman day-drinking at a picnic table. I’d drained three cans with no buzz before realizing it was only 3% alcohol. It would do nothing to calm my anxiety about spending my first night in a tent alone.

The only other Black person I’d seen at the park was with his white wife and their children. As they ushered their brood onto the path that led to the giant sequoias, I heard him speak and suspected he was African. I’m not sure if he saw me, if he was tallying Black bodies like I was.

I headed to Yosemite next. President Obama had just been there. I wondered if he kept a tally too, or if in his line of work it wasn’t even worth keeping count anymore. Just outside of Yosemite, I stayed in an AirBnB deep inside a forest with no cellphone reception. As I maneuvered my car down an uneven dirt road, I worried about what would happen if I got a flat. I thought back to the time I went camping with my white high school boyfriend and his white family. We stopped for supplies near the campground. They all froze when I got out of the car. “You might want to wait here,” his godmother told me, more command than suggestion.

That was in Kentucky, it was understood why I’d want to wait in the car. What I didn’t understand was why they’d dragged my Black ass out to some racist neck of the woods without so much as a warning.

I almost didn’t book that AirBnB in the forest because I’d seen enough horror movie commentary to know what “Black Folks Don’t Do,” and driving into some unknown woods at sunset alone without cellphone reception ranked high on that list. But it was what I could afford on my post-grad school, unemployed budget. Eventually, the woods opened up and I arrived safely at the lodge without incident.

The host was an older white woman with gray hair pulled into a low ponytail. She had a New York accent that’d softened over the years spent out West, but hadn’t disappeared entirely. When I told her I don’t hike, she struggled to make conversation with me. I could tell she got off on suggesting trails. I watched her hunch over a map of Yosemite with some other lodgers and trace out a path with her finger.

I’m not outdoorsy and I’m prone to ankle sprains, so I don’t hike. But I do make a point of getting out and seeing our country as often as I can. I think it changes you being up underneath all that open sky, peering down into the depths of a canyon, or passing through a forest of trees so old they remember when your ancestors were in chains and might be around long enough to witness the day your people finally get free. So few people of color are able to enter these wide-open spaces due to limited finances or threats to their safety that I like to exercise my privilege to do so, even if it’s mostly from the comfort of my car or designated walking paths. It’s a privilege I hold because of the lightness of my skin, my degrees, my citizenship, and my status as a member of the shrinking middle class. Sometimes I wonder if I should opt-out of these spaces and stand in solidarity with those who don’t have access, but that feels like a phony play, like when Brangelina said they weren’t going to get married until the LGTBQ community had the right to marriage too. Instead, I’ll keep showing up and keep feeling uncomfortable until the nature-crowd begins to look less like a Country Club and more like a Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

***

The Grand Dining Hall in Yosemite.

The next day at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, I was reminded of what an anomaly I am in the great outdoors. I’d forgotten about a deadline and the hotel had Wi-Fi, so I camped out on a couch with a glass of wine and tapped out 1,000 words. Deadline met, I treated myself to lunch in the grand dining hall.

The room was immense with exposed wood rafters. The host seated me at a table dressed in white linen toward the middle of the room. My eyes skipped from table to table. I was the only Black person. Tally for the day: 0. I hadn’t even seen any Black people working in the hotel. Most of the people at the other tables were white and I heard several different European languages rising up around me.

How was it possible that someone could have enough wealth and vacation days to transport their entire family across an ocean to revel in all the natural wonder our country has to offer, but brown bodies one zip code over would never be able to afford to do so?

Whiteness is one helluva perk. I felt resentful that white Europeans have more access and comfort in this country than citizens of color do. There was already a bitter taste in my mouth before the overpriced, subpar “flatbread” I’d ordered arrived at my table.

I thought about those white Europeans in their rental cars, how safe they probably felt. How safe they must have been in comparison to a Sandra Bland trying to get from Illinois to Texas. I wondered if while they posed for vacation snaps, it ever weighed on them that some of them had ancestors that had torn the landscape they were using as a backdrop right out of the hands of its Indigenous people.

When my server came by and asked how my meal was, I told her everything was fine. But it wasn’t. Nothing was fine.

On my way out of the hotel, I stopped in the gift shop. It was definitely setup to appeal to tourists’ lust for the untamed wild West. I picked up a mortar and pestle that looked like it had been hand carved from stone. When I flipped it over, the sticker on the bottom read, “Made in Pakistan.”

Nothing was fine.

Back at the lodge I sat in the living room and chatted with a Swedish couple. Like me, they were in their 30s. The first night we’d met they told me they’d thought all Americans would be like the characters on “Friends.” I’d told them it was okay, I’d thought all Swedes would be like the Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show.”

The host joined us. She dominated the conversation with the subtle desperate energy we all get when we don’t want a good time to end. She tucked a leg under her and I averted my eyes from her dress, as it pulled up higher on her lap.

She told us about how her and her husband had come to be out there in the woods, “We’re just a couple of old, anti-establishment hippies.” Then we were talking about public transit. I praised the cleanliness of Tokyo’s subways and the host used this as a jumping off point to tell us about the time she accidentally got off the train in Harlem at night. “You know Harlem right?” she said looking to me for confirmation.

I nodded. I knew Harlem as the home of one of the greatest Black cultural movements in our history. I knew Harlem as a place currently under attack by gentrification. I knew Harlem in the same way Christians knew the Garden of Eden. Fabled. Mecca. Destroyed.

She nodded back and continued, “Ghetto.”

I stopped nodding. I couldn’t co-sign that. That wasn’t the Harlem I knew, but it was too late. She rolled on with her story, “I had to assimilate… act like them… Intimidating. “ She puffed up her chest and spread her arms. This story had all of the elements of a tale she’d told many times before. “Imagine how I felt, a white girl in Harlem!”

I laughed a light laugh heavy with fakeness and said, “Imagine how Black people must feel anytime we go anywhere!”

The host didn’t laugh along with me. Her lips went straight as a ruler. “It goes both ways,” she said.

But it doesn’t.

I filed an official complaint with AirBnB. I demanded my money back. Why should I pay to be treated to an evening of casual racism on my vacation? The host refused to refund my money; she claimed that over the phone a Black employee at AirBnB assured her she wasn’t a racist. It didn’t surprise me that a woman who claimed she didn’t see color thinks Black experiences are interchangeable.

My anti-establishment hippie host said it was obvious it was just about the money because I hadn’t said anything to her in the moment. She expected that a Black person she’d just offended to accuse her of racism in her own home in the middle of the woods at night with no cellphone reception and nowhere else to go. When you’re white, that is a totally reasonable expectation.

***

Later on my road trip, in Napa, two elderly white couples on a double date asked me what I do. When I said I was a writer, one of the women mentioned that her niece in Minneapolis is a writer. Her husband asked, “Minneapolis? Isn’t that where…”

She hissed at him, “Don’t.

Had they really thought that I would be interested in discussing the murder of Philando Castile by the police with a group of white strangers over a glass of rosé I’d paid too much for?

The two Americas playing out was so apparent: one where whites get to be carefree in scenarios where I feel fear and discomfort. Where their greatest concern while frolicking through wine country is that a Black person might say something to them about police violence and my greatest concern is that I might become a victim of police violence.

A Trump sign in Wyoming.

This fear is why in Yellowstone when a rock cracked my windshield, I drove for hours across the park to the first small town to have it repaired only to be told the closest windshield repair shop was in Wyoming. In Wyoming, I was greeted by a massive pro-Trump sign on the main drag into town. I stood with my back to the sign while the man at the windshield repair shop told me I could drive for as long as I wanted with a cracked windshield, it wasn’t an emergency. He was white. He didn’t understand that I couldn’t give them — the police — an excuse to pull me over. I was a Black woman driving alone right across the belly of America.

***

Before Yellowstone, there was the lavender farm in Idaho. I encountered another old white woman from New York. She was a professor. I was making conversation about lavender. Then it turned to writing and MFA programs. She said, “You’re Black, let me ask you a question.”

Everyone else in the gift shop — all white people — tried to carry on like the racial tension in the room wasn’t rising up over the dusky smell of lavender and choking us all.

She’d had a Black student who didn’t think she should be able to teach the poetry of Langston Hughes because she’s a white woman. She said the student told her off and dropped her class.

“Don’t you think she’s wrong?” She asked me.

All Black experiences are interchangeable.

I told her about the AirBnB host. She was quick to say, “But that’s racist!”

“I know. But she found another Black person who told her it wasn’t. I won’t do that to your student. Her feelings are valid,” I explained.

The woman became thoughtful. She thanked me, then purchased her lavender goodies and left, a weight seemingly lifted from her.

I stood there staring down at display of lavender body butters feeling heavy. I’d spent hundreds of dollars on gas and shitty roadside food to be out there in the middle of nowhere educating white folks. I thought about how healthy her salary must be as a professor at a school in New York with a name you’d recognize. How unlikely it was that as a Black woman I’d ever hold a tenure-track job like hers in my field of Academia. How I’d probably never get the chance to teach the poetry of Langston Hughes to a young Black woman searching for something of herself in the face of her professor.

When I’d first started my MFA program, I thought it would be an escape from the oppressive whiteness of Corporate America. I thought without suits to button my body into, I would be free to exist. But Academia proved to be just as oppressive. The edges of rugs to sweep conflict under just as readily raised. White people’s failings at issues of race just as prevalent. The only difference, as it turned it out, was that the checks I cashed from Corporate America were much bigger.

***

I had hit the road to search for something of myself in nature and instead I’d stumbled upon the equivalent of arriving at Walden Pond and being greeted by a “Whites Only” sign posted to a stake driven into the ground on its bank. I left the gift shop that day with a $5 jar of lavender butter and the sense of loss that always comes with the reminder that sometimes the journey leads you right back where you began. There is nowhere for me to go in this country to escape the trauma that well-meaning white people inflict. I can’t block out the white noise. I’ll always be restricted by race. Theirs, not mine. Corporate America. MFA. National Parks. It’s time for me to recognize there is no route for escape. Even the Paris Baldwin fled to is no longer a thing. I’m just a wedge of color in these white spaces hoping to keep the door open long enough for people who look like me and voices who sound like mine to join me.

***

The last stop before Louisville, I stayed in Lincoln, Nebraska with one of my friends for a few days. We’d become close back in the day when we’d both lived in Orange County. After she lost her job and her house in the Great Recession, she’d moved back to Lincoln to try again.

When I parked in the lot next to her building she ran over to my car with her hair streaming behind her like a welcome banner. There was much shrieking and bottle popping. In our excitement we forgot to eat dinner and forgot to keep count of our drinks. The next morning was rough.

My friend took me to nice restaurants and a rundown mall, a beauty supply shop and the rooftop pool in her apartment complex. She told me about how involved she was in local politics and how she volunteered in her community. She rolled her eyes at the racism she dealt with at her job and we had more than one convo about her fighting the good fight to date in America’s heartland. Her life wasn’t perfect, but it was a happy one and one she’d shaped herself. My girl — a Howard grad and outspoken Black woman — was forging a life for herself in Lincoln.

***

The only thing Nebraska has more of than white people are ears of corn. It was just as white as most of the other stops on my trip, but it had felt like a moment of solace, like the antacid I needed to settle my nerves. My friend was my Yosemite, my Yellowstone, my Sequoia. I didn’t need wide open spaces to find peace. She was my reminder that I could always retreat into the space that women of color hold for each other. At the end of my stay, I hugged my friend tight, pressing myself close to her in the way only women and lovers are allowed to. Then, I got into my car and buckled my seatbelt.

In 10 hours I’d be in Louisville, Kentucky. In four months Trump would be elected President. In six months the National Parks Service would go rogue and launch an alternative Twitter account, and amid all their praise for leading the revolution, I would wonder who exactly they were fighting to save the parks for.

* * *

Minda Honey is writing An Anthology of Assholes, a memoir about dating as a woman of color in Southern California. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Editor: Sari Botton

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