Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream
Two years ago, Latria Graham wrote an essay about the challenges of being Black in the outdoors. Countless readers reached out to her, asking for advice on how to stay safe in places where nonwhite people aren’t always welcome. She didn't write back, because she had no idea what to say. In the aftermath of a revolutionary spring and summer, she responds.
In the spring of 2019, right before I leave for my writing residency in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my mama tries to give me a gun. A Ruger P89DC that used to belong to my daddy, it’s one of the few things she kept after his death. Even though she doesn't know how to use it, she knows that I do. She’s just had back surgery, and she’s in no shape to come and get me if something goes wrong up in those mountains, so she tries to give me this. I turn the gun over in my hand. It’s a little dusty and sorely out of use. The metal sends a chill up my arm.
Even though it is legal for me to have a gun, I cannot tell if, as a Black woman, I’d be safer with or without it. Back in 2016, I watched the aftermath of Philando Castile’s killing as it was streamed on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. Castile was shot five times at close range by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, when he went to reach for his license, registration, and permit to carry a gun. His four-year-old daughter watched him die from the back seat. In his case, having the proper paperwork didn’t matter.
I’ll be in the Smokies for six weeks in early spring, the park’s quiet season, staying in a cabin on my own. My local contact list will be short: the other writer who had been awarded the residency, our mentor, maybe a couple of park employees. If something happens to me, there will likely be no witnesses, no one to stream my last moments. When my mother isn’t looking, I make sure the safety is on, and then I put the gun back where she got it. I leave my fate to the universe.
Before I back out of our driveway, my mama insists on saying a protective blessing over me. She has probably said some version of this prayer over my body as long as I’ve been able to explore on my own.
In 2018, I wrote an article for this magazine titled “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us,” about my family’s relationship to nature and the stereotypes and obstacles to access that Black people face in the outdoors. As a journalist, that piece opened doors for me, like the residency in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It also inspired people to write me.
Two years later, the messages still find me on almost every social media platform: Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn. They come through my Gmail. Most of them sound the same—they thank me for writing the article and tell me how much it meant to them to see a facet of the Black experience represented in a major outdoor magazine. They express apprehension about venturing into new places and ask for my advice on recreating outside of their perceived safety zone. They ask what they can do to protect themselves in case they wind up in a hostile environment.
Folks have their desires and dreams tied up in the sentences they send me. They want to make room for the hope that I cautiously decided to write about in 2018.
Back then, as a realist, I didn’t want my essay’s ending to sound too optimistic. But I still strayed from talking about individual discrimination in the parks, often perpetrated by white visitors, like the woman who recently told an Asian American family that they “can’t be in this country” as they finished their hike near Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California, this past Fourth of July. Or the now famous “BBQ Becky” who called the police on two Black men at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, in 2018, for using a charcoal grill in a non-charcoal-grill-designated area. Nor did I mention that when I venture into new spaces, I am always doing the math: noting the lengths of dirt roads so I know how far I have to run if I need help, taking stock of my gas gauge to ensure I have enough to get away.
I have been the target of death threats since 2015, when I started writing about race. I wasn’t sure if magazine readers were ready for that level of candid conversation, so in 2018 I left that tidbit out.
There are risks to being Black in the outdoors; I am simply willing to assume them. And that’s why I struggle to answer the senders of these messages, because I don’t have any tips to protect them. Instead I invoke magical thinking, pretending that if I don’t hit the reply button, the communication didn’t happen. Sometimes technology helps: when I let the message requests sit unaccepted in Instagram, the app deletes them after four weeks.
I deem myself a coward. I know I am a coward.
There are two messages that still haunt me.
The first is an e-mail from a woman who wanted to know what she and her brown-skinned husband should do if they encounter another campground with a Confederate flag hanging in the check-in office. She described to me a night of unease, of worrying if they and their daughter would be safe. I filed her e-mail so deep in my folders that I don’t even think I can find it anymore. I was dying to forget that I had no salve for her suffering.
The second was even more personal. It came via Facebook Messenger, from a woman named Tish. In it she says: “I came across a read of yours when I was searching African Americans and camping. I want to rent an RV and go with my family. I live in Anderson S.C. Had a daughter that also attended SCGSAH. Is there a campground you recommend that is not too far and yes where I would feel comfortable? Thank you.”
The signaling in it, of tying me to her daughter, examining my background enough to offhandedly reference the South Carolina arts high school I attended and saying, Please, my daughter is similar to you.
I leave her message in the unread folder.
These women have families, and they too are trying to pray a blessing over the ones they love while leaving room for them to play, grow, and learn—the same things their white peers want for their offspring. In their letters, they hang some of their hopes for a better America on me, on any advice I might be able to share.
I haven’t written back because I haven’t had any good advice to offer, and that is what troubles me. These letters have been a sore spot, festering, unwilling to heal.
Now, in the summer of 2020, there are bodies hanging from trees again, and that has motivated me to pick up my pen. Our country is trying to figure out what to do about racial injustice and systemic brutality against Black people. It’s time to tell those who wrote to me what I know.
These women have families, and they too are trying to pray a blessing over the ones they love while leaving room for them to play, grow, and learn—the same things their white peers want for their offspring.
Dear Tish, Alex, Susan, and everyone else:
I want to apologize for the delayed reply. It took a long time to gather my thoughts. When I wrote that article back in 2018, I was light on the risks and violence and heavy-handed on hope. I come to you now as a woman who insists we must be heavy-handed on both if we are to survive.
I write to you in the middle of the night, with the only light on the entire street emanating from my headlamp. Here in upstate South Carolina, we are in the midst of a regional blackout. My time outdoors has taught me how to sit with the darkness—how to be equipped for it. Over the years, I have found ways to work within it, or perhaps in spite of it. If there’s anything I can do, maybe it’s help you become more comfortable with the darkness, too.
But before I tell you any more, I want you to understand that you and I are more than our pain. We are more than the human-rights moment we are fighting for.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Outside article changed my life. People paid me for speaking gigs and writing workshops. They put me on planes and flew me across the country to talk about equity, inclusion, and accountability. I know the statistics, the history, the arguments that organizations give about why they have no need to change. I call them on it.
I have to apologize for not being prepared for the heaviness of this mantle at the time. I have to admit my hesitation back then to call white supremacy and racism by their names. The unraveling of this country in the summer of 2020 has forced me to reckon with my actions, my place in the natural world, and the fact that as a Black woman writer in America, I am tasked with telling you a terrible truth: I am so sorry. I have nothing of merit to offer you as protection.
I am reluctant to inform you that while I can challenge white people to make the outdoors a nonhostile, equitable space where you can be your authentic selves, when the violence of white supremacy turns its eyes toward you, there’s nothing I can give you to protect yourself from its gaze and dehumanization.
I do not wish to ask you to have to be brave in the face of inequality. This nation’s diminished moral capacity for seeing Black people as human beings is not our fault. Their perception of you isn’t your problem—it’s theirs, the direct result of the manifest-destiny and “anybody can become anything in America” narratives they have bought into. We are made to suffer so they can slake their guilt. I want you to be unapologetically yourselves.
I check with my fellow Black outdoor friends, and they say they’ve gotten your e-mail and messages, too. They also waffle on what to say, telling y’all to carry pepper spray or dress in a nonthreatening way. I am troubled about instructing people who have already been socially policed to death—to literal, functional death—to change the way they walk, talk, dress, or take up space in order to seem less threatening to those who are uncomfortable with seeing our brown skin.
I have no talisman that can shield you from the white imagination. The incantation “I’m calling the police” will be less potent coming from your mouth, and will not work in the same way. In the end, your utterance could backfire, causing you more pain.
I want to tell you to make sure you know wilderness first aid, to carry the ten essentials, to practice leave no trace, so no one has any right to bother you as you enjoy your day. I want to tell you to make sure you know what it means not to need, to be so prepared that you never have to ask for a shred, scrap, or ribbon of compassion from anybody.
But that is misanthropic—maybe, at its core, inhumane.
I resist the urge to pass on to you the instinct my Black foremothers ingrained in me to make ourselves small before the denizens of this land. I have watched this scenario play out since I was a child: my father, a tall 50-year-old man with big hands, being called “boy” by some white person and playing along, willing to let them believe that they have more power than he does, even though I have watched him pin down a 400-pound hog on his own. I have seen my mother shrink behind her steering wheel, pulled over for going five miles above the speed limit on her way to her mom’s house. She taught me and my brother the rules early: only speak when spoken to, do not ask questions, do not make eye contact, do not get out of the car, keep your hands on the wheel, comply, comply, comply, even if it costs you your agency. Never, ever show your fear. Cry in the driveway when you get to your destination alive. Those traffic stops could’ve ended very differently. The corpses of Samuel DuBose, Maurice Gordon, Walter Scott, and Rayshard Brooks prove that.
I will not pass on these generational curses; they were ways of compensating for anti-Black thinking. They should never have been your burden.
It would be easy to tell you to always be aware of your surroundings, to never let your guard down, to be prepared to hit record in case you run into an Amy Cooper or if a white man points an AR-15 at you and your friends as you take a break from riding your motorcycles, hoping to make the most of a sunny almost-summer day in Virginia.
These moments—tied to a phone, always tensed in fear—are not what time in nature is supposed to be. Yet the videos seem to be the only way America at large believes us. It took an eight-minute-and-forty-six-second snuff film for the masses to wake up and challenge the unjust system our people have had to navigate for more than 400 years. They are killing us for mundane things—running, like Ahmaud Arbery; playing in the park, like Tamir Rice. They’ve always killed us for unexceptional reasons. But now the entire country gets to watch life leak away from Black bodies in high definition.
I started writing this on the eve of what should have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday. The police broke into her home while she was sleeping and killed her. I write to you during a global pandemic, during a time when COVID-19 has had disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities. I conclude my thoughts during what should have been the summer before Tamir Rice’s senior year of high school. All the old protective mechanisms and safety nets Black people created for ourselves aren’t working anymore. Sometimes compliance is not enough. Sometimes they kill you anyway.
Having grown up in the Deep South, I have long been aware of the threat of racial violence, of its symbolism. In middle school, many of my peers wore the Dixie Outfitters T-shirts that were in vogue in that part of the country during the late nineties. The shirts often featured collages of the Confederate flag, puppies, and shotguns on the front, with slogans like “Stand and Fight for Southern Rights” and “Preserving Southern Heritage Since 1861” printed on the back.
I was 11 years old, and these kids—and their commitment to a symbol from a long-lost war—signaled that they believed I shouldn’t be in the same classroom with them, that I didn’t belong in their world.
But that was nothing compared with the routine brutality perpetrated upon Black people in my home state. In 2010, years before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland, there was the killing of Anthony Hill. Gregory Collins, a white worker at a local poultry plant not far from my family farm, shot and killed Hill, his Black coworker. He dragged Hill’s body behind his pickup truck for ten miles along the highways near my grandmother’s house, leaving a trail of blood and tendons. Abandoned on the road, the corpse was found with a single gunshot wound to the head and a rope tied around what remained of the body. Collins was sentenced for manslaughter. Five years ago, a radicalized white supremacist murdered nine Black parishioners as they prayed in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. South Carolina is one of three states that still does not have a hate-crime law.
All the old protective mechanisms and safety nets Black people created for ourselves aren’t working anymore. Sometimes compliance is not enough. Sometimes they will kill you anyway.
Before my writing residency, I did not own a range map. Traditionally, these are used to depict plant and animal habitats and indicate where certain species thrive. Ranges are often defined by climate, food sources, water availability, the presence of predators, and a species’s ability to adapt.
My friend J. Drew Lanham taught me I could apply this sort of logic to myself. A Black ornithologist and professor of wildlife ecology, he was unfazed by what happened to birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park—he’s had his own encounters with white people who can’t understand why he might be standing in a field with binoculars in his hand. Several years ago he wrote a piece for Orion magazine called “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.”
“Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identification—at all times,” he wrote. “You’ll need the binoculars to pick that tufted duck out of the flock of scaup and ring-necks. You’ll need the photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the flashlight-toting security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.” Drew frequently checks the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate-group map and the Equal Justice Initiative’s “Lynching in America” map and overlays them. The blank spaces are those he might travel to.
I never thought to lay out the data like that until the day I went to Abrams Creek.
Three weeks into my residency, I made an early-afternoon visit to the national-park archives. I needed to know what information they had on Black people. I left with one sheet of paper—a slave schedule that listed the age, sex, and race (“black” or “mulatto”) of bodies held in captivity. There were no names. There were no pictures. I remember chiding myself for believing there might be.
Emotionally wrought and with a couple of hours of sunlight ahead of me, I decided to go for a drive to clear my mind. I came to the Smokies with dreams of writing about the natural world. I wanted to talk about the enigmatic Walker sisters, the park’s brook trout restoration efforts, and the groundbreaking agreement that the National Park Service reached with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians about their right to sustainably harvest the edible sochan plant on their ancestral lands. My Blackness, and curiosity about the Black people living in this region, was not at the front of my mind. I naively figured I would learn about them in the historical panels of the visitor’s center, along with the former white inhabitants and the Cherokee. I thought there would be a book or a guide about them.
There was nothing.
Vacations are meant to be methods of escapism. Believing this idyllic wilderness to be free of struggle, of complicated emotions, allows visitors to enjoy their day hikes. Many tourists to Great Smoky Mountains National Park see what they believe it has always been: rainbow-emitting waterfalls, cathedrals of green, carpets of yellow trillium in the spring. The majority never venture more than a couple of miles off the main road. They haven’t trained their eyes to look for the overgrown homesites of the park’s former inhabitants through the thick underbrush. Using the park as a side trip from the popular tourist destinations like Dollywood and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, they aren’t hiking the trails that pass by cemeteries where entire communities of white, enslaved, and emancipated people lived, loved, worked, died, and were buried, some, without ever being paid a living wage. Slavery here was arguably more intimate. An owner had four slaves, not 400. But it happened.
There is a revisionist fantasy that Americans cling to about the people in this region of North Carolina and Tennessee: that they were dirt-poor, struggled to survive, and wrestled the mountains into submission with their own brute strength. In reality, many families hired their sharecropping neighbors, along with Black convicts on chain gangs, to do the hard labor for them.
These corrections of history aren’t conversations most people are interested in having.
After a fruitless stop at Fontana Dam, the site of a former African American settlement where I find precious little to see, I try to navigate back to where I’m staying. Cell service is spotty. My phone’s GPS takes me on a new route along the edge of the park, through Happy Valley, which you can assume from the moniker is less than happy.
Early spring in the mountains is not as beautiful as you might believe. The trees are bare, and you can see the Confederate and Gadsden flags, the latter with their coiled rattlesnakes, flapping in the wind, so they do not take you by surprise. At home after home, I see flag after flag. The banners tell me that down in this valley I am on my own, as do the corpses of Jonathan A. Ferrell and Renisha McBride, Black people who knocked on the doors of white homeowners asking for help and were shot in response.
In the middle of this drive back to the part of the park where I belong, I round a corner to see a man burning a big pile of lumber, the flames taller than my car.
I am convinced that pyrophobia is embedded in my genes. The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for cross burnings and a willingness to torch homes. The fire over my shoulder is large enough to burn up any evidence that I ever existed. There is a man standing in his yard wearing a baseball cap and holding a drink, watching me as my white rental car creeps by. I want to ask him how to get out of here. I think of my mama’s frantic phone calls going straight to voice mail. I stay in the car.
Farther down the road, another man is burning a big pile of lumber. I know it’s just coincidence, that these bundles of timber were stacked before I set off down this path, but the symbolism unnerves me.
I round a bend and a familiar sign appears—a national-park placard with the words “Abrams Creek Campground Ranger Station” in white letters. Believing some fresh air might settle my stomach and strengthen my nerves, I decide to enter that section of the park. The road I drive is the border between someone’s property and the park. Uneven, it forces me to go slowly.
The dog is at my car before I recognize what is happening. It materializes as a strawberry blond streak bumping up against my driver-side door. Tall enough to reach my face, it is gnashing at my side mirror, trying to bite my reflection.
I’m not scared of dogs, but this one, with its explicit hostility, gives me pause.
Before emancipation, dogs hunted runaway slaves by scent, often maiming the quarry to keep them in place until their owner could arrive. During the civil rights movement, dogs were weaponized by police. In the modern era, use of K-9 units to intimidate and attack is so common that police have referred to Black people as “dog biscuits.”
I force myself to keep driving.
When I reach the ranger station, the building is dark: closed for the season. I see a trail inviting me to walk between two shortleaf pines, but I decline. There is something in me that is more wound up than it has a right to be. No one knows my whereabouts. Despite making up 13 percent of the population, more than 30 percent of all missing persons in the U.S. in 2019 were Black. A significant portion of these cases are never covered by the news. The chances of me disappearing without a mention are higher than I’d like.
There are three cars in the little gravel parking lot. A pair of men, both bigger than me, are illegally flying drones around the clearing, and there is palpable apprehension around my presence. They don’t acknowledge me, and I can’t think of what I’m supposed to say to convince them I’m not a threat. I have no idea who the third car belongs to—they are somewhere in my periphery, real and not real, an ancillary portion of my calculation.
I take photos of the clearing, including the cars, just in case I don’t make it out. It is the only thing I know to do.
I run my odds. No one in an official capacity to enforce the rules, no cell service to call for help, little knowledge of the area. I leave. Later, my residency mentor gently suggests that maybe I don’t visit that section of the park alone anymore.
I promise that there are parts of this park, and by extension the outdoors as a whole, that make visiting worth it. Time in nature is integral to my physical, spiritual, and mental health. I chase the radiant moments, because as a person who struggles with chronic depression, the times I am enthusiastically happy are few and far between. Most of them happen outside.
I relish the moments right before sunrise up at Purchase Knob in the North Carolina section of the Smokies. The world is quiet, my mind is still, and the birds, chattering to one another, do not mind my presence. I believe this is what Eden must have been like. I still live for the nights where I sink into my sleeping pad while I cowboy-camp, with nothing in or above my head except the stars. I believe in the healing power of hiking, the days when I am strong, capable, at home in my body.
The fear, on some level, will always exist. I say this to myself all the time: I know you’re scared. Do it anyway.
Toward the end of my writing residency, the road to Clingmans Dome opens. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans is the highest point in Tennessee and in the park. About two days before I’m scheduled to leave, I go to see what this peak holds for me.
There is a paved trail leading to the observatory at the summit. It isn’t long, just steep. Maybe it’s the elevation; I have to do the hike 20 steps at a time, putting one foot in front of the other until I get to 20, then starting over again. I catch my breath in ragged clips, and there are moments when I can feel my heartbeat throbbing in my fingertips. I’d planned to be at the top for sunset, but I realize the sun might be gone when I get there. I continue anyhow. I’m slow but stubborn.
If there’s anything I appreciate about the crucible we’re living in, it’s the role of social media in creating a place for us when others won’t. We’re no longer waiting for outdoors companies to find the budget for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. With the creation of a hashtag, a social media movement, suddenly we are hyper-visible, proud, and unyielding.
As I make my way up the ramp toward its intersection with the Appalachian Trail, I think about Will Robinson (@akunahikes on Instagram), the first documented African American man to complete the triple crown of hiking: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails. I understand that I’m following in Robinson’s footsteps, and those of other Black explorers like writer Rahawa Haile (@rahawahaile) and long-haul hiker Daniel White (@theblackalachian)—people who passed this way while completing their AT through-hikes and whom I now call friends, thanks to the internet. I smile and think of them as the trail meets the pavement, and stop for a moment. We have all seen this junction.
Their stories, videos, and photographs tell me what they know of the world I’m still learning to navigate. They are the adventurers I’ve been rooting for since the very beginning, and now I know they’re also rooting for me.
It’s our turn to wish for good things for you.
We’re no longer waiting for outdoors companies to find the budget for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. With the creation of a hashtag, a social media movement, suddenly we are hypervisible, proud, and unyielding.
When I get to the summit the world is tinged in blue, and with minimal cloud cover I can see the borders of seven states. There is nothing around me now but heaven. I’m grateful I didn’t quit.
My daddy had a saying that I hated as a child: “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” It’s a quote by NFL coach Vince Lombardi, who during the fifties and sixties refused to give in to the racial pressures of the time and segregate his Green Bay Packers. It took me decades to understand what those two were trying to tell me, but standing at the top of Clingmans Dome, I get it. The trick is that there is no trick. You learn to eat fire by eating fire.
But none of us has to do it alone.
America is a vast place, and we often feel isolated because of its geography. But there are organizations around the country that have our backs: Black Outside, Inc., Color Outside, WeGotNext, Outdoor Afro, Black Folks Camp Too, Blackpackers, Melanin Base Camp, and others.
The honest discussions must happen now. I acknowledge that I am the descendant of enslaved people—folks who someone else kidnapped from their homeland and held captive in this one.
We were more than bodies then.
We are more than bodies now.
We have survived fierce things.
My ancestors survived genocide, the centuries-long hostage situation they were born into, and the tortures that followed when they called for freedom and equality. They witnessed murder. They endured as their wages and dreams were taken from them by systemic policies and physical force. And yet, because of their drive to survive, I am here.
I stand in the stream of a legacy started by my ancestors and populated by present-day Black trailblazers like outdoors journalist James Edward Mills, environmental-justice activist Teresa Baker, and conservationists Audrey and Frank Peterman. Remembering them—their struggles and triumphs—allows me to center myself in this scenery, as part of this landscape, and claim it as my history. This might be the closest thing to reparations that this country, founded on lofty ideals from morally bankrupt slaveholders, will ever give me.
I promised you at the beginning that I would be candid about the violence and even-keeled about the hope. I still have hope—I consider it essential for navigating these spaces, for being critical of America. I wouldn’t be this way if I didn’t know there was a better day coming for this country.
Even when hope doesn’t reside within me—those days happen, too—I know that it is safely in the hands of fellow Black adventurers to hold until I am ready to reclaim my share of it. I pray almost unceasingly for your ability to understand how powerful you are. If you weren’t, they wouldn’t be trying to keep you out, to make sure they keep the beauty and understanding of this vast world to themselves. If we weren’t rewriting the story about who belongs in these places, they wouldn’t be so focused on silencing us with their physical intimidation and calls for murder.
The more we see, the more we document, the more we share, the better we can empower those who come after us. I’ve learned during all my years of historical research that even when white guilt, complacency, and intentional neglect try to erase our presence, there is always a trace. Now there are hundreds of us, if not thousands, intent on blazing a trail.
It is true: I cannot protect you. But there is one thing I can continue to do: let you know that you are not alone in doing this big, monumental thing. You deserve a life of adventure, of joy, of enlightenment. The outdoors are part of our inheritance. So I will keep writing, posting photos, and doing my own signaling. For every new place I visit, and the old ones I return to, my message to you is that you belong here, too.