What the land has held

We hike on land that has absorbed generations of white supremacy. How will we confront it?

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

Lately while hiking alone, especially during these moments of political chaos, I've begun reciting to myself a meditation. I remind myself that humans have walked the earth for nearly 200,000 years. I remind myself that in that span of time, the land I hike on has witnessed and absorbed all kinds of violence: colonization, slavery, injustice, communities losing and gaining their rights. I tell myself the grief and rage I felt this week is ancient. This land has held that grief and rage and injustice for centuries. And it will hold me through it again today.

Reciting this gives me the grounding I need to feel less overwhelmed. Nothing about this week is new. It is just yet another display of the white supremacist violence this land has had to absorb for hundreds of years.

Last March, I decided to research the autobiography of white supremacy for my own hometown - something I’m ashamed to admit I had never done before. I spent much of this last week revisiting it. I've considered white supremacy the core foundation of this country's history for years. But admittedly, I still did not know the details of just how specifically white supremacy had personally touched my own life until doing this research.

Learning those details has felt both tragic, and also, again, grounding. I am devastated at just how much racial trauma I inherited from the land I grew up on. And, at the same time, as a person of color, it also put the first eighteen years of my life in a much needed perspective. That unnamed tension, that persistent feeling I always felt as a kid that something about this place wasn't being talked about, now felt validated. The more and more I researched, the more what is happening today made sense. 

Here's what I discovered: 

  • My family moved to Tampa in 1989, but if we had moved just a few decades earlier, we couldn't have owned the house I was raised in. For much of the early 20th century, the federal government's Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) judged Tampa neighborhoods based on race and class, and made realtor recommendations accordingly. The HOLC placed my family's house in Tampa in a zone labeled “Still Desirable,” and described the area as being “occupied exclusively by whites."
  • My school district didn’t even attempt desegregation until 1971 -- nearly seventeen years after the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court decision. Even two decades after that, researchers said integration still "remained more a promise than a reality in Hillsborough County.” As late as 1998, a federal judge ruled that the school system had STILL not demonstrated a commitment to complying with the desegregation order and had not ''desegregated to the maximum extent practicable.'' Due to this failure, the Hillsborough County Public School System was under the supervision and jurisdiction of the U.S federal courts until 2001 -- the year I entered eighth grade.
  • Just a mile away from the house I was raised in, there's an elementary school named after a white supremacist. Henry Grady once told a crowd at the Texas State Fair: “The supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards – because the white race is the superior race.” As managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, his newspaper wrote headlines about lynching black Americans like “The Triple Trapeze: Three Negroes Hung to a Limb of a Tree” and “Two Minutes to Pray Before a Rope Dislocated Their Vertebrae.” Henry Grady Elementary School is where many of my friends growing up went to school.
  • Lowry Park Zoo, my favorite zoo and park that I visited as a child is named after Sumter de Leon Lowry, an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the 1920's, and a man who so fiercely defended segregation in Florida in his campaign that one article literally stated that he ran for governor “on the white supremacy ticket.” The candidate called school segregation “the greatest issue before the people in the last 100 years." His candidacy was supported by the Klu Klux Klan.
  • The whole reason Florida became a part of the United States is founded in white supremacy: After escaped slaves and indigenous folks living in the state kept raiding southern plantations, freeing slaves, and building self-sustaining communities on their own around the state, Andrew Jackson attacked Florida in the largest battle between fugitive slaves and U.S. forces in our history, killing around 270 people. Five years later, the U.S. purchased Florida from Spain in 1821 in order to finally crush black and indigenous resistance. Jackson then went on to destroy Angola, another community of formerly enslaved people living on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay.

On any piece of land across the United States, you can find a similar history. And yet, in the outdoors community, we often hike and explore and travel on land without ever answering these questions: What is the autobiography of white supremacy of this area? Who are the parks and trails and nature areas named after? What happened to the indigenous folks who lived here first? How was this land implicated in the economic system of slavery? What were the Jim Crow and segregation laws applied to this area after slavery? What does the redlining map for this area look like? What hate crimes have been committed here? What other kinds of violence? When were people of color first allowed to be here? When were women? In what ways was gender and sexuality policed? Who else was historically excluded? What power have I inherited as a result of this history? What power was I denied? And most importantly, what power am I now willing to give up? 

I no longer want to hike on land until I know the answer to these questions. I no longer want to hike feeling that unnamed tension that I have felt here in the United States all my life. 

The grief and rage I have felt this week is ancient. But as I've hiked this week, I try to also remember: this land has also absorbed and held so much joy, courage, and revolution; people finding moments of peace among chaos; people discovering their own unique pleasure and delight. It has held spaces in small corners where people make their values triumph, and feel free among each other when they cannot access that same freedom in the greater world -- like those communities of black and indigenous resistance in Florida long ago. Whatever happens in our country next, the land will hold that too. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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