Natural Instincts – Kim Green Foster

Natural Instincts: A Matter of Freedom

I want to express my gratitude to Reverend Marti Keller for allowing us to take this challenging journey together.

It happened on Clairmont Road in 2004. I had just moved to Atlanta and was excited to be driving my father around in my new city. We were out doing errands. When we drove out of the parking lot onto Briarcliff Road, I said to him, laughing, “Huh. I don’t quite know where we are, Daddy. I’m not sure which way to turn.”

And then it came. A gray sheet fell over his dark chocolate skin. It was as if he saw ghosts. His eyes widened and he said angrily, “You don’t know where we are? You’re lost in Georgia? That’s not funny, Kim. You better figure it out. Now!”

In an instant he had changed.  My smooth-faced father that I loved and adored was in an unrecognizable state of panic.  He had gone back in time to a place that I never was. What had come over him were things he could never say. All I knew was that there were memories too painful to utter, but I heard them. The memories were all over his face.

My father had been born in 1922 in South Carolina. He had been referred to as “boy” by every white person he ever met.  Even after he became a man.  He drank out of segregated water fountains. He was relegated to the back of every moving vehicle he ever rode in and he was forced to use back doors to enter places that had front doors. He lunched outside in the Southern heat to eat soggy sandwiches dampened by his own sweat. These were his memories and he died detesting the South. He hated it even more because his only daughter chose Georgia as the place she would raise his only grandson. From the grave, I know he’s still not over it.

This service today is not intended to cause pain. It is not to evoke bad memories or to wrap any of us in blankets of shame or defense. This service is intended to open a door to human understanding. If you heard that today’s service was about African Americans and their negligible participation in outdoor activities, it’s not. If you heard this service was about proving that lots of African Americans actually do participate in outdoor sports, it’s not. If you heard that we are gathered here today to talk about the reasons that African Americans don’t visit National Parks or go camping, it’s not.

This service is intended to offer a perspective on how African Americans fully participate in nature; in their own way. And they always have. In fact, today you will meet, Sheree Marshall, an African American woman who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.  Whether we are climbing, fishing, gardening or just sitting on our porches and watching the sunrise, we are doing what we do and doing it the way that we know how.

I was brave (or stupid) to agree to lead this sermon. I did it because I believe that a deep understanding of all people is the key to mutual understanding and empathy.  Only when we all can accomplish this, the trite conversation of “race” will be totally obsolete.

In case anyone cares, African American’s relationship with nature is ongoing. It’s like a love affair gone terribly wrong and a reconciliation effort that is hundreds of years in the making. African American’s and Nature are sort of in couple’s counseling now.

We have always been a part of this land; intertwined, in fact. Historically, African Americans have always grown our own food, turned scraps into delicacies, used herbal remedies and roots to heal our bodies when neither medicine nor doctors were available to us. We have always used nature as the setting for our rituals, our baptisms and our rites of passage. We have always used the stars to guide us and the sun to tell time.

The love/hate relationship that exists in some African Americans goes way back to a time and a place that some of us almost can’t remember and so many of us try to forget. The number of African Americans playing outside is small. We are still considered an anomaly on the trails, at campsites and in the pool. We are out there, but not as many as we could be, seeing that there’s plenty of room out there. It’s true. Don’t be offended.

I know for me, the incident with my father taught me how deeply rooted and totally tied to this land we really are. Although I am a long distance walker and my son plays soccer, is enthralled with bugs and yearns to climb trees, swim in the ocean and camp in the woods mountains; Clairmont Road 2004 is still never far from me. I’m often afraid for him.

Preparing for this service has haunted me. Taunted me. It has kept me up at night, not knowing how to fit our torturous past into a 30 minute feel-good service that would have us all singing Kumbaya as we walked out the door.  I didn’t wanting to offend or upset. But there are core truths that we may want to forget, but we can’t. We shouldn’t.

This can’t be about Black People and white people and how they spend their leisure time. And who does ski and who doesn’t and why. This service is meant to bring perspective and depth to the many challenges of building true diversity and being authentically in community with each other. “Can’t we all get along?” Rodney King said in 1992 after being brutalized by the LAPD. I don’t want to “just get along.” I want to be seen and understood. I don’t want any details of my existence to go untouched. And I want to see each of you. It is then and only then that we can all truly be together in this sacred space. In this congregation and on this land.

I think it all boils down to Freedom. Freedom is simply not the opposite of enslavement. Freedom is more than a noun. It’s actually an adverb; describing how we live. How we move through the world. Freedom is seen in our posture. Freedom is confidence without any traces of fear. It is a sense of standing where we belong. If any one of us feels they don’t belong in a space, then none of us do.

African Americans and Nature is a harrowing topic. It reeks of all kinds of discomfort; pain and memories. It is fraught with imbalance and entitlement.  Haves and have-nots. In fact, when I casually mentioned this service to my African American friends, they were all outraged. All of them are highly educated, well-traveled and health conscious. They were miffed. “I hike!” “I bike!” “I ski” “I run!” Many African Americans have dared to go outside and make a home there. Including me, with some conditions.  Nevertheless, I hold on to my father’s memories, vicariously. I too cling to his wicked past.

The resistance for some of us to going outside is almost as strong as the resistance of those who do go, but refuse to admit that there is a reason why so many of us don’t. Indignantly, one friend said, “I have the same relationship with nature as everyone else.”

Huh. Really? That’s like saying that a Jewish person can easily visit the countryside of Poland and not remember how much blood ran there. This dismissal simply can’t be true on a soul level. History is real and all of our histories hurt. Disconnection will be our downfall.

From where I stand, I see there are two ways of being: The “Can we move on? people. Not wanting to talk about pain. I know because I was one. And then there are the “Never again” people, like the people that I met in Israel in 1994. I cried a lot on that trip. There was a weightiness in the air that I will never in my life forget. The omnipresence of their history sat in every corner, every restaurant, every museum and every open air market. Their history sat quietly, waiting to be honored and brought into every conversation. Their history appeared at every meal. Every celebration. Their history was in their every prayer.

From that enlightening, I learned that the art of remembering has the power to propel a people into the future that they see for themselves. I realized that ignoring one’s history turns us into fish out of water. Making us breathless and awkward. Making us flounder, leaving parts of us to die.

Let’s get back to nature. People playing in the natural world do notice the scarcity of African Americans. Remember our inquisitive random friend on who asked the question?

Luckily, a random African American man named Barry Rock created a blog totally dedicated to African American and camping. It is called “Camping in Color,” and he makes the answer plain on the home page, “I think it is in part, a memory of the horrible things that were done to us…”

Perhaps it’s true the many African Americans don’t camp or hike or climb mountains as much as others. Maybe it’s because of lack of exposure, maybe their parents didn’t do those things. Maybe it’s because traditionally African Americans have not had much leisure time. Maybe they just didn’t want to ski, or hike or white water raft. Maybe it’s because so many of us are overweight or physically unable, without a car, allergic to pollen. Perhaps. And that’s all OK.

If another African American never puts on sneakers again, I will be good with that. But what I want to do is for those who may be tied to their parents’ stories, I remind you to tell your own story.

The office of Minority Health has these statistics to share:

  • African American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. About four out of five African American women are overweight or obese.1
  • In 2009, African Americans were 1.5 times as likely to be obese…
  • In 2007-2008, African American children were 30% as likely to be overweight than Non-Hispanic Whites. )

It’s time for us to tell our own nature stories.

What I want most for my words to impart is that we must move beyond current behavior or misbehavior. We must all find our own freedom in places where we have been previously afraid.

The first time my friend, Jen Sincere ever told me about New Mexico she cried. That was 25 years ago. She cried because of the overwhelming beauty and peace of the desert. Jen made me promise I would go there with her, someday and I did. Jen and I hiked through the woods and felt the calming breezes of shade in the desert. I got what she promised: I would never be the same.

For an African American whose parents never participated in nature, willfully, never exercised, smoked and praised the confinement and safety of the concrete jungle, the likelihood of me hiking a weekend in New Mexico was slim. Thank God for a close friendship with someone who pushed me out of my comfort zone. She saw what was possible. She wanted me to have the gift of my own natural instincts.

Of what might we be afraid?  We could be afraid of severe weather and natural disasters. We could also be afraid of unnatural disasters like hate and xenophobia, and of course, there’s always lions, tigers and bears. Oh no!

When visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia last month, traces of fear  arose again. Although I was dazzled by the stunning sunset beginning to sink into the mountains and the soothing darkness that blanketed our car, although in awe, we were still on an unfamiliar road in North Georgia. There were forests of trees in front of us and behind us. 2 lane roads with only unfamiliar establishments. Nothing was familiar. I was getting scared.

At a red light, beside us sat three “rural men” sitting in the front seat of a pick-up truck. They were in overalls, their faces were pudgy and unamused. Their six eyes avoided eye contact with our foreign brown faces.  I can’t vouch for whether they were chewing tobacco or the exact size of their gun rack. I can say for sure they had a confederate flags all over their car. They probably did. I am not sure which parts of this description are real or imagined, but I know how I felt. Scared. Uncertain. Regretting that I had come at all.

But these are the reasons I’m afraid when I venture outside of these of four walls we call, Atlanta.

But I go, anyway. For myself and for my son and to conquer old fears. I go to get what I am entitled to: a love of the land despite what it has done to my people, my father and his father. I go despite what heinous crimes have been committed.

We arrived in the mountains. We got there safely and the next day went hiking, I was hypnotized by a waterfall. As I stood there, I was suddenly connected to all of those UUs who say they are humanists, atheists or agnostics, whom I had formerly questioned. But I knew this feeling that I had in the presence of this waterfall is what is within them when they are out hiking, biking and marathon running. The outdoors is a place for worship. For them, that’s enough. I got it.

Nature is worthy.

The anthology, “Black Nature” edited by Camille T. Dungy is a powerful collection of works that inspired today’s service. I came to the book seeking kind, meditative reflective poems on trees, wind and the wonder of butterflies. Instead, I discovered clever words, raw anger, lamentations and real pain couched between pretty words that sucked me in until they spit me out on the last stanzas.

These poems are our last word. They are a testament to how deep our roots run. We love nature and we are mad at it at the same time, which makes sense. We are justified, after all.  It’s sort of like the beauty and the beast of our collective consciousness.

These poems won’t allow me to forget that my ancestors were hung from these trees, dumped in fields, beaten and left to die on this land. Their fingers were worked to the bone on this land. They worked like animals on this land. African Americans have done our part and we deserve what the land has left to give us:  Freedom.

It would take a Unitarian Universalist Congregation to explore this topic and for that I am forever grateful. Because we are all UUs and UUs are pre-disposed to love nature. We pledge to have “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

See, we are not really talking about nature and black people, today. It is about freedom and growing into our freedom in the places where we live. It’s about finally taking ownership of this land and ourselves. This is a process.  As poet, Askia Toure, writes in Floodtide, “The river breaks our hearts.”

As Micah’s mother, I am committed to feed him with freedom not fear. I don’t want to cloud his mind with fear of the outdoors. I don’t want him to fear solitude, animals or that someone may hurt him because of the color of his skin. Those are the unfortunate lessons that were my inheritance. I want Micah to see the beauty of the world and all of Gods colors. I want nature to be his respite from ugliness. I want him to have reverence and respect for the things greater than him like the ocean, mountains and the heat of the sun. I want us both to push through what I was taught and go outside with confidence and the entitlement to the land that is ours, too. We are a part of the interdependent web. We want to love the earth and have the earth love us back.

Author Ravi Howard writes in her essay “We are Not Strangers Here,”
“At some point the terms urban and black became interchangeable. Such terminology would have us believe that our history began in cities and that we are a people of concrete and bricks, far removed from the oaks, rivers and low country. But the black poets on these pages have illuminated the connection and their meanings across the generations.

Like the spirit divers, black poets have long immersed themselves in moments of nature and then rendered those scenes on the page. The ebbs and flows of nature seem to guide the lines. There is the gentle flow of the wind and sea, but there are also currents, historical and political that are translated into language.”

These poems are all that we have of our history in nature. They so beautifully state the truth and the authenticity of our gritty presence. These poems are who we are and where we come from. We need them in order to rise. We need them in order to heal. We need them to remember to remind. We need them so that we too can become “never again” people.