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Camping while black

By Deb Pleasants

December 2007

A recent family camping trip drew me back to a phone call I had with my father ten years ago, during which I excitedly told him my husband Mike and I had bought a camper. My father however didn't share my enthusiasm; instead, he struck me with a response I did not expect.

Me: What do you mean I can't go camping?

Dad: Because it could be dangerous for you.

Me: I don't understand what you mean.

Dad:  Because you're black and blacks -- don't -- camp.

Me: WHAT! I can go camping if I want.

Dad: I know...but things happen. You never know what kind of people you might run into out there.

Me: Dad, I'm not talking about some "Deliverance" type back woods. Mostly we'll be in state parks, surrounded by lots of other families.

Dad: Well, you still could run into some rednecks out there.

Me: I think you're overreacting. Besides, I'll be with Mike.

Dad: Just because Mike is white doesn't make him safe either, especially since he's married to a black woman. Promise me you'll all be careful.

Me: (Laughing) Relax, Dad…it's just camping.

I must admit, when I had this conversation with my father I thought he was…well nuts (or at the very least, paranoid). I found his old school worries humorous. However, there was nothing funny when Mike and I took our son Jaden on a family camping trip earlier this year. No, there was nothing at all funny when another camper extended a 20-foot tall flagpole that proudly displayed the Confederate flag.

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Ever since that incident, I've no longer considered my father as paranoid, but rather as cautious. I came to realize his precautionary lifestyle has successfully aided him in navigating the horrible pitfalls of surviving in a racist society. Part of that survival included never being isolated in the woods.

Born in Mississippi in 1940, my father still feels the sting of Jim Crow. "Whites Only" signs blanketed the area from store merchant windows to public water fountains. Considered subhuman, violence against blacks was an everyday occurrence; and blacks knew they had no legal recourse. Skin color determined whether you spent your Sunday after church with your stretched out neck dangling from a tree or sitting on a blanket with your family watching the entertainment. As blues singer Billy Holiday so eloquently sang, "…black bodies swinging in the summer breeze…strange fruit hanging from poplar trees."

When my father was a young child, his parents joined the great migration north, to the new Promised Land. By the mid 1940s, my paternal grandparents had relocated their family to Chicago. With the abundance of steel mills and meat packing plants in Chicago, work was plentiful. However, blacks were still often targets of violence and, once again, they rarely could turn to the authorities for help. Here is where my father grew up, met and married my mother. By the time I was born in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was awakening the nation to the horrors blacks were facing in the south. Television coverage showed dog attacks and fire hoses launched against nonviolent protesters. As my parents watched they knew eventually, the north too would have to answer to its own de facto segregation.

That day came when the city burned in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The riots forced Chicago to publicly admit its utopian image had been a lie. In the aftermath, the city conceded to making some changes, such as approving FHA and VA loans previously denied to qualified blacks. My parents benefited from this change and in 1969, under cloak of night, we moved into our two-story, three-bedroom brick house near Lake Michigan. We were blockbusters, the first black family to own a house on the block. Although no one brought us Jello, no one burned a cross on our lawn either. Perhaps this was because our real estate agent Mr. Dillenbeck lived next door with his family. This probably staved off any immediate white flight panic. We had achieved the American dream…on the surface anyway.

My parents believed hard work and education were the keys to equality. Therefore, rather than plop my brothers and me in the chaotic public schools undergoing mandatory desegregation, we enrolled in the all-white parochial school in our neighborhood. At age seven, I was the recipient of countless incidents of cruel and hostile treatment beginning on the first day of school. The gender-divided playground separated me from my brothers, leaving me isolated and vulnerable at recess. I stood there trapped against the wall while a large group of white girls stared at me; pointing and whispering like I was a curiosity at circus. Finally, an older girl walked up to me, spit in my face, and shouted "nigger." The crowd of girls laughed and cheered while I stood there in silence with a tear rolling down my cheek.

That evening when my father learned what had happened, he became so enraged he yelled at me for not fighting back. He ordered me to fight anyone who called me that again, even if it meant expulsion. The following day, I again stood against the building alone. Another group of girls was standing nearby staring and whispering. I recognized them as the popular girls in my third grade classroom. One of the girls, a red-head with freckles and a pointed chin, slowly walked towards to me. As she approached, I felt my blood surge inside me fearing what would happen next. We stood toe to toe sizing each other up; she with her hands on her hips, me with clenched fists at my side. Then she said, "I'm Regina. You want to play with us, or what?" Relieved, I unclenched my fists and nodded. Regina led me over to her group and I felt safe.

However, with each small step we took toward assimilation, there were numerous times when society knocked us back in our place. Like the time we learned driving while black was a crime, especially if you owned a nice car. One day as we drove home from church in our new 1970 silver Pontiac LeMans, the police pulled my father over. Our childlike antics in the backseat abruptly stopped when, without explanation, the officers made him get out of the car and led him to their squad car parked behind us. He then rushed back to the car, reached into the glove box and grabbed some papers. As he exited again, I overheard my father mumble to my mother, "They don't believe I own this car."

At that moment, my mother ordered my brothers and me to sit still and close our eyes…and we obeyed. When he returned to the car, he would not look at us. My mother timidly placed her hand on his shoulder and assured him we didn't see anything, "Their eyes were closed." We wanted to know what the police did but dared not ask. From the middle back seat, I could see my father's eyes in the rear view mirror; for a moment, I thought I saw a tear forming…but then it was gone. Thanks to my mother's protective instinct, I have no idea what humiliation my father experienced while detained by those officers. But I know it was something no father's child should ever have to witness.

My parents felt the constant pressure to prove our worthiness to others. Neighbors scrutinized us very closely. To combat their preconceptions, we always had to present ourselves in a positive image. My parents demanded we keep both our lawn and ourselves well groomed. "Enunciate when talking and "use proper grammar" were their daily mantra.  Slang -- especially the word ain't -- implied we were uneducated and therefore was strictly forbidden.  Most importantly, always arrive early for appointments to avoid the CPT label ("color people time"). They drummed these rules into our little brains. Our parents let us know that although we were equal to our neighbors, many people did not view us that way. We didn't have the same freedoms our friends took for granted, even in the little things. Our family could never pile in our car on a hot summer night and go out for ice cream in our pajamas like the Dillenbecks frequently did.

In my parents' world, everything was black or white. I, on the other hand, was growing up in Technicolor. I didn't automatically accept the same restrictions -- externally or internally -- imposed on my parents. By 1970, Rock & Roll ruled AM radio and television had replaced daily coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War with family sitcoms. Like my peers, I squealed at the sight and sounds of those dreamy teen idols like the Beatles, David Cassidy and even Donny Osmond. I watched American Bandstand over Soul Train and fantasized I lived next door to the Brady Bunch and took part in their shenanigans. My interest, mannerisms and speech mirrored those who surrounded me.

This unconventional way of thinking carried over into my adult life. As an adult, I never assumed I couldn't do something because of a thin layer of pigment. Why not go skiing or sailing or biking or camping, or even get ice cream in my p.j.s? When I compare my parents' attitudes to mine, I often think of my favorite scene from the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner -- the scene in which Sydney Poitier's father tells him marrying a white woman would be the biggest mistake he ever made. Sydney looked at his father and said, "You think of yourself as a colored man…I think of myself as a man." I've always felt this statement spoke directly to me, provided, of course, you add 'wo' to the word man.

I know the concept of race is a "social construct" and that the amount of melanin in one's body does not determine intelligence or integrity. Unfortunately, no matter how much I am aware of this fact, many people in our society still believe I'm different…inferior. Like the countless times when sales clerks deliberately follow me throughout stores trying to catch me in the act of shoplifting. Or, the time when the waitress at the Chinese restaurant repeatedly forgot to serve me while at the same time serving my white husband and father-in-law. Or, when a white man in a car slowed down and waved money at me as I walked through downtown Minneapolis on my lunch hour to my son's preschool.

Yes, even now I still suffer the degradation of racism. However, I keep most of these things to myself. I share them with my husband but I never transfer my burdens to my children.  I don't want them growing up feeling their different. Besides, things are improving in our society… Aren't they?

---- ---- ---- ---- ----

At first, I didn't notice the flag. Actually, it wasn't there when we first arrived at our favorite campground just outside Lanesboro, MN. Our only worry was trying to beat the rains as we hurried to setup our Coleman camper. After we finished we ate a quick meal, snuggled into our beds and listened to the intermittent rain showers as we fell asleep.

The next morning the sky had cleared. Mother Nature urged me to visit the main building. As I walked, I noticed the campground was nearly filled; RV's, 5th wheels and pop-ups blanketed the 200-acre estate with a few tent campers scattered among the metal monsters. Along the way, I passed a few campsites, the pool house and the playground, but I hardly noticed them because I had other pressing matters on my mind. It wasn't until I was on my way back that I began to take note of my surroundings.

Two campsites from the playground, a solo camper was setting up. He was a middle age white man unloading a rather strange camping vehicle -- a dark blue panel truck with no windows on its sides or back. It resembled a utility truck or a delivery truck; however, it had no markings on it. Through the front windshield, I could see the truck did not have typical camping paraphernalia such as a bed or a stove. Instead, protruding through the roof was a 20-foot tall telescoping flagpole with two flags raised. Seeing the insignia on the flags was difficult because the air was still and the sun was in my eyes. However, I assumed one flag was the US flag, and I had my suspicions about the other one. Those suspicions were confirmed when Mike came back from escorting Jaden to the same bathroom. He burst into the camper and blurted out, "Someone's flying a Confederate flag!"

For the most part, we fell into our normal camping routine. Mike combed the woods for dead, dry branches to use for firewood. Once we got the campfire started, Mike made us sandwiches with his iron cookers. We carried on with our day and tried not to let the racist freak spoil our trip. But, how could we not when his campsite was within eyeshot. Each time I glanced in that direction, I saw the flag. My emotions ranged from disgust thinking about the unmitigated gall he had to fly that flag on union soil, to confusion about how the other campers felt about the flag -- especially his closest neighbors, to anger at management for allowing the flag to remain, to fear of what he might say to me if we crossed each others path.

My biggest fears arose that night. It was after midnight and I needed to use the bathroom. The one thing I hate about camping is late night bathroom runs -- it's the only time I wish I was a man. However, since I'm not, I play a mental game with myself called, "Can I make it till morning?" Sometimes I win, but this particular night I lost. After over an hour of trying to ignore the urge, I finally surrendered and rushed to the main building.

Heading back to the camper, I again noticed the blue panel truck. It was now dark and quiet. The flags were both still up. Empty beer cans littered the ground nearby. I noticed the proximity of the truck to the playground. I hurried back to the camper and locked the door. I lay back in bed but I couldn't sleep. My mind raced. I stared at Mike. He slept. I looked at Jaden. He too slept. However, I couldn't sleep -- too much was on my mind. I thought about how close the truck was to the playground. I thought about how his truck had no windows. I thought about how he was camping alone. Finally I thought what could happen to Jaden if he was playing alone at the playground and this man approached him. Then I remembered how Mike, though loving and sensitive, doesn't always catch things -- like in the Chinese restaurant. Finally, a primal maternal instinct to protect my son overcame me and I needed to know my husband felt the same way. I woke him up.

"Mike, wake up. Mike, wake up…I need to talk to you."


"Mike, are you awake? I really need to talk to you."

"Yeah I'm awake," he mumbled, raking his beard with his hand. "What is it?"

"I need to talk to you about that camper."

"I thought so. He really got to you."

"Yeah. Mike, I'm scared for Jaden. What if that man tries to hurt him? Promise me you won't let him go to the playground alone."

"Are you kidding? There is absolutely no way I'll let him near that playground without me. No way! I'm not letting Jaden out of my sight."

"I'm so glad…I was afraid you might think I was overreacting."

"No way! That guy's nuts and I don't want him anywhere near Jaden. Who knows what he's capable of?"

"God, you don't know how relieved I am to know you feel the same way I do." Then, I slept.

The remainder of the trip was spent biking and having fun with our friends Marco, Melissa and their son Matteo, who drove down to spend part of the weekend with us. Together, we made jokes about the flake with the flag while the boys built forts and let their kid minds run wild. With his best friend nearby, there was never any need for Jaden to go to the playground.

That late fall camping trip led me to wonder whether I was right not to tell Jaden about the flagman. I want so much to protect him from all things harmful and that includes racism. Like MLK, I too want my son to grow up believing he won't be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. In some ways, I can see this is happening. His childhood is very different from the one I had.  He was the only black child in his classroom last school year, but to his peers, he was no different. Quite a change from what I experienced nearly forty years earlier.

Watching Jaden bounding across the floor, he clearly doesn't carry the same weight on his shoulders I did at his age. Nor should he; born in the year of the millennium; many of the traumas I experienced as a child are shadows of the past. His charismatic smile and endless energy conveys to the world a self-confidence I never had. I do all I can to nurture that self-confidence. I rarely draw attention to his skin color except to tell him his toasty brown skin is beautiful. Yet, I know he will likely experience derision or perhaps even physical harm because of it. I know some people will discount his opinions because they don't consider him important. I even know that as my son gets older some of his friends (especially the girls) will pull away from him because he doesn't fit their parents' image of the boy next door.

I've tried to keep these harsh realities from my son; however, in retrospect, I wonder if that is that wise? As his mother and primary link to black history, culture, pride and pain, I worry I am making a grave mistake. My biggest fear is I'm not fully preparing him to cope in a racist society and thus he may walk straight into harm's way. And if that does happen, then I have failed him. Jaden is seven, the same age I was when I learned the world could be a cruel to me for no reason other than the color of my skin. If not under our protective eye, Jaden too may have learned there are people who'd rather spit in his face than say hello. Perhaps I should view this camping trip as a wake up call and spend more time educating him about our country's ugly side. I know I can't shield him forever…I just hoped he could get past seven.

mmo : december 2007

After working as a probation officer for 15 years, Deb Pleasants resigned in 2000 to become a stay-at-home mom (in addition to her 7-year old son, she has three adult children currently attending college). Within the last year, she has devoted more time to her first love -- writing, including fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and personal essays focused on social issues (you can read more of Deb's work on her blog). She has a BS in Criminal Justice and a minor in Sociology.
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