“Do you ever feel sad that you can’t really trace your history back to like, a country or something?”
This was a question asked of me by a young man of 22, the child of two immigrants. “I mean, I can trace back to where my family is from for 500 years in two different countries.” It was a difficult question to be asked, and even more difficult to field in an unfortunately named Mexican restaurant which I highly suspect is not owned by people of Mexican descent. (I’m basing that on the name of the restaurant, not the physical appearance of the owner, but I digress.) The question has been showing up for me a lot lately in various ways. I find myself feeling jealous of friends who talk about some physical nation in which their bloodlines are deeply rooted, despite the fact that their presence in the US often follows a fraught journey–one of physical, spiritual, emotional separation. In my younger, snowflake-ier days, I used to describe myself as “plain old American black.” It’s more of a dig when I say it now, a jab back at people who assume that being interesting or attractive or any other positive attribute must be associated with foreignness or whiteness to offset how “unremarkable” it is to be a black US American.
I admit that I’ve agonized over this post some, worried that I can’t express the ideas floating in my mind in a way that successfully conveys them to folks who don’t live in my brain. But I really have been experiencing a crisis regarding my identity these days, catalyzed by my estrangement from my family. I feel like it could be ameliorated by guidance or connection to my predecessors. Still, I’m often frustrated by my desire to reach back to ancestors whose names I don’t know, and indeed, can’t know with the meager resources at my disposal. My (maternal) family history stops in Eufaula, AL in the late 1700s. I know that’s further back than a number of black folks can trace, and I feel grateful for the knowledge, but it’s still…unsatisfying.
My “roommate” was headed out of town for the weekend, so, determined not to sit in the house all weekend, I decided to take my first solo hike in one of Georgia’s gorgeous state parks. I scrolled through the directory on my computer, seeing if any particular parks caught my eye, when quite unexpectedly, one did. Providence Canyon is located in Lumpkin, GA (which I maintain is a terrible name for a beautiful place), 20ish miles from the Alabama line.
I pulled it up on a map and found that it also lies some 30 minutes from Eufaula, AL. Providence, indeed.
I borrowed a tent (thanks Matt!), packed a bag and food for myself and Sandy the dog, and loaded up my car two days later. Following a peaceful drive to the park early Friday morning, Sandy and I started off on our venture into the mixed forest that would take us to the canyon floor. The “extremely rugged and difficult” backcountry trail (direct quote from the website!), which I chose to take because I’m either a) daring or b) dumb, was a struggle, and I’d be lying to say I did it with ease. (The way I did do it, as it turns out, was backwards.)
But when Sandy and I reached the campsite in enough time to get the tent set up before sundown, I finally got to take a moment and assess my feelings in this place. Watching the sun set over the trail, surrounded by butterflies in this magical place, I noticed that my soul felt quiet, like there was finally enough room for me to breathe into a fullness that I could only name upon leaving: belonging. My phone didn’t die while I was in the canyons, but the battery was too low for me to take pictures for most of the hike. Honestly, I was relieved to escape the “if you didn’t photograph it, it didn’t happen” mentality that is so pervasive these days. I’m writing about it, but my physical experience of Providence Canyon remains in the sanctity of my memory alongside my father’s brilliant smile and the songs my mother used to sing when I was a kid. I felt a certainty that my ancestors passed through this land either/both into or/and out of bondage, like their blood called my blood to pulse into a familiar rhythm, traversing the canyon like the streams crisscrossing it to converge in me as a body of water. As I hiked back out of the canyons, I felt compelled to thank the land for the mud that made me.
Upon leaving the park the following morning, I paid a visit to Fairview Cemetery–one of a few places where slaves were buried in Alabama. Fairview is scenic, situated on a bluff overlooking Walter F. George Reservoir (yes, named for a racist white dude because what isn’t). I sat down to pay my respects to the individuals, named and unnamed, related to me and not, buried there. And then, just like that, I was back on the road to my house with Sandy sleeping on the backseat. I may not have left the cemetery with the full sense of sustainable ancestral connection that I think will be critical for me going forward, but I felt good about the trip. I still do. Because even if I walk around the city where I live and work feeling alien and sore, I know that there are places I can look to ground me.