Tag Archives: Race

Expedition Denali: The first all-black team to climb America’s tallest mountain

IN THE YEARS I’ve spent climbing mountains, descending into canyons, and generally getting into all sorts of adventures, I’ve rarely run into another person of color in the outdoors.

by BANI AMOR June 7th 2013 Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Skimming through the travel glossies that so captured my young imagination revealed images of white people doing what society defined as white people things: hiking, camping, climbing. This vague and at once startlingly direct message from travel media and society at large left an impression on me — a Latino city kid — of total exclusion.

Despite the lack of role models in the outdoors industry, I flung myself into it, with hopes that the next generation of youth of color would find a wild world waiting for them if they only were given the opportunity. If they just saw one other person like them doing it, too. It was after hearing about Expedition Denali that I finally felt like this could become a reality.

This June, 100 years to the month after the highest point in North America, Mt. McKinley (Denali), was first successfully ascended, the first team of African-American climbers will attempt the summit. Besides making history, their expedition can pave the way for a new generation of young people of color to get outside and become stewards of America’s wild places. Thanks to the success of their Kickstarter campaign, a documentary film crew will be chronicling their journey, and a book is in the works.

I recently had the chance to speak with team member and 20-year-old alpinist Rosemary Saal, to talk about inspiring diversity in the outdoors with Expedition Denali.

* * *

Climber posing on mountain
Rosemary Saal / Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School
BA: How long until the expedition now?
RS: Just short of two weeks! I can’t believe it.
BA: How do you feel now that it’s so close?

RS: “Pumped” is the first word that comes to mind! Nerves are definitely building up a bit as well, but mostly nervous excitement.BA: On other expeditions — comprising mostly white folks — they’ve got to overcome the altitude, cold, physical exhaustion, etc. They’ve got to climb the mountain. But you guys are representing your race and, you know, climbing the mountain. And not just any mountain — a 20,320 foot-high one. Do you feel the pressure?RS: Only slightly, I’ll admit. The media attention is the main source of pressure, just knowing that the entire expedition will be meticulously documented. But then I remember that this pressure-inducing-exposure will greatly help the whole purpose of the project, and my confidence in this team is reassured.BA: You’re definitely following through with what seems to be the goal of the project, to get the word out and inspire other people of color, mostly young African-Americans, to get out ‘into the wild.’ A 2010 survey revealed that over 80% of Americans who engage in outdoor activities are white. Any idea as to why that is?

RS: I feel that many people of color have the mentality that we do not “belong” in the outdoors. When the sport was first being developed and explored, the traditional participant was a white male. For some reason, this image has stuck in the minds of many and in actuality has not changed significantly.

Many people of color [in my life] have even jokingly claimed that my urge to explore the outdoors myself is the “white” side of me, following that up with “people of color don’t do that.”

BA: As a teenager into punk rock, I was branded as being into “white people stuff” by family and friends. Maybe some POC are hesitant about losing their ‘race badge’ or something. Like it’s easier to fully belong to one community than take the initiative to be different and risk not really belonging to any group. Is Expedition Denali trying to change that story?

RS: Absolutely! It is stereotypes and labels such as those that perpetuate the notion that POC do not have a place in the outdoors or the means to embrace nature. We seek to shift that view, or at least begin to.

BA: You’re breaking down all sorts of boundaries. Your team is incredibly diverse — from teenagers to elders from all over the States, many of whom are women and mixed-race folks. You represent a whole range of the Afro-diaspora.

RS: We most definitely do! I am very proud to be a part of the diversity within this team.

BA: It’s very refreshing. On the other end, I was a bit surprised that in James Mills’ Nat Geo profile of you guys, he felt compelled (by an onslaught of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric from the majority white climbing community) to explain the critical necessity of an expedition of this sort. Have you had to answer to comments like that, too?

RS: The team has had to answer to such comments, yes. There are a few skeptics out there who do not see the necessity or significance of this expedition.

BA: What do you say to them? Or is the message of this expedition just not for them?

RS: We simply acknowledge and stress that this expedition aims to change the views of one aspect of the outdoor industry. While there are many issues involving ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc. concerning the industry, it would be an entirely different story to tackle and make an impact on them all.

BA: They should look at the facts: By 2018 the majority of youth in the United States will be of color. Considering that most of them are not spending much time outdoors, a message of inclusion would seem imperative to any environmentalist or climber.

RS: Absolutely, a message of inclusion and a set of role models.

BA: Considering all this stigma, how did you first get involved in climbing?

RS: My involvement in climbing proceeded quite naturally. I always enjoyed climbing on anything I could get my hands on practically since I could walk. I was fortunate to be exposed to resources in an environment that introduced me to technical and more “official” climbing opportunities before I was really aware of the stigma.

BA: The way it should be.

RS: Exactly! I totally agree. That is one of the reasons I’m particularly excited to spread the message of Expedition Denali to youth of color. Hopefully they can see this story and realize their ability to get outside before being exposed to the stigma surrounding this topic.

BA: Finally, what does it mean to you personally to be a part of Expedition Denali?

RS: Personally, this expedition means a lot to me. On a personal level, it is a huge physical challenge to accomplish…

Most importantly, however, I am really looking forward to being a role model, to going out and providing an example of how POC truly do belong in the outdoors as well. I had wonderful role models and mentors when I was first getting involved in climbing. I wish to be that person, inspiring and encouraging the next generation the way I was inspired and encouraged.

BA: You’re only 20 and about to make history by ascending the highest point in North America in the first afro-centric expedition. No biggie, no presh…

RS: I know right?! It’s absolutely bonkers! I could not be more stoked.

BA: It’s a very vivid, beautiful metaphor. In a way, you’re carrying a lot of folks — folks like us — to the summit with you. It sounds like you see that as more of an honor than a burden.

RS: I really do. I am so incredibly fortunate and grateful to be a part of this movement. How could I see it any other way?

BA: Word. I’m stoked too, and honored that you took the time out of your training to talk today. Say hi to Denali for me! I know you’ll do an awesome job.

RS: Thanks girl! I will most definitely send your regards. 

Group of climbers poses for shot
Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School

Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/sports/expedition-denali-the-first-all-black-team-to-climb-north-americas-tallest-mountain/#JC0h1BuKymB6uJU8.99

Junot Diaz Day, Completely Lost

View from an old room in Quito

i’m very busy and bad at juggling several projects at once, so that’s why things have been silent around here. been discussing boston bombing conspiracies with backpackers in assorted hotels and hostels, changing rooms every two days or so. i’m ghostwriting a book on the slowest virus-infected laptop on earth, in a place where WIFI is indeed a four letter word. but i’m just whining. to make up for the lack of things to say, i’ve stolen some things junot diaz has said, which are 1,000,000 x better than anything i could write right now.

“In a ‘post-race’ country like America where nothing and no one is racist, where people are more likely to believe in UFO’s than in institutional bias, which does back flips to obfuscate the operations of white hegemonic power and therefore ensure its continuance, anyone seeking to expose white supremacy or battle it is in for some serious uphill. You will be attacked. You will be censured, usually by your own community. People will say that you are obsessed with race and that even mentioning white people in the context of white supremacy is itself racist. These days the average person doesn’t even have to be taught not to bring up white supremacy. Here in our country, as in Mordor, everybody knows not to say the dark lord’s name.”

“If you’re not lost, you’re at a place that somebody has already found. If you’re comfortable or familiar, you’re in mapped territory. If you feel like you know where you’re at, somebody’s already done it. So if you want to create something new, you need to get completely lost.”

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Ghetto Shit and The Altar of Advancement

“I modeled Yunior clearly on my own experience as an immigrant kid growing up in NJ. That binary…of home/failure or away/success—I grew up with that shit all around me, the Scylla and Charybdis of my childhood. On one side you had the escape narrative that insisted that the only way out of economic social deprivation—the only way to advance, to make something of yourself—was to abandon your community and build a life exclusively in the larger (whiter) world (as if the reason one is poor and marginalized is because of one’s community). A narrative that was on me particularly hard as an immigrant, as a kid who had been designated as “smart.”  The idea that I would maintain any loyalty to my broke-ass landfill neighborhood once I got to college was considered on all sides as pretty absurd. (Clearly I understand the desire to escape insecurity and hostile material conditions, but I don’t agree you need to erase the past that made you possible to do so. Any success that requires you to sacrifice your younger self over the altar of Advancement is no success at all—at least not to me.)”New Orleans, LA by bani amor
“As an immigrant and an honors student (before I got kicked out of that track senior year) and as a kid who grew up deep in the neighborhood, I had both narratives on me to an oppressive degree. And felt a lot of pressure to choose one side or another: to either embrace home like mad or reject it like mad. Of course within each choice was embedded a whole set of expectations. If you stay at home, don’t talk too much about books, don’t try to get motherfuckers to engage in “intellectual’ discussions,” don’t talk about an ethnic studies course you took or the study abroad you did in Japan. Same thing: if you go away to say college, don’t dwell too much on race and certainly not on how racialized poverty and class are in this country. Don’t mention white supremacy. Keep your ghetto shit to yourself.”
“Over time I became very aware that people had a lot invested in you choosing sides. You had to choose one or the other but not both, not neither. Complexity was out of the question. Multiple loyalties were another way of saying betrayal. I eventually realized that these bipolar choices were not only ridiculous, they would also require me to jettison the essence of who I am. My multiplicity, my complexity, my simultaneity.”
-Junot Diaz. Read the Rumpus interview in it’s entirety here. Photo taken in New Orleans, LA 2008.