To grow up in “Lady Churchill’s” house in the richly textured Harlem of the 1950s was to sit at the abundant table of black life alongside the daring, the brilliant, the flamboyant and the pretenders of the race. All were welcomed and all were frequent visitors to my grandmother’s brownstone just off what she loved to call “upper Madison Avenue.” It was at that table that my brother Ted, now a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer and activist in his own right, caught fire from the rhetoric of The Right Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. with his booming exhortation to “Keep the faith!”. It was there that the rich tones of Marian Anderson could be heard as she sang “The Lord’s Prayer” over a Sunday afternoon meal. And it was there also that the embers of my fresh imagination began to glow with the telling and re telling of the adventures of my uncle’s godfather, the explorer Matthew Henson, by his widow Lucy and his many friends who visited often.
As I heard the stories and stared at the bronze-cast photographs pasted on worn scrapbook pages, I was at that time swept more by the notion of the North Pole as a geographic reality, as certainty surely attached to other myths widely shared by five-year-olds about that location. It was not until many years later that I came to appreciate fully how remarkable it was that Matt Henson, the son of former slaves, had formed a boundless and unfettered vision of the world and his place in it. More extraordinary was the fact that he was able to maintain and nurture such a vision even as his life parenthetically embraced the birth (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1989) and the death (Brown v. Board ofEducation, 1953) oflegal apartheid in the U.S. From his example, I came to believe over time that perhaps the greatest harm derived from America’s experience of racism was in a point of view internalized by African Americans that tended to circumscribe their presence in the world. In taking up wilderness travel, partly in response to that realization and partly as a means of release after a hard decade of family changes, I rejected the confines of such an outlook and all of its historical antecedents, and followed, at least in mind and heart, the path of Matt Henson. The world, for me, is a very large and wonderful place, and I, as a result of my wilderness experiences, have learned to behave and live well in it.
Long after the amber-aged photographs disappeared and the voices which carried the tales faded away, my close friend and travel companion Aileen and I watched the shadow of our chartered Cessna cross the Arctic Circle as we headed for Venetie on the northern Alaskan tundra in the early summer of 1996. We were being drawn by news ofthe battles which were shaping up there between the Gwich’in Athabaskan natives and the state of Alaska over the village’s assertion of native rights to traditional tribal lands and its usage. Ultimately at stake, in human and non-human terms, is the survival of a very ancient way of life dependent upon a delicate natural balance that has persisted in the face of encroaching state/corporate interests in natural resource development (in this case, the oil reserves of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). It was and is a familiar skirmish to me, for I have yet to find at the close of this century a so-called wilderness area where the echoes of such a battle does not resonate —whether it is in Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest over salmon stocks as affected by the lumber industry, or in the magnificent pristine environment of the impoverished Havasupai who struggle against the lure of potential uranium mining windfalls in remotest northern Arizona, or a dozen other examples which cannot be spent here.
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