by Catherine Onyemelukwe
I just read a fascinating article about hiking the Appalachian Trail. But it’s not about the hiking at all. It’s about the experience encountered by Eritrean American writer Rahawa Haile (@rahawahaile), a queer Black woman hiking the trail. What she meets along the way is frightening. Early in her article she describes a well-intentioned white man who insists on knowing where she is from – her parents are from Ethiopia – and then tells her she isn’t Black because “Blacks don’t hike.” Micro-aggression, this is called, when a person from the dominant culture labels a person from the minority culture as he/she wishes, with no regard for the person him/herself.
You can read the full article here. Be warned – it’s not easy reading. And it’s full of hyperlinks that whisk you off to other amazing articles. So you may need a solid 30 minutes, or several hours if you want to explore all it offers.
An example of what she encounters is this experience in a town in the Smoky Mountain region. “It isn’t until I’m about to leave town that I see it: blackface soap, a joke item that supposedly will turn a white person black if you can trick them into using it. I’m in a general store opposite the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The soap is in a discount bin next to the cash register. I’d popped in to buy chocolate milk and was instead reminded of a line from Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: ‘The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.’ ”
She says, “It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.”
Rahawa Haile is a brave woman whose work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Brooklyn Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She lives in Oakland.