How Can Black People Go Camping at a Time Like This?
by Debra Stone
Like a beached whale, the detached refrigeration semi-trailer rests on Lowry Avenue behind North Memorial Health, a trauma hospital. It’s been in place since March. Either white-washed or dulled by time, the hand lettering reads: Frank’s Vegetables. The ends of the storage container, the obscured opening, shrouded by black screens, forms a tunnel around the entrance to the rear of the hospital door. Mourning netting, I call it, hiding the dead. I view all of this from my front steps. In my neighborhood, North Memorial no longer manages all of its dead in the morgue. No one speaks of this, but I see the hearse as it drives up to the black mourning netting. The virus is real.
I see families walking with their toddlers on bikes with training wheels or tricycles, strollers and joggers, runners, and fast walkers — everybody passes by this container of death on their way to the park or to the parkway. I and others walk our dogs to this park. No one says anything or comments on this detached semi-trailer; orange traffic cones keep car traffic away. We act like it doesn’t exist. It has disappeared from our minds.
My right eye twitches uncontrollably, letting me know it’s there. When I was six, Mama drove me to the clinic to find out what was wrong with the twitching eye. The physician diagnosed it as nerves. So, whenever I’m unsettled, even if the rest of my body acts normal, my right eye, the dominant one, knows and begins its nervous twitch.
In my neighborhood, my spouse and I are the old ones. Fresh new neighbors, families with children, single women and men who can afford to buy houses and gay couples are the new owners of the homes of the people who were my acquaintances and have died or moved into nursing homes.
“You know, we should use our teardrop trailer, since we can’t go anywhere and it’s just sitting there in the driveway.” Good idea, I respond sotto voce.
My spouse and I take turns spending time in the teardrop trailer. It’s another staying in place spot. Otherwise, we get on each other’s last good nerve. When I do this, I’m reminded of my childhood backyard “camping.” My brother and sister and I threw an old blanket over the clothesline, building our tent. We huddled there until sundown inventing scary faces with the flashlight taken from Dad’s workbench. The streetlights muted Russell Avenue with shadows. We ventured out of the tent and caught fireflies, put them in our Mason jars, then watched them twinkle like tiny stars fallen from the sky. Later, tired of this and afraid monsters would eat us in the dark of night, we went into the house and slept in our beds. Our tiny stars released, they buzzed off to find their mates.
Governor Walz finally lifted the ban on overnight camping in state parks. Before we leave for Blue Mounds State Park my husband asks, “Are you sure they’ve fixed that E-coli problem with the water?”
“Yes, you don’t need to drive to Luverne for fresh water. DNR or somebody fixed the contamination,” I respond.
“You know there was a Covid-19 outbreak in Worthington,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, getting irritated. “It’s over. The farmers killed all of the hogs. Are we good to go?” He doesn’t say anything else. I can’t look at the white semi one more day without a break. I need to get away; I can’t stay here anymore.
We drive south on back roads. All town stores and restaurants except essential businesses are locked down. The virus. By the time we reach Pipestone we need gas and I need to pee. I enter the public restroom hurriedly wrapping the toilet with toilet paper, use a foot on the handle to flush, sing the ABC song twice while washing my hands, and my butt pushes the door open.
We make camp at our site with our teardrop trailer.
Blue Mounds State Park was the territory of the Dakota people. They lived, hunted Tatanka, “Big Beast, the provider,” the Dakota word, while the colonizer renamed the animal American Bison. Pre-1800 over 60,000,000 Bison roamed the prairie. By 1900 there are only 300 left, according to the information plaques of the Department of Natural Resources of Minnesota at the park. There’s a modest herd in this area controlled by the University of Minnesota. Tatanka is no longer a provider of food or clothing for the Dakota but becomes low-fat meat for the colonizer. Replicas of Dakota teepees are for Blue Mounds campers to sleep in. I photograph the Tatanka in the distance, near the barbed wire fence that contains them. In history class they never taught me about the Dakota, driven from the land, about treaties broken and white people claiming the region for “Manifest Destiny.”
Even while camping I think about the ancestors. I feel Ki/kin to the Tatanka. African people killed, forced from their homelands and enslaved, that’s how my ancestors came to the land of the Dakota. An ancestor, Benjamin Jackson, was a Buffalo Soldier, named as such by the Dakota for their wooly hair and fierce fighting against them.
Born enslaved around 1856 in Boswell, South Carolina, he ran away from the slave owner after witnessing his mother sold at auction. I’m not surprised. Benjamin knew his own vulnerability; it motivated him to ignore the dangers of the patrollers and make a strike for freedom.
After the Civil War, numerous Black men joined the U.S. Army for lack of work and education. According to the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska, Benjamin Jackson served as a Private in Company M of the 9th Cavalry Regiment from 1881 to 1886 and fought in the Dakota territories until military discharge. He returned to Nebraska, was a laborer in Omaha, married and started farming in O’Neill, Nebraska. According to family oral history, at some point in Benjamin’s life he married a Dakota woman, but if so, her name is lost to my family. Something about this lost story haunts me; thus, I remember her in this way.
In 2016, Bill Bolte, president of Merrick County Historical Society, found the military records of Benjamin Jackson while researching the “Indian Wars.” Benjamin never told his children or grandchildren about this chapter of his life. Jimmie Jackson, a grandson said, “I think it’s great, so many people back from that era were never recognized for the service that they did at the time.” Benjamin Jackson received a posthumous military funeral with a 21-gun salute and a military headstone where he laid next to his wife.
I’d like to think Benjamin Jackson wanted to forget this chapter of his life.
I wonder, what if the Buffalo Soldiers and the Dakota had become allies against the white settlers and U.S. Army…
What if a European nation had become allies with the Buffalo Soldiers, the Dakota and supplied them weapons…
What if all the Tribal Nations had succeeded in unification…
We hike the trails. The air is hot, humid from last night’s rainstorm. A stiff wind swells through prairie grasses and blows my curly hair all over my head. The sky is bright blue without clouds. Fresh burns bring forth the late June prairie flowers blooming: Yellow Cactus by exposed red granite rock croppings; Purple single-spiked Vervain; Daisy-like blue/purple Phlox; pink-tinged Milkweed with Monarch butterflies fluttering by. And the Purple Cone flowers and brown-eyed Susan’s will open soon. I feel a lightness in my body; my right eye no longer twitches. I can breathe again. Do I feel the Dakota ancestors, their psychic energy?
At night it’s still too hot for a campfire and black flies bite any part of our unclothed body and torture our dog. We put him in the teardrop with us.
In my garden the Linden tree shades and makes coolness, and the Hostas, Ferns and all the shade plants thrive. I envy the prairie flowers.
We travel to Luverne to replenish supplies at the local grocery store. I see an elderly Black man walking away from the parking lot. We are the only two Black people in this town. I am the only Black person at the campsite.
I wonder how long he’s lived in this place.
We are home now. As we unpack the teardrop trailer my neighbor, a nurse dressed in scrubs with a plastic mask shield covering her face, waves an exhausted hand in my direction and I wave back.
My right eye twitches again.
Mourning doves coo all day at Blue Mounds park. Maybe they know we are living with the pain on this earth.
Debra’s poetry, essays and fiction are found in About Place Journal, Saint Paul Almanac, Wild Age Press, Gyroscope, Tidal Basin, Random Sample Review and other literary journals. She won the 2019 Sundress Publisher’s essay competition, Best of the Net, judged by Hanif Abdurraquib. She has received residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and is currently a Kimbilio Fellow. In 2018-19, Debra was a Loft Mentor Series Fellow in creative nonfiction.