On the Courage and Contributions of Black Explorer-activists
"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Forging a new path doesn’t always mean traveling far and wide. It could mean doing a new activity. African American history is replete with people doing something new, creating something new, and experiencing something new. Some of these “new” things changed the country, possibly the world. Some of these “new” society-changing endeavors caused them to lose their jobs or to be forced out of their home and town. They even endured violence such as beatings, assaults and, yes, lynching. Yet they forged ahead. Or others continued in their place.
These social and political “explorers” (or explorer-activists) took that leap of faith--that step into the unknown--and discovered a “New World.” Let’s examine some of their “explorations”:
Being the first African Americans to attend a newly—and resentfully-- integrated school in Arkansas (Little Rock Nine, 1957);
Being the first Black people to sit at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in North Carolina (Greensboro Four, 1960);
Refusing to surrender her bus seat reserved as “whites only” in Alabama (Rosa Parks, 1955),
Marching 54 miles from Selma, Alabama across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to meet the governor in Montgomery, Alabama to demand voting rights for African Americans. (SCLC, SNCC and others, 1965);
Speaking and writing about the horrors and immorality of slavery in the United States (Frederick Douglass, from 1840s)
Organizing and implementing direct action campaigns to bring attention to the integration efforts of African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, which Dr. Martin Luther King described as “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” (SCLC, Birmingham Campaign, 1963)
Teaching enslaved people to read, which was severely punished, if discovered. (Countless numbers!);
Helping enslaved people to escape to freedom in the northern non-slave states and Canada. (Harriet Tubman, Abolitionists, 1850s)
Riding the first integrated buses into the southern United States to fight segregation on public buses (Freedom Riders, 1961);
Organizing and marching for the women’s right to vote. (Sojourner Truth, Naomi Anderson, Elizabeth Piper Ensley and many other women)
Learning, respecting and teaching African American history and culture (Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune)
Investigating, reporting and writing about lynching as a means of social and economic control in Tennessee. (Ida B. Wells, 1890s)
These “explorers” weren’t looking for adventure. They were exploring their ability and their right to change society. They were exploring their own determination to change and improve society. They were exploring new ways to improve themselves through education. And they forged a new path for everyone. It wasn’t easy—exploration never is!—and they risked a lot in their explorations. As Roman Payne* notes in his Gothic mystery novel,
“You must give everything to make your life as beautiful as the dreams that dance in your imagination.” ~ Roman Payne, The Wanderess (2013)
Many of these explorer-activists did give everything, including their lives. They were exploring a “new” way of life—for both Black and White people--during the Jim Crow era in the American south. They were exploring their vision of a “new” society where equality, justice, and fairness would reign supreme—a “New World” in which racism and white superiority would not set the agenda. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to this “Dream” during his iconic speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on March 28, 1963:
“I have a dream that one day in the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
Explorers have special qualities that support chasing the “Dream” or pursuing the vision of a “New World.” According to FNO.org, explorers have the following:
Feeling of a higher purpose
Courtesy of FNO.org
Like most explorers, the explorer-activists mentioned above possessed all of these qualities to varying degrees. Many were very young, still in their teens or early twenties. Some lacked education. Many lacked the actual experience of “living the dream” or living in the “New World.” However, most importantly, they had the driving sense of purpose to pursue the “New World.” And this “dream” reinforced the courage to “keep on keepin’ on” even during the constant threats, cross burnings, and killings.
“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores”
~ William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
This whimsical quote by William Shakespeare, is antithetical to the true explorer who constantly envisions the next adventure, or in the case of the explorer-activist, whose gaze is steadily focused on the distant but relentless goal of making a change in society.
For those doubting that the “exploring” nature of these explorers-activists who ventured courageously into the unknown risking their lives to uplift society, the wise words of a great photographer and environmentalist can lay this question to rest.
“In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” ~ Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984)
Now consider this…
American history has not given a priority to the facts. In October, many Americans honor Christopher Columbus (1451 - 1506) as a great explorer who “discovered” the Americas. We are learning of Columbus’s genocidal behavior of towards the indigenous people fueled by racism and greed. We have also learned that Columbus was not the first European to land in the Americas. That honor is bestowed upon the hard-charging and wise Norseman Leif Eriksson (970 - 1020) who established a settlement more than 500 years before Columbus. However, the Vikings never established a permanent settlement on North American continent. Yet the Europeans are only one part of American history. The history and culture of the indigenous peoples who had populated the continent is the primary story. Yet is not told or taught as noted by British writer and documentary maker, Tahir Shah (b. 1966)
“Through a strange kind of geographic arrogance, Europeans like to think that the world was a silent, dark, unknown place until they trooped out and discovered it.”
~ Tahir Shah, House of the Tiger King: The Quest for a Lost City