GROUNDBREAKERS: Celebrating Black History Month
GROUNDBREAKER: One that innovates
For Black History Month, we’re running a series entitled "Groundbreakers" featuring stories from Black athletes highlighting the people they see as having broken ground before them. New Groundbreakers are born every day. This month, we celebrate a handful of those who have inspired Black athletes of today.
If you’ve ever been on a hike with me, then you know it’s never really ‘just’ a walk in the park. Because I believe there’s history held in the land, like a call from our deep collective past that begs for connection. For example, land acknowledgments. To me, taking a moment to recognize that long before we ever dreamed of playing in the mountains and open spaces we’ve come to love so much, there were thriving tribes of indigenous people who lived and tended these places before being driven from them. That momentary recognition when I set foot on the trail doesn’t come anywhere near close enough to unpacking those stories, but the pause is an important reminder to pay attention to what’s not being said.
In the 1920s, historian and author Carter G. Woodson initiated what we’ve come to know as Black History Month. At the time, although the nation was just six decades away from the shadows of slavery, Woodson felt the younger generations weren’t being taught enough about the African American past. So, he began with campus lectures, enlisting the support of his students, colleagues, and organizations to spread the word about formally organizing a day, if not a week, of Black History awareness. It would take fifty years until then-President Gerald Ford would make the designation official in order to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Where I live in Colorado, it’s not uncommon to see dilapidated houses and farm equipment from the late 1800s crumbling in open space parks, slowly being reclaimed by the land they once dominated. It’s also not uncommon to see small placards noting the lives of the people who lived there. Those stories are fairly similar. The markers often speak of genteel settlers who came from Europe to establish farms and eventually bequeath the land to the public trust. I took a group hiking in such a space not long ago when we came upon one of those old homes. Peeking in through the broken boards, we could see old utensils strewn on the ground and a chair or two breaking down, it seemed, right before our eyes. According to the placard, the homeowner had fallen ill while working on his house and had to enlist the help of his Black neighbor identified only as ‘Jim’ or ‘Joe’.
I’ve since forgotten the names, but I doubt I’ll forget that passing reference to the only Black person for miles around. I pointed to the group and hollered. ‘Y’all, I’ve never seen anything written about Black people like this out here, have you?!’ They hadn’t either, and were just as surprised as I was. In that moment, I was experiencing at least a three-fold epiphany:
1. It was the first time on a trail that I’d ever seen any mention of Black people living in Colorado during the era of Western Expansion, even though I was aware Black folks had been here long before Colorado became a state;
2. The blip of a mention of the sole Black man in the area made me curious about who was telling the story and what else was missing; and
3. When people don’t exist in the records of history, in the narratives, and in the minds of the tellers of those histories, it makes them/us easier to dismiss, disregard, and deride as not fully human.
I talk a lot about the necessity of equity in the outdoors, redefining adventure on one’s own terms, and inserting one’s story into the dominant narrative(s). When new voices start to enter those conversations, they can’t help but shift. It’s a powerful way to change the internalized beliefs we hold about who gets to take up space in the outdoors, in the workplace, in our minds, and more. If only that lone Black man’s story had been held in different hands – preferably his own - when it came to telling it.
I heard the prominent Black novelist Walter Mosely once say that we don’t exist if we can’t see ourselves in the literature of the day. Present and past, he added. Toni Morrison famously said that if we don’t see the stories we want to read, we must write them ourselves. History is literature, a compilation of our stories, told for posterity. And the more we know about our stories – those of our ancestors, our neighbors, ourselves – the more real we become to each other.
When I’m on trails and the cellphone signal falls away, I find myself imagining the lives of my predecessors. I think about the courageous men and women who led so many enslaved people to freedom; I think about the artists and authors and scholars who understood the importance of casting us in the fullness of our humanity so that we didn’t forget it when the world seemed to. I think about the people whose names I’ll never know, boycotting the buses to bring an era of inequity to its knees, and those who made their homes in inhospitable conditions under unimaginable circumstances so that we’d have a chance to live lives they couldn’t have fathomed for themselves. I take great inspiration from these groundbreakers as I run, knowing that I’m never truly going it alone. Without them and their collective efforts, I’d likely never know the privilege and joy in this freedom of movement.
A friend once told me we don’t have to know everyone’s name to know they came this way before us. “We can feel them every time we put our feet on the earth,” she said. I believe and acknowledge that. History doesn't exist removed from us; we're living it all the time. Case in point: did you see all that Black history – which is also American history – being made at the White House a few weeks back?
To the extent we understand and honor the complexity of our past, the more access we have to depth and richness of our lives in the moment. I’m sure I arrived at this epiphany on the run, as well. Sometimes running mountain trails is grueling. No two ways about it. But part of the agreement I make long before reaching the trailhead is that I might need to keep moving through pain and fatigue if I’m to build endurance and strength over time. I’m not the first, I’m not the only one, and I take great pride in that.
About the author:
Kriste Peoples is a Denver-based writer, producer, women’s trail running coach, Altra athlete, and outdoorist. As the founder of Black Women’s Alliance of Denver, she extends her passion for connecting underrepresented communities to new, empowering narratives of wellness. Follow Kriste on Instagram: @kristepeoples