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Black Lives Matter in the Rural South

We’ve been asked by a number of our British pals if the Black Lives Matter protests and riots in America have affected our trip. They haven’t. At least in no different way to how they have affected your life.

I wasn’t planning on talking about the rioting for my blog because we have been so removed from it, but then it occurred to me: why is that the case? We’re only a couple of hours from Atlanta, Georgia, where protests continue, the recent shooting and funeral of Rayshard Brooks fuelling the ongoing battle against racial discrimination and the militaristic actions of American police. However, the ‘wave of discontent’ across America, as discussed in the UK papers, doesn’t seem to have reached us. We are travelling in the Southern states of America – somewhere I have always considered to be the heartland of racial disparities – so is it as it often seems to us: that no one is talking about race? 

Acknowledging the past 

When we first started our travels, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a long letter from the author to his son about life as a black American. It talks of the disconnect between white and black Americans that was triggered by slavery and why it is such a hard issue for Americans to face.

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians and other enemies of civilisation. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Discussing racism in America takes you back to a sour point in its history. Regardless of their country’s policies on human rights and individual freedom, there once was a time when millions of Americans supported the idea that black or brown skinned people were a different race to white people and that they were not equal. 

Now the protests are calling on all of us to recognise this oppression and take action. So after spending time on the Homestead, where we engaged in debate about Nationwide issues frequently, it has come as a shock that we haven’t heard or seen more support on our travels?

Location – our Skoolie life in America

Instead of shiny skyscrapers and coffee bars, we have spent our time rolling through one-street towns where shop facades look straight out of Western film sets.

Over the last month or so we have travelled through Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. Our route has followed the formula of much of our trip – every few days we pack up and trundle along quiet roads, drifting through sleepy backwater towns before stopping at another beautiful rural spot to set up camp. We tend to alternate between State Park campgrounds, where we hike and bike (and take decent showers!), and at local Harvest Hosts, where we stay for free in exchange for purchasing the wares on offer by the local farm, winery or brewery that is hosting us. 

Big city newspapers like the NY times or the Washington Post just arent available in grocery stores and Walmarts in small towns. Instead, the demand in small towns appears to be more for gossip about the British Royal family.

We meet and chat to people on our rural road-trip all the time. In the campgrounds people tend to stop to compliment us on the bus and when they hear we are British they want to hear our story and talk about travel. They want to welcome us to America and ensure we see the best of it.

Murray loved hearing about all the places we had been, and sharing his trip to Alaska last year. He was so enamoured with our Skoolie he nearly talked his friends into purchasing it from us!

With the owners of farms, breweries and wineries, our conversations go a little deeper. We often find ourselves talking about the reasons behind choosing to grow and sell produce, which in turn often leads to conversations about the provenance of food in the United States and a fear about what is going into what they eat. More recently, discussions have focused on the challenges they are facing with Coronavirus – a mix between struggling to survive the tourism collapse or coping with the increased demand for their local produce.  

In the last month we’ve stayed at a distillery, an orchard, a farm, two breweries, two wineries, a goat farm, a llama farm and even a micro bakery.

The fact race has not cropped up in our conversation is not necessarily surprising. We don’t talk about it because we are talking about other things that are more relevant to the situation we are in. Life in the country is very different to the cities and RV life is different again. The one thing they seem to have in common though is that they are both very white.

Camping culture

We have had a gorgeous time walking in the Appalachians, spotted bears in the Smoky Mountains, swam in lakes in the sunshine and sat round campfires as the fireflies danced around us. In almost every setting we have only seen white faces.

We don’t see black and brown people when we travel in our Skoolie to campsites and farms because that’s not where they are. According to the RV Industry Association, a million Americans live full-time in RVs, many of whom are Snowbirds – white retirees – that follow the sun in enormous fifth wheel trailers. Roughly 40 million also go RV camping but, although growing, the number of ethnic minorities heading out to the campgrounds is still very low – just 9% of those camping households. NAARVA, the National African American RVers Association only has 1,500 members – that is vastly different to the big RV travel website that has hundreds of thousands.

Our neighbour at our current site is very friendly but by displaying the Confederate flag he is making a statement that could be off-putting to some people.

So where are all the black and brown campers? Various forums give a quick indication of the problems and it largely comes down to economics and opportunities. It’s difficult to travel in America if you don’t have a car – public transport options are terrible and the Parks themselves are often miles away from anywhere’. It’s also tricky to go camping if you have no experience of how to do it – no childhood full of camping holidays to refer to or garage full of camping kit to use. Perhaps the biggest turn off though is holidaying in an almost entirely white world. Times are changing but it is still a discomforting idea for many, particularly when stories abound on the forums about racial discrimination.

I remember pulling in a gas station in Georgia to fill up, and while doing so, I was approached by two gentlemen asking questions about how could I afford such a rig when they couldn’t. I thought, wow! I’d better hurry this up and leave because these guys were up to no good. Did not finish filling up because the questions were steady coming from these guys, so we left. Further down the road, we were pulled over by a state trooper, detaining us for one hour giving me demands for a search of our rv. I informed him I will not let that happen without a search warrant. He let us go. Though I let my guard down by stopping at that place to get gas.

Forum comment by ‘Woody’ a black RV’er talking about his experiences in 1985 on RVtravel.com

A different story in the city

It was only when we were forced to take a detour into Asheville, North Carolina to get our brakes checked after they started smoking on our way out of the Smokies (we had flashbacks of Yosemite and a $1000 garage bill, but thankfully they were fine), that we realised that things were different in the cities.

Our trip to Asheville coincided with Guy’s birthday so we decided to rough it for the night at Cracker Barrel (another place that offers free parking for RV’s) and go into downtown for beers. We found a city-wide campaign of artwork and watched both white and black protesters gather with signs. Shortly after we stopped in Greenville, South Carolina, and came across a BLM concert in the park. People of all colours showing their support for the campaign to end racism.

Seeing a positive response in the cities was reassuring but it still surprises me that we have not seen anything outside of the city centres, no rural activism. The only campaign signs we have seen are for local sheriffs, politicians, lawyers or to keep Trump. It feels as if there is a disconnect and when we started to discuss it, we realised that the divide covers more than just rural / urban, it is also between each State.

50 countries of America

This was our drive across Georgia… comparatively short compared to Texas. It took several days and approximately 1000 miles for us to cross that behemoth. That’s like driving from our house in the south of England to Barcelona!

Before we travelled here I always pictured America as one big, powerful, unified country – go Team America! In truth it feels like 50 different countries controlled by 50 different Governors.

People take pride in their State. Last week, someone we met whilst walking around the site made the effort to find us with a gift of a full size South Carolina flag and a book of legislation.

The U.S  is huge and it stands to reason that different areas are going to have different focal points. In our travels we found the people of Montana campaigning for better services when they are left stranded by brutal winters. In California, the battle was waged against the energy companies, whose state-wide shutdown of the electrical lines during the fires caused weeks of blackouts (they feared being sued if high winds took down power lines and triggered more fires). In New Mexico, the border patrols and increased police presence suggested the focus was on drugs and people coming in from the cartels and mountains areas across the Mexican border. The list goes on. 

Border lines…

The problem is that when it comes to an issue like racial disparity, the separation of the States could make it easy to dismiss the issue as something relevant only to the South. As Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested, it’s hard for white Americans to recognise the damage that was caused by slavery and to accept that the whole country needs to change. When something is difficult to accept, it is often easier to blame someone else or ignore it completely. We saw evidence of this in Louisiana – there is only one Plantation on the Mississippi River, the Whitney, that focuses on the story of slavery. Every other big house invites it’s visitors to remember that period as a time of Southern grandeur. Read more about that in our Lessons in Louisiana blog.

A sculpture at the Whitney Plantation depicting slaves who were beheaded after trying to escape – even this was hidden behind a wall though.. you had to go and find it.

It takes great effort to bring all the States together as a Nation when crisis hits, to combine the differences between rural and urban communities and to recognise minority groups within the melting pot of cultures that sit within this enormous country – and the man at the helm is the President.

America = the (un) United States

If all it took was flying the stars and stripes, America could not come across as more united. But it takes more than a flag to unite a nation. 

Recently a British friend, a director at a social media agency, put together an infographic about the ‘stories of solidarity’ from the Covid lockdown in the UK. It included the Major who walked around his garden to raise money, the baked potato song, the clapping for the NHS etc. He wanted to do one about America and asked us for feedback on the nationwide stories that were bringing America together in the fight against Covid. The responses rolled in: ‘Solidarity? Not here!’. 

I asked my friend Adena to explain,

We are a divided nation, being egged on to make hurtful, hateful choices, to bicker, and attack each other, to claim the non-altruistic motto of ‘America first’, to be racist and classist – to lie to ourselves and others to get capitalism done”.

Adena

Adena went on to clarify that Coronavirus-inspired good stuff is happening, just locally in communities and families. It’s kept quiet – people don’t like to be seen as in need of charity.  In her opinion, this comes down to an American culture trait of shaming. You are made to feel ashamed that you made a bad decision – spending your money instead of putting it away for your family. You keep it quiet. 

The fear of being shamed may or not may not be an American trait, it’s not something we have witnessed in the people we have met, but I can definitely attest to seeing one person act it out publicly: Trump. 

Throughout Coronavirus the President has continued to shame anyone he possibly can in a bid to show that someone else is responsible for America’s failure to manage the virus. This started off being other countries fault, but when was forced to look within his own country, it quickly moved on to his Governors who were pitted against each other in the blame race. Now he is using his ‘special way with words’ to explain what he believes is happening with racism in America and those divisive words are reaching people in every living room across the country.

No media interruption here – just good ole laser gun battles in the woods

The truth is out there… Or it isn’t

According to our Homestead friends, the best way to find out the news and take stock of a developing situation is take a cross section of NPR (national public radio), CNN and BBC news. Of course that relies on you wanting to find a neutral, unbiased view. Many people just watch one news channel and take what they hear as the truth, and with Trump dominating the National news and channels offering stories with a clear political leaning, it is no wonder there is confusion, paranoia and distrust. 

A case in point is Trumps recent tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Washington so that he could have a photoshoot with his Bible in front of a church. Fox News, known for it’s partisan reporting, covered the story but the headlines leaned toward Trump’s narrative – that the protesters became combative, that weapons were later found at the scene, that rioters attempted to burn down one of the nation’s most historic churches and that tear gas was not used, it was just a pepper spray.

It isn’t what you think…  Fox News reports Trumps twisted truths.

The paranoia about ‘fake news’ is not even quashed by hearing from those involved. A post circulated on Facebook written by the church rector on Facebook. It told of a peaceful event in which she had been handing out water alongside her colleague, a nurse. She was therefore  ‘deeply offended’  when police in riot gear turned up and threw tear gas and concussion grenades to move the protesters on; Trump may well have walked over their medical and water supplies on the way to his photo-shoot. The majority of comments below showed support for the rector and many shared the post, but one angry voice spoke out: how did we know that was the rector? And how could we be sure that was true if we didn’t see it with our own eyes?

A world where we can only believe in what we see with our own eyes

Thankfully, not everyone chalked it up to fake news. Several high ranking officials spoke out against Trump’s divisive actions and media outbursts. Even his own former Defence Secretary condemned him.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try…

Former Defense Secretary, James Martin

How can America change the way it thinks about race when it’s own President appears to advocate violence against protesters? How can it feel connected to society’s problems when television is happy to bend the truth in order to keep on his good side? How do they know what to believe when they are repeatedly told about ‘fake news’.

America, it seems, will remain a divided nation if we leave it to the man in charge. 

But… we don’t have to leave it to the man in charge

Thankfully not everybody is following Trump’s example. Even though we have seen or heard little of the race riots on the streets of rural America, it has been rewarding to see the protests have kick-started discussion in the cities and, in some cases, organisations that function across States. The U.S Marine Corps are making it policy to stop the use of the Confederate flag and several monuments of Civil war heroes have been moved to museums by officials who agree that their central location sends the wrong message (well apart from Trump who wants a toppled one in Washington restored). There is also talk of defunding the police and investing some of their budget into social change.

Our Homestead friend David shared this – a vision of a defunded police

Community development helps people make changes in their own lives and communities through the provision of education, counselling, skills-sharing and youth services. It gives back power instead of taking it away. For Ta-Nahesi Coates that must feel like a dream – he talks about growing up powerless, living in fear of the militarised city police, and the sadness he feels that this is the America his son will grown up in. Perhaps if defunding happens now, his son’s generation will not experience that same fear.

Speaking out and listening in

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Emily Beatrice Hall talking of Voltaire’s belief and often quoted when talking about freedom of speech

I recently read an exchange on social media between an American ex-police officer and his teacher friend. The ex-officer felt sorry for his friends in the force – the stores were being looted in the protests, a crime, and he felt that people weren’t seeing the hard work the cops were doing to keep the peace. Instead, activists were just using the shooting to gain traction for their campaign, glamourising the victims, ignoring the fact actual law-breaking went on and making the police look bad. It could have been any person of any colour out there and the result would have been the same, it was just one bad cop who made the wrong decision.

The teacher explained that bad cop or not, the stats show that it is a fact that black people are more regularly stopped and are more likely to be killed by police. It is also a fact that disadvantaged communities have an increased tendency to commit crime. The system is broken.

The exchange made me happy because it was a debate – it wasn’t just one person shouting at the other and calling them a racist. It was one person educating another person.

Continuing the debate

The BLM campaign is clear. As a white person I can never truly know what it is like to be black or brown. And whilst it may be uncomfortable to hear that I am part of the white society that has oppressed their lives, I have to accept this is true. It’s not enough to just say ‘I’m not a racist’ and continue on as before, or kid myself that as long as I treat everybody equally, the problem will just fade away. By doing nothing, I am turning a blind eye on what is happening. 

This says it all. It’s not a photo of ours – I am not sure where it came from – but it appeared on my Facebook feed and explains it all so much better than any of my pics do.

I can’t assume that people around me on my travels through Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina are not talking about race but I do know that they are not talking about it to me. Whether that is due to a feeling of disconnection from the problem because of where they live, because they have other things they believe to be more relevant, because they are ashamed of the truth or because the media and Trump has distanced them from the voices of black and brown people, is not for me to say. But if I think talking about it is important, as I do, then I should practice what I preach and keep the discussion alive where I can. Keep applauding the successes as well as sharing the sadness of the fight for racial equality so that the world becomes more aware. And that is why I have written this blog. #BLM