Black History, Unearthed
”A Darker Wilderness“ explores the relationship of Black folks to nature and to the state.
Archives come in many forms, from private family collections to huge federal agencies, like the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The objects that make up these collections are personal accounts of daily life or notable moments, photographs, letters, news, formal memos, and other ephemera of historical importance. Sometimes the significance is found years after an object is collected or by piecing together items from disparate periods or locations. The archives offer touch points for our continued relationships with history.
It bears noting here that archives are not neutral. Many collections are housed in large institutions with the resources to preserve them. These collections can reflect the bias of those institutions and their agents. I am reminded of this when I encounter archival objects featuring Black people who have been recorded as nameless subjects and creators. This incomplete record invites us to imagine into the blank spaces left by librarians, archivists, museum directors, and collectors operating from prejudice.
While in residence at the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota, I learned about Umbra Search, a digital aggregate collection of Black history and memory. There, I stumbled upon Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of our Lord, 1793. I was familiar with the concept of a farmers’ almanac—weather forecasts, celestial cycles, tide tables, trend projections, and best days for things like sheep shearing or harvesting fruit. But it wasn’t until I read the 230-year-old almanac created by Benjamin Banneker that my real interest in almanacs was cemented, and I understood the political implications of this document by a free Black man at that time.
Banneker was an inventor, surveyor, and tobacco farmer living in Baltimore County, Maryland, who is remembered as one of the people who originally surveyed the city of Washington, D.C. From 1792 to 1797, Banneker wrote yearly almanacs for farmers that included political commentary alongside long-range weather predictions using his astronomical expertise. These pamphlets were published by white abolitionists from the North and featured, necessary for the time, testimonials to his skill and merit.
The 1793 edition of Banneker’s almanac begins with his letter of August 19, 1791, to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Regarding racist tropes designed to enable the enslavement of Black people, Banneker implores Jefferson to “readily embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevail with respect to us.” The careful observations of Banneker’s scientific mind were not just of practical value for farmers who read his calculations in the 1790s. Banneker’s observations and philosophical writing were layered with meaning and intention. He used his prowess and expertise to earn respect for the potential of Black peoples’ achievement that was then stifled by enslavement. My meeting with Banneker and his almanac sparked a new project. A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars is a collection of personal and lyric essays that grew out of an exploration of the relationship of Black folks to nature and to the state. Just as the archives are political, so is nature and our access and associations with it.
Each essay in A Darker Wilderness is in conversation with an archival object to emphasize our long-standing relationships to the living world. In “Memory Divine,” Carolyn Finney shares a piece of her private archive, a photograph of her mother on the New York estate she and her husband lovingly tended as caretakers for nearly 50 years. Finney writes, “When I stare at the picture of my mother kneeling in the sun, in … this home but not home … I wonder if she was seeking her own reflection in the pond.”
The contemplation of freedom and ownership continues in the offerings from Glynn Pogue and Sean Hill. Pogue invites readers to think about family vacations and movement through hostile environs. Hill reflects on the intersection of Black military service and land ownership through a document from the state of Georgia’s archives that outlines the allocation of land to, and the partial emancipation of, Revolutionary War veteran Austin Dabney. In her essay, poet Ama Codjoe contemplates liberty and unearths unpublished photographs of a civil rights demonstration in Greensboro, Alabama, in the summer of 1965. She implores readers to really look at an image of a Black girl caught in the rain, writing, “Picture the picture without rain, and somehow the girl in the photograph appears less free. Here I don’t mean the freedom a government can grant—though she wants this too—I mean the freedom she was born with.”
Naima Penniman continues the theme in “Concentric Memory,” where she asks, “How do we reconcile the contradictions of the sacred—where the lands that was the source of our dignity and sovereignty were also the scenes of slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, and cross burning; where the trees that bestowed the fruits that nourished us were also the limbs that bore the unbearable weight of our murdered bodies?”
Poet Michael Kleber-Diggs also shares an object in his own family’s records. In his essay “There Was a Tremendous Softness,” he remembers the months he and his twin brother spent living with their grandparents while navigating grief after their father’s death. The poet’s grandfather’s fishing gear and tackle box illustrate the safety of domestic life in Wichita. He reminisces that “the summer after my father died was the first time I really gardened. … I remember watching things grow and ripen.”
In “Water and Stone: A Ceremony for Audre Lorde in Three Parts,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs recasts the Black feminist lesbian poet as a nature poet. In “Confronting the Names on This Land,” Lauret Savoy updates her earlier writing on racism in place names. And katie robinson uses the found-object sculptures of David Butler to disrupt definitions of nature and its boundaries while reflecting on their relationship to fear.
One notable deviation from the book’s structure comes from the writer Ronald L. Greer II. Readers will find a gray box in place of a photograph of an archival object, illustrating how inequities deprive some communities of safekeeping of their historically significant objects, as well as the traumas of the carceral system, which were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Greer is currently incarcerated. This blocked his access to archival research as well as the safekeeping of his personal mementos.
My own relationship to place has expanded while editing this collection. Two years ago, my wife and I and some friends stepped up to steward a sacred piece of land in central Minnesota. The Fields at Rootsprings retreat fosters healing for Black, Indigenous, and people of color and LGBTQ people. This place feels special because it was a spiritual retreat long before we encountered it. Rootsprings was formerly called “Wellsprings.” Before that, nuns from the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls named it “Clare’s Well,” after a 13th-century mystic, Clare of Assisi. While getting acquainted with the property, we have had the memories of one of the nuns serving as guideposts. Letters arrive by mail at serendipitous moments, sharing memories of particularly beautiful night skies, digging a kiva by the lake, and installing a geothermal heating and cooling system for the farmhouse. We also find chronicles of the nuns’ adventures in nooks and crannies in the basement or the barn. These artifacts are facilitating a conversation with this land across time.
The essays in A Darker Wilderness wrestle with the current moment’s questions of liberty and the nation state by engaging objects as old as our country’s origins. They speak across time and invite readers to consider the significance of their own relationship to time and to record. I am beginning to think of my own archive and to define my experience of the present in hopes that my record will be added to further, ongoing conversation in the American project.