Was out birding a while back, black as I am and have always been, checking out my white-crowned sparrow honey hole, absorbing one of my fave winter birds. Fully engrossed in their melancholy leftover Northwoods songs and snazzy namesake stripe-headed plumages, I wasn’t expecting to have my identity challenged as I was identifying them. In the face of the daily “how can we insult the people of color Oval Office challenge,” I was trying hard, America, doing my own nature-loving, bird-adoring thing, watching and reveling; escaping as it were, when this old farmer approached to tell me in this very odd, one-sided, pickup window–to–pickup window exchange, that he thought the world was a better place with “niggers knowing their place and picking cotton.” Really? Right there in the middle of my ornithological reverie, a brontosaurus-sized macro-aggression complete with racial pejoratives and a couple of unveiled half-threats of shooting trespassers who didn’t know their place thrown in for good hatemonger measure? Well, America, I took the old man at his word and left. Whatever that bitter-slick taste was that welled up on the back of my tongue was warning enough that maybe I should find another place to watch birds. So much for nature’s respite and free-roaming choice. To have someone come at me with threats and hateful ideas of revisionist history like that was, in my mind, a forewarning to a wishful lynching. I guess the old man was feeling his impunity oats and making his personal contribution to a great-again nation. A racist affront on a country road, birdwatching in South Carolina seems like a long way from 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue, but I guess there’s a shortcut to being emboldened when the “right” to spew such rhetoric comes from on high. Can’t say some horrific consequences of birding while black anywhere in ’Merica don’t cross my mind more often these days. Caution trumps life-list. So I traded sparrows in for a loggerhead shrike—an appropriately black-and-white feather-miscegenated bird. I seek my birds in places where white supremacists are less likely to abound. I consider my range now changed.
J. Drew Lanham
From the book Dear America: Letters of Hope Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy.
A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, J. Drew Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. He is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications including Orion, Audubon, Flycatcher, and Wilderness, and in several anthologies, including The Colors of Nature, State of the Heart, Bartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home.