In first grade, learn about Noah’s ark. On the bus home, watch the rain pour down. Think about what you’d take with you, what you’d preserve. Your family, your friends, your white German shepherd, Angel. When the clouds open briefly and a shaft of light descends, believe it is a real angel coming to save you because you’re not prepared for the end of the world. Your backpack contains an empty lunchbox, your favorite calculator, a sheet of stickers, your workbook, and some pencils. Draw your house with all of your possessions, half submerged in the spillover from the flooded channel at the end of your street. Draw your green punch buggy floating away. Use a forced perspective.
Later, when your little world does end, you will leave this home and part of yourself behind. Loss is your teacher. The journey south will take you to a landlocked part of Georgia where the roads are red clay and the water hangs in the air, thick like your bushy hair. Here, nature tells you exactly who you are. You are an outsider. You don’t know how to run barefoot in the fields. You’ve never seen hairy ants the size of your thumb. You are not ready. You are not ready. You are not ready.
While you shell the pecans on the porch, conjure up your own make-believe worlds. When the bowl is full, draw elaborate maps of these faraway places. They don’t smell like the pig farm down the street. There are no snakes, no tall, tick-filled grasses. No sticker briars, no bush branches that adults use for switching you. In these fantasies, there are no punishments because there is no danger.
Yet be prepared for your imagination to crack like the shell of a nut, because here in the rural South, danger is everywhere. It is 1985 and segregation lingers in these parts, so only venture out to the yard, the neighbor’s, the church, and the corner store. “Out there” is not a place for you. To help you understand, really understand your place, the switch is your teacher. It’s brutal, but it works. Choose wisely. Snap off the right size branch. Too big and it will sting too much; too small and the adults will choose for you, raise the stakes.
The lesson learned: Nature is not your friend. Nature is the white man’s domain. Do not trespass. Do not draw attention to yourself.
As soon as you are old enough, move to the big city. This is your place. There are people like you here. People who wear shoes. Really nice shoes. Survive the city by first becoming a student, then a starving dancer. A working artist who is still broke. Trek to Brooklyn for the minimum wage. Survive the heat of the moment, the falling in love and the inevitable break of your heart. Journey to the Bronx for the pulsing crowd. Let the beat reset you before you rest your head in Queens. Every day a different battle. Break your back in the daily grind. Find the medicinal heat patches in Chinatown. Let the burn settle into your skin. On Sunday dance again in the sweaty club. On Monday dance in the store window. On Tuesday dance in the dirty studio, then make your way to the roof to see the fires rage in the skyline.
Survive 9/11 by walking up the perfectly straight, man-made avenues. The smoke rises behind you. Look around to see ash-covered humans, making the same choice as you. Walk for miles. Doubt this choice again and again. But find safety in numbers. Think, perhaps your dance training can provide you with quicker muscular reflexes than most. Perhaps it gives you a sharper sense of space, of time. Perhaps it can make you a fitter survivor.
Your dance bag contains foot tape, a towel, and tennis balls for releasing tension in that lower part of your back, which will never fully heal. You are not ready. By nightfall, walk across the Triborough Bridge, back to where the brown people live. You are home, but you are not safe. Look back across the river, remember the ash-covered humans and the sense that moving is better than staying. Remind yourself of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” The story is your teacher. It informs you that the city is a target, a rich person’s domain. Carry the trauma of displacement with you. It will help you later.
Continue to survive the city for more than 20 years. Become recognized for your talents. Hear that you have great rhythm, that your dancing is animalistic. Crawl like a panther. Do not expect to be seen as angelic or classical or refined.
Master your attitude. Learn to cope with being alone. Become familiar with token status. Realize that you can feel lonelier with others than by yourself. You must experience high doses of stress, develop many ulcers. The bleeding pain in your gut will mask the hurt inflicted by those around you. It will give you thick skin.
Master your fear. If you can’t even enjoy a long-distance run, how can you feel empowered to discover? The imagination cracks like a nut. Take the time to practice the body positions and guttural shouts you learned in self-defense class. The heel palm strike. The groin kick. The headlock release.
Prep your urban environment because disaster is already and always here. The streets are a jungle of potential police violence. The Great Outdoors is literally just outside your door. The apocalypse is here, and the government won’t help you when the hurricane floods your city and your water becomes contaminated and the pandemic sickens your loved ones. Put a drop of bleach in each jug of water. It will kill most things and keep harmful bacteria from growing over the coming months. Start a garden in the abandoned lot down the block, or harvest some of the vegetables from the church plot.
Rely on yourself but seek out the wisdom of others. You cannot survive in isolation. Rally the troops. They are your new teachers. Help each other snuff out the shame of slavery and its proximity to the dirt. Seek out the remnants of the savage. Reclaim that word. Learn to hunt, fish, trap, and forage. Retract the elbow and focus the eye in your practice of archery. Conjure the precision needed to skin the animal and tie the knots. Grasp the flint and strike. Blow, and add more kindling. Most importantly, learn how to dress a wound, how to breathe into someone else’s lungs. You are almost ready — but when the government collapses, all bets are off. Activate the neighborhood watch. Look to the rooftops. The pigeons will flock above. When they flip, that is your signal: Run. It’s time to leave the city.
Head for the woods. Find a hideout. But first, read “Dies the Fire” and watch “Revolution.” Imagine local, bigoted militias gone rogue. Study “Alone” and “Naked and Afraid” to get a mental picture of what it’s like in the wilderness. These shows will tell you that you need a pot, a machete, netting, and a tarp. Don’t worry that you don’t see any contestants who resemble you. We are not prepared. We don’t go into the wilderness, not anymore. You will have your life on your back. Your food, rope, book, first aid, weapon of choice. Learn to build a shelter. Learn to clock the sun in the sky. Look for the mysterious collecting of birds and insects to forecast rain. Your body is strong. Nature is stronger.
Space and time stretch before you. Air fills your lungs. Sweat drips down your face. Take in the dappled light in the morning, the strafing light of the afternoon. Sleep under the stars. Experience the freedom of anonymity. Still, when you encounter others, remember you are a visitor. You are always the only Black person. Your gear is not as expensive. But your survival bag holds a pocketknife, bug spray, water bottle, dried food, headlamp, water purifier, first-aid kit. You are ready. Unearth the stories you were never taught.
Go West. Look for the horse tracks of the Buffalo Soldiers. Walk along the paths they cleared through the old growth forests in what we now call the national parks. You might see Shelton Johnson. You might see a Black female park ranger in the Tetons at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. Try not to stare. For your sake and theirs, pretend it’s normal. You can speculate as to how they got here. You can even take this jumble of images, past and present, and stitch it to Brianna Noble riding like a modern-day queen on horseback through the streets of Oakland in protest of racial injustice in 2020.
Go North. To the shores of Lake Michigan 101 years ago. Picture the Chicago race riots erupting from the death of a Black boy. See if you can make out the exact line of segregation in these waters. Imagine drifting into the wrong side and drowning from the blow of a thrown rock. Do not believe the lies they tell, that Black people’s bones are denser, feet flatter. Do not fear the water. Make yourself swim across this invisible border over and over again for endurance. Do the backstroke, the breaststroke, and most importantly the freestyle.
Go farther North. Into the falling snow and melting glaciers of a dying world. Visualize yourself as a contemporary pioneer. Follow the route Matthew Henson took on that merchant ship. Imagine his many voyages to the Arctic, learning the Inuit language, dog sledding. Imagine you help to discover the North Pole, but nobody really knows. Share these lessons. Make copies of his memoir, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.” Stuff them into bottles and send them back East, out into the Atlantic Ocean where much has been lost. Think of the North Pole not as a place, but a force, with the power to move its axis, the power to be rewritten.
Go South. Where it all began. Visit the sites of the old turpentine forests — “the 10,000 faces in the piney woods” from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Mules and Men.” Imagine a time when African-Americans were forced to extract the saps and then cut down these forests. Listen for the ghosts of maroons who escaped. Picture the wilderness as a site of fear, liberation, and redemption. Meditate on the hidden settlements of the Southern swamps. Imagine a partnership with the other brown people, the Indigenous ones who share their skills and languages with you. Dream of uniting with them and defending your freedom in the Seminole Wars.
You are an individual and a people unbound by these laws. Go forth into these uncharted lands.
Conquer yourself. Expand your mind. Extend your limbs to the four corners. Jump until your breath becomes heavy. Then sink your toes into the red soil.
Dancing is what you have, but it won’t provide you with stability. Your success and your endurance will make you a teaching artist but won’t give you enough money to buy a home where you’ve performed this success. Fashion yourself for academia and philanthropic foundations to get a share of that institutional money harvested from the blood and sweat of slaves. Your money will make you a desirable candidate for a loan, but it won’t teach you about your history. It won’t replace the stories of runaways being lynched in the forest. It won’t rewrite the Jim Crow laws and the redlining and the mass incarceration. It won’t suppress the fear that your loan will be taken away once they find out who you are. It won’t shake the notion that this land is not your land. And it still won’t be worth 40 acres.
Take root in seven acres in the Catskills. It’s more than most have, and it’s enough to sense the imprint of the people who roamed the land before you. It’s enough to sense the seasonal changes and to ask how much an environment changes you. Make sure there is a well and a stream. Rebuild the old home on this land. Make it yours. Make it a sanctuary. Find a way to install a wood stove. If the power goes out, you can heat and feed yourself.
Learn about the trees on this land. Blue spruce, silver birch, black willow, red maple, oak, ash, beech, fir, cedar, linden, poplar, hemlock, walnut, cherry, chestnut, apple. Buy the cider press and the canning supplies. Look out for the white pine’s spiral structure, vulnerable to high winds. When propelled, its branch will make a glorious spinning leap into the air, followed by a snap in the knee upon landing. Cut down the dying trees and the trees good for burning. Give thanks. Chop and haul the wood, stack it in rows to prevent rot. A pattern becomes a portal.
Be brave enough to attempt recreation in nature. Before nature’s healing powers can settle in, the current will capsize the kayak. Is that why the rivers are called kills here? The Dutch have a sinister sense of humor. River roadkill. Black oil spill. Paddles float away. But you are prepared for this. Flip the boat. Take a breath. Then carry on down. Carrion floating between these mountains carved by glaciers. Try to notice the sheer beauty of the landscape. American flags dot the bank. A willow tree reaches from the shore to the center of the stream like a lifeline. A horizontal trunk begging to be adorned with a tire swing. You will wonder if any bodies have ever hanged from that tree.
In the summer, eat food from your own garden and from the nearby farms. In the fall, pick the apples and harvest the grapes. Watch the leaves turn and blanket the ground. In the long, dark winter, wrap yourself in wool. Shovel the snow and build the fire. In the spring, look for the quick-paced choreography of birds as they flit from branch to branch. Goldfinch, house finch, purple finch, robin, chickadee, oriole, cardinal, mourning dove, red-winged blackbird, dark-eyed junco, tufted titmouse, scarlet tanager, blue jay, nuthatch, woodcock, sparrow, indigo bunting, Northern flicker, rose-breasted grosbeak, hairy woodpecker. The hummingbird will hover in anticipation. The Eastern Phoebe will pump her tail to the beat. The common grackles will usher in a climactic, ensemble finale.
You are home.
Pull out the invasive species. Forward bends, low squats, heel pushes, and torso heaves. Go all the way to the roots. It will break you physically and mentally. You cannot excise the trauma of the Middle Passage. You cannot forget the pain and suffering of building this country, making it great. You will always remember the whippings and the burning crosses. But trust that you will endure. This wild unknown thing can be cultivated into a recognizable form. You must remain steadfast. The weeds will always demand their indistinct sprawl, their right to dominate this Earth.
Plant the tomatoes, beans, kale, squash, and radishes. Water and wait. To steward a plant from seed to fruit is to be beholden, is to be held. To do this again and again is to develop a symbiotic relationship. Wilderness is inside of you. You are your own teacher. Black survivalism has the same ambition as Afrofuturism, only it’s concerned with realizing that vision in the present. Make that shit happen now. Locate your own form of resistance. Go backward or forward to a harmonious and holistic relationship with nature and place, to a time where natural resources aren’t sapped and hoarded, where pollution doesn’t harm the poor. Become autonomous from the roving and virtual space of society and embedded in the local geographic experience. One day, when Afrofuturism is Afropastime, you will travel off this planet into the stars as an evolved and hybrid mutation of your environment.
Perform a south-facing ritual with no beginning, middle, or end.
Draw a circle around yourself.
To survive you must conjure the ancestors.
Your ritual can be chaotic like the natural order of the universe.
The moon can share the sky with the stars.
Stand tall. Step to the left, then right.
To survive is to be vigilant, alert.
Shake your whole body. Let the rhythm grow and subside.
Believe in and submit to change of varying scales.
Choose a self-propagating, asymmetrical, informal structure that is ever-blooming.
This disarray will create diversity.
Your day lilies follow your phlox. Your irises precede your peonies.
Your wildflowers cannot be tamed.
Lie flat on your back. Look up and out.
To survive you must reconcile the past, present, and future.
Survival is accumulation. Survival is devotion. Survival is creation.