Latria Graham Rewrites the Narrative on Being Black in the Outdoors

Carlo Nasisse

Latria Graham

Growing up, Latria Graham learned firsthand what it was like to be excluded and erased. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and other “dead white dudes,” as she describes them, dominated her late-90s and early-2000s South Carolina school curriculum. Even after she escaped the American South for Dartmouth College—as far from South Carolina as she could get without crossing the Canadian border, she jokes—she didn’t see her love for nature reflected in the city-centric Black literature that she read. Pervasive stereotypes about Black people disliking the outdoors contradicted her daily existence. Graham felt as if “nobody cared about stories like mine … and by extension, nobody cared about me.”

Her perspective began to shift when she delved into the work of writers like Zora Neale Hurston. Reading Hurston’s books, “my skin prickled with their familiarity.” While pursuing her MFA, “I started to understand that I had a perspective and a point of view,” she says. After her father became ill her first year of grad school, in 2011, she grew determined to document stories of her family and legacy—tales that threatened to slip away as her relatives died. Born to generations of farmers, Graham also started exploring stories of the land, from the elemental properties of soil and food to the less tangible narratives that wove together cultural traditions and ancestral pain.

Now, as an established freelance writer based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Graham covers a wide range of subjects, from sports to food to environmental justice. In doing so, she’s rewriting the stories of southern African Americans into the regional and national consciousness, and reclaiming her own rootedness in the American South. “The one thing that I know, in my bones,” she says, “is that I was put on this earth to tell stories.”

Two of her best-recognized stories represent a return to her roots, detailing her personal reckonings with being a Black woman experiencing and writing about the outdoors. In 2018, she published the essay “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us,” in Outside magazine, debunking the common misconception that Black people don’t like the outdoors. In the article, she reflected on the dangers of being Black in the outdoors, but was, as she later put it, “light on the risks and violence and heavy-handed on hope.” Last September, after the upwelling of the Black Lives Matter movement that began in the spring of 2020, she published a sequel in the same magazine: “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream.

In that second essay, Graham braids personal reminiscences, historical data, and recent events into a vivid and heartbreaking piece on how white supremacy violently manifests in America, particularly in the outdoors. Graham writes of when she was 11 years old and her peers sported the Confederate flag on their T-shirts. She writes of how her mom pressed a gun into her hand before Graham left for her writing residency in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, once home to slaves who have been all but erased from history. Her scenes bleed with brutal detail, as when she documents the death of Anthony Hill, a Black man working at a poultry plant, who was shot and killed by his white coworker, Gregory Collins, in 2010, near her own family farm in South Carolina: “He dragged Hill’s body behind his pickup truck for ten miles along the highways near my grandmother’s house, leaving a trail of blood and tendons.”

Many of these stories have been buried by time and neglect. Graham painfully resurfaces them, in the hopes of “rewriting the story of who belongs” in the American outdoors. Writing the 2020 essay, Graham says, “cost me a piece of my soul that I will never get back.”

Here, Graham speaks with science writer Eva Legge about how she found the strength to write this pair of stories, and how she balances her well-being with the emotional toll of reporting on race. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 

These two articles revolve around the same topic of Black exclusion from outdoor spaces, but they’re vastly different in tone. How did your approaches to the two pieces diverge, and what was your motivation to write the second piece?

Those two pieces function very differently, and the mode of urgency is different. That first piece, I had something to prove. I was writing against this idea that Black people [didn’t want to be in the outdoors]. I was like, “We aren’t in these spaces, but this is why.”

“You’ve got 30 percent of Black people living in the Southeast, and a number of these states have no national parks. My family’s not going to the Grand Canyon, because my parents can’t take a week off.”

You’ve got 30 percent of Black people living in the Southeast, and a number of these states have no national parks. My family’s not going to the Grand Canyon, because my parents can’t take a week off. If you’re worried about all of the barriers that systemic racism puts on people—access, time, money—all these things that we’re up against, I was like, “Yes, these are true. Here is the data, here’s what is missing from this data.” That piece was written mostly to prove something to white people—because Black people knew why we weren’t [in these outdoor spaces].

The second time that I decided to write [about Black people’s presence in the outdoors], I’d already proven that I understood how social, historical, and cultural events impressed upon Black people [ideas about] who belongs and who doesn’t. I wasn’t as centered on statistics and data in that piece. And I’m writing in this crucible moment about what is happening in my country and the way that it makes me and my peers feel. That piece was not supposed to run in print because the deadline was too close—Outside works six months to a year in advance. I literally had five days from idea to draft. But it was important, and they saw that it resonated. I just kept working on it really quickly, and it came together.

Both of these pieces for Outside deal with so much historical detail and data as well as your own personal reminiscences. How do you integrate it all into a cohesive piece?

One: I overwrite. The 2020 piece ended up being around 6,000 words, though [I turned in] about 8,000. This is the power of a good editor—to show you where you can tighten. Because sometimes I do lose perspective, because I’m in this moment of deep grief and feeling. I think what I do well [is that I’m] level-headed enough to understand the data. But I also understand that I’m working through this and sometimes my investment is so large that it can overwhelm a piece.

Something else that I do: I love Post-its. I love, love, love Post-its. I put my points or my major thoughts down either on flashcards or Post-its and I [line] them up on a wall, and I think about what’s happening organizationally. Structure is always the first step for me. If you look at the 2020 piece, it’s an epistolary structure—halfway through, it becomes a letter. I’m writing back to these people that have written me letters [after they read my 2018 piece]. The epistolary nature—it’s in the Bible. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple starts [with a collection of letters that begin] “Dear God.” So I am pulling from this high literary tradition that I understand that I am a part of, and that gives me a framework that I can then drape what I have across.

Once I know what I want to say, or what I need to explain, it is really about choosing the pieces. [For example, in the 2020 essay,] I’m not trying to fit in every name of every person that has been a victim of racism in the national news. I’m selectively choosing the ones that work to make this narrative happen. I’ll ask myself, “What is stuck in my brain? What resonates with me, that I can’t stop thinking about?”

That’s a lot to juggle. Do you ever get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you need to pack in?

“Done is better than perfect. Put your butt in the chair, show up, and do the work.”

This is something that I struggle with whenever I’m working on a long-form feature. I’m like, how do you know that you know everything there is to possibly know about a thing before you start writing on it? You can’t. You just have to put down your take, and make it solid, make it moving, make it evidence-based. Done is better than perfect. Put your butt in the chair, show up, and do the work.

Whenever I go in for a [personal] piece, because I don’t have [a] journal, I have what I remember. But then I go back and look up what was factually true about this moment, like when I talked about the hail in that first piece from 2018. I remember it being a hard year, I remember you would stand up after being knocked down and get knocked flat again. I didn’t remember the exact number of times [it hailed], but being able to go back to the records told me how many times. So I’ll take my remembrances, and go back and flesh out things around that, because I always want to be tethered to what’s true.

How do you approach pitching difficult subjects to publications, knowing they or their audiences may not be completely receptive to the topic?

I don’t get married to publications. I’ve had to pull some honest, vulnerable pieces from really big names, because it was not what it needed to be, or their expectation. Sometimes you tell a story and it gets garbled or edited within an inch of its life and you’re like, “Man, I can’t kill this because I need the money.” I sat with a lot of that guilt in the beginning of my career. But you have to understand it’s not the only time that you can tell that story. I can’t let a publication change the story that I wanted to tell. When I know a story is good, I know it will find a home—I just have to find the right home.

[Even if you end up pulling a piece,] you’ve learned something about how you wish this approach to go for next time. People are often thinking “win or lose,” and I’m like, it’s “win or learn.” I never lose if I’ve gotten something from this experience.

That’s a lot of pressure to deal with. Has it sometimes felt like too much?

[As a freelancer] you’re balancing so many things. You’re asking your sources to trust you; you’re asking your editor to trust you and make space for you and pay you money for it. It’s a lot of pressure on the writer. But it’s like a muscle: The more you sit with the pressure, the better it gets. It never gets easy; you just understand that you’re capable. In the beginning, I had lots of meltdowns about whether or not I was capable.

“Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream” dealt with extremely heavy subjects. What toll did writing it take on you?

That piece cost me a piece of my soul that I will never get back. The thing that’s frustrating about the 2020 piece is that everyone expects that type of piece from me, not understanding the toll that something that haunting and personal takes on a person. That was a piece that I am sure has changed my life. I was the same person before and after writing it, but it just changed how the establishment and editors saw me and the sort of weight and seriousness that they thought I could write with. But they’re like, “Do it again!” For certain people, it feels like a magic trick: They hope that you can be emotionally torturous on demand. That’s not fair, as a Black person that is living under all of these conditions. It’s also not fair to me as a human being. It’s not a magic trick. Understanding it’s okay to say no—I’m still struggling with that, and with putting up that boundary.

The one thing that I know, in my bones, is that I was put on this earth to tell stories…. How I do that will become its own thing. But I understand that this is what I’m meant to do.”

That’s part of the reason I’ve got to [stop taking interviews until June] because I’ve not sat with everything that’s happening. I lost my mentor John Lewis. I lost my grandmother. I lost my aunt. I lost six classmates during the pandemic. That type of sadness will burn you up and when you’re a freelancer, no one is sitting you down.

When you are salaried or hitched to a place, often they put you through some sort of therapy. They have an investment in you to make sure that you’re okay. When you’re a freelancer, they don’t. You have to be very good about caring for yourself and not running yourself into the ground. I’m still learning that lesson. I did not have the fiscal mobility to take care of myself until about a year ago, I started actively doing it maybe three or four months ago. And I’m still trying to figure out how to establish boundaries.

So it’s [essential] to know yourself, your work, and what you have to give this profession. I don’t want to say “what you’re good at,” or “what you’re passionate about,” because those words are often used terribly. Because writing is not my passion. Writing is a set of skills that I have, that I utilize in order to make an impact on the world. But this is very much a business. The best thing that can happen is that your personal convictions in writing meet up with the business acumen of writing.

The one thing that I know, in my bones, is that I was put on this earth to tell stories. I am from a line of storytellers. How I do that will become its own thing. But I understand that this is what I’m meant to do. And that’s where a lot of my choices and convictions come from. It’s the thing that allows me to step into some of these hard places.

 

 

Christian Thorne

Eva Legge

Eva Legge is a freelance science writer, and her work has appeared in publications such as Grist, Yale Scientific, and Planet Forward. She’s the 2020 winner of the United Nations’ World Food Day Storytelling Award, and the 2021 Storyfest winner of “Best Science Narrative” at George Washington University’s Planet Forward. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, Science Talk, and NPR Scicommers. Follow her on Twitter @EvaLegge1.

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