I met Angela Bates in 2006, my second year out on the 5000-mile ride, coming through Kansas in late September. The weather remained hot, and I rode with a great deal of inexperience – it became the hardest ride of all. It was here that I met Angela, who introduced me to the life and history of Nicodemus, Kansas, an African American settlement of newly emancipated men, women, and children who had been enslaved their entire lives by, of course, white people.
Through Angela, I discovered the story of people searching for a new life, with almost disbelief, that they were now freed from slavery, but not free from the target of racism.
It was my experience in Nicodemus that set my mind on, “Life without fear is freedom.” Where that phrase came from I do not know, but it came to me the more I rode and traveled, as I did for so many years. I remember riding from that town and thinking, “Could an African American woman ride around the country like this?” and if she was determined to do so, what would HER experience be? Or, an American Indian, or Latina, or any woman not white and Christian? Would they be welcomed at mostly white folks’ homes as I had been day after day?
I thought so much about the stories Angela shared with me. Her own ancestors who were once enslaved, “Freed” in the failing period of Reconstruction. And I thought, “No they were not free.” They lived knowing that at any time, people–white people, could come, lynch, imprison, beat, burn out, or run off. This they lived with and yet, AND YET they survived and thrived in towns such as Nicodemus. They loved and flourished until their success was seen as a threat, as in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they burned Black Wall Street in the Tulsa Race Massacre, with over 300 lies lost. IF life without fear is freedom, then how could it have been for them?
During this Covid-19 pandemic, we see the best in people and the worst in people. It is a time to ask ourselves, “How would we feel if we had this history?” — a history of being subjected to the worst of humanity — and it continues to be so.
Systemic racism is real, and facing inequality is not easy — because, it requires white people to think outside our own white experience to become aware of racism, especially systemic racism which will at times require us to give up something in order to have equality for all. We must give up our ignorance of ALL of American history. We are not a “White America.” We are a rich and diverse country that can be much more if only we come together as one united nation. Everyone benefits from giving up discrimination — value added in human talent and participation. And truly, no one is free, including white people, when anyone is oppressed.
It is time time as white people, to look at more than Our story. This is a time of reconciliation. A time of change. Finding a new way of living together, embracing diversity. And really, isn’t it past time? Or, we could continue with…. “Let’s just keep quiet for another 400 years and see if inequality, injustice, and racism will, as we have heard, ‘just magically go away’.”
My years of long riding are filled with continuous examples and lessons of generosity — people who could have easily slammed the door in my face but did not. THEY DID NOT.
Once I rode past a house in mid-construction where several Hispanic workers (I was in Arizona riding the 6000-miles ride) sat taking an afternoon break, eating rice and beans wrapped in homemade tortillas their wives had made, warmed on a Coleman stove. My Spanish was as limited as their English but they so wanted to share food with me and see my horses, that I did stop. Hospitality rolled from their enthusiastic voices, welcoming this stranger.
Or, the time on that very same ride when the Gwinn family invited a pretty shook-up lady long rider into their home near Yakima on the Confederated Tribes & Bands of the Yakima Nation. Days earlier I’d nearly gotten myself killed crossing Mount St. Helens. Seriously dehydrated and shaky, I came walking (with permission to cross their tribal lands) from the west in 90-degree heat when Margre and her daughter Elizabeth stopped on the road. The rest is history for me. The Gwinn family welcomed me into one of the warmest, friendliest, multi-generational families on my rides. Hosting me for the entire week, they fed me, Honor, and Claire, and we set up a bed outside so I could sleep with Claire and Honor in the backyard until I was healthy and strong enough to resume my ride. I mean, how easy would it have been to tell this stupid white girl to keep going. We have not exactly given Native Americans good reason to like us.
AND I will never forget being rescued by the Gonadanegro Family, having been caught in a winter storm while crossing the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation lands west of Albuquerque on my second ride. Once again, here a complete stranger looking and feeling pretty stupid for getting caught in yet another snow storm, is welcomed into a private home, introduced to other tribal members, fed and kept safe – my horse and dog included – while winter weather dropped over two feet of snow. And I had to think again, would I have offered such hospitality? Would I as a white woman have invited in a person of color that may have made me uncomfortable? Would I have welcomed them into my home for a week? When you are a person who “has” as opposed to one who”has not,” you see the world much differently, and it’s worth considering empathy for all sides.
Angela Bates continues with her work in Nicodemus — continues to educate, continues the struggle to keep Nicodemus’s history alive and available. Angela is one of my dearest friends who has more than once graciously opened her heart to my questions about race issues. She offers insight and understanding to historical events which have consistently brought us again and again to this place of conflict we once again find our country in.
Angela returned an email after I sent my condolences of John Lewis’ passing. I share this with all of you.
“… Yes what a great loss, but his work was done! Others have to emerge in these times. It’s individuals like you who have touched the lives of so many who have the greatest impact, people will listen to you, so speak the truth loud, clear, and wide. Let your voice be heard. Share your thoughts on your site to all that will listen to you.”
White hands must join hands of color in solidarity, welcoming people of any color or creed who come to the door, as you would a lady long rider. We all are just travelers.
Let us fill the Senate and House of Representatives with a colorful diversity that represents the entire nation, and from there form a better union of equality. It is time! Young people are calling for it. The world is calling for it. It is time!
Let’s make this the UNITED States. Let’s find out, “How much more we are.”
Link to website for the Nicodemus National Historic Site: