How Can Black People Go Camping at a Time Like This? by Debra Stone

with Featured Artwork: “Spring Cleaning for the Soul” by Elle Powell

Like a beached whale, the refrigeration container rests on Lowry Avenue behind North Memorial Health, a trauma hospital in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. It’s been there since March. Either whitewashed or dulled by time, the hand lettering on its side reads, Frank’s Vegetables. The open end of the storage container is obscured, shrouded by black screens that form a short tunnel to the rear entrance of the hospital door. Mourning netting, I call it, hiding the dead.

I view all of this from the front steps of my home. My neighbor, North Memorial, can no longer manage all of its dead in the morgue. None of my other neighbors speak of this, but I see the hearse as it drives up to the black mourning netting. The virus is real.

In my neighborhood, my spouse and I are the old ones. Fresh new neighbors, families with children, single women and men who can afford to buy houses and gay couples are the new owners of the homes of the people who were my acquaintances and have died or moved into assisted living facilities.

I see these families walking with their toddlers in strollers, the older children on tricycles or bikes with training wheels. There are runners, joggers, and fast walkers, as we walk our dog. Everybody passes by the container on their way to the park or to the parkway. No one speaks of the container as if acknowledging its presence would bring a terrible reckoning.

The right eye twitches uncontrollably, my stress level is increasing.

When I was six, Mama drove me to the clinic to find out what was wrong with the twitching eye. The physician diagnosed it as nerves. So, whenever I’m unsettled, even if the rest of my body acts normal, my right eye, the dominant one, knows and begins the nervous twitch.

“You know, we should use the trailer, since we can’t go anywhere and it’s just sitting there,” said my husband.

“Good idea.” I said sotto voce.

We bought the trailer after Trump became president, a safety net, in the probability of needing a means of escape. Maybe Canada then on to Cuba? At least it eased our paranoia. I married a man of Norwegian ancestry, how Minnesota can you get? Black and European ancestry couples are not uncommon in Minnesota but we never take for granted that at any moment systemic racism can make our relationship dangerous.

My spouse and I take turns spending time in the teardrop trailer parked in our driveway. It’s another thing that stays in place. Otherwise, we get on each other’s last good nerve. When I do this, I’m reminded of my childhood backyard “camping.” My brother, sister and I threw an old blanket over the clothesline to make our tent. We huddled there until sundown making scary faces with the flashlight taken from Dad’s workbench. The street lights muted Russell Avenue with shadows where we lived. We ventured out of the tent to catch fireflies, put them in mason jars, then watch them twinkle like tiny stars fallen from the sky. Later, tired of this, afraid that monsters would eat us in the dark of night, we came into the house to sleep in our beds.

Governor Walz finally lifted the ban on overnight camping in state parks. Before we leave for Blue Mounds State Park my husband asks, “Are you sure they’ve fixed that E-coli problem with the water.”  “Yes, you don’t need to drive to that town, Luverne for fresh water. The DNR or somebody fixed the contamination.”

“You know there was a Covid-19 outbreak in Worthington,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, getting irritated. “It’s over. The farmers killed all of the hogs. Are we good to go?”

He doesn’t say anything else.

I can’t stay here anymore. I need to get away, I can’t look at the refrigeration container one more day without a break.

We drive to the southwestern corner of Minnesota. The landscape is flat with copses of Burr oak trees amid farm fields, lush green deserts of corn and soybeans. We drive on back roads where all the town stores and restaurants, except essential businesses, are locked down. The virus. By the time we reach Pipestone, we need gas and the dog and I need to pee. I enter the public restroom hurriedly wrapping the toilet with toilet paper, use a foot on the handle to flush, sing The ABC song twice while washing my hands, and my butt pushes the door open.

We make camp at our designated site with our teardrop trailer.

Blue Mounds State Park was once the territory of the Dakota people. They lived, hunted Tatanka, “Big Beast, the provider,” while the colonizer renamed the animal American Bison. Pre-1800 over 60,000,000 Tatanka roamed the prairie; by 1900, only 300 were left, according to the information plaque of the Department of Natural Resources of Minnesota placed at the preserved prairie entrance.  Here I watch a modest herd laying in the grasses controlled by the University of Minnesota. Tatanka is no longer a provider of food and clothing for the Dakota but becomes low fat meat for the colonizer. Blue Mounds’ campers sleep in replicas of Dakota teepees. I photograph the Tatanka in the distance, near the barbed wire fence that contains them. In high school history class, the teacher never mentioned the Dakota. No one lectured about how the Dakota were driven from the land, treaties with them broken and white people claimed the region for “Manifest Destiny.”

While camping, I think about the ancestors. I feel kin to the Tatanka. African people killed, forced from their homelands and enslaved, that’s how my ancestors came to the land of the Dakota. An ancestor fourth generation uncle, Benjamin Jackson, was a buffalo soldier, named as such by the Dakota for their wooly hair and fierce fighting. Born enslaved around 1856 in Boswell, South Carolina, he ran away from his former slave owner, according to family oral history. After the Civil War, numerous Black men joined the United States Army for lack of work and education. Benjamin Jackson was one of them. According to the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska, Benjamin Jackson served as a Private in Company M of the 9th Cavalry Regiment from 1881 to 1886. After his military discharge, he returned to Nebraska. There he was a laborer in Omaha, got married and started farming in O’Neill, Nebraska. At some point in Benjamin’s life, he married a Dakota woman but if so, her name is lost to my family. Something about this lost story haunts me, thus I remember her in this way.

In 2016, Bill Bolte, president of the Merrick County Historical Society, found the military records of Benjamin Jackson while researching the “Indian Wars” from 1860 to 1890. During this time white expansion into western Native American territory resulted in broken treaties, war and the eventual removal of tribal nations to reservations.” Benjamin never told his twelve children or grandchildren about this chapter of his life. Jimmie Jackson, his grandson said, “I think it’s great, so many people back from that era were never recognized for the service that they did at the time.” On Memorial Day 2016 in Central City Nebraska 71 years after his death, Benjamin Jackson received a posthumous military funeral with a 21-gun salute and a military headstone where he laid next to his wife.

I’d like to think Benjamin Jackson wanted to forget this chapter of his life.  For him there was no glory in his military service, he never applied for his military pension. Only after a local doctor in 1932 applied on his behalf, did he finally receive a $30 a month military pension. Benjamin went back to what he knew, farming, and left the horrors of war behind.

In this pandemic summer, my mind wanders during the days we spend at Blue Mounds. What if Buffalo Soldiers and the Dakota became allies against white settlers and the U.S. Army? What if all the tribal nations unified in the West? What if Benjamin and the Dakotas began an insurrection? What if Reconstruction had not been ended by white terrorism? What if the past were different, would the present be as well? For instance, what if Philandro hadn’t been stopped by a rookie cop for a broken tail light? What if George Floyd never left Houston?

After the insurrection in Minneapolis came the white allies, the promises of change. Yet I hear the voice of the old Black man in my neighborhood say, “Y’all better hurry up now and apply to them colleges, get them small business loans ‘cuz six months from now no one is gonna care about the struggle anymore.”

I try to have hope that this time will be different, that the scenario will be about change. What if this time the change was for real?

At night it’s too hot for a camp fire and black flies bite us and the dog. He sleeps in the trailer with us. We hike the trails. The early morning sun scorches my cheeks; the sky is bright blue with cotton puff clouds. Late June prairie flowers are blooming: yellow cactus by the exposed red granite rock out croppings, purple single spiked verviain, blue/purple phlox, and pink-tinged milkweed with monarch butterflies fluttering by. The purple cone flowers and brown-eyed Susan’s will flower soon. I feel a lightness in my body, and my right eye no longer twitches. I can breathe again. Wind creates waves as it flows through tall prairie grasses and blows my curly hair all over my head.

We travel to Luverne the main town in the area to replenish groceries at the local store. An elderly Black man walks away from the parking lot. I realize how much I miss seeing Black people. In the state park I’m the only Black person there. It’s a strange type of loneliness for me to be the only one.  Yet, I’m in need of a camping respite where I can hear the mourning doves cooing as the sun rises. For my spouse and I this is where we find peace. We are both tired. Some days we just go to our separate corners in the house or the trailer rather than spend another minute discussing the weight of all that is happening. I also recognize the privilege we have to leave the city that other Black people don’t have.

But as my mama used to say, nothing lasts forever. This virus will end in its own time. I think of what Benjamin Jackson had to endure yet he raised twelve children, was a successful farmer all without the assistance of an education and laws to protect his civil rights. But my ancestors found the light in the darkness. To me the virus is a wake-up call to take care of ourselves, still be in the struggle but you still have to live. Black joy and finding your peace are also acts of resistance.

We are home now. In my garden, the linden tree shades and renders a coolness for the hostas, ferns and all the shade plants that thrive there. I envy the prairie flowers.

As we unpack the teardrop trailer, my neighbor, a nurse dressed in scrubs and a plastic face shield waves an exhausted hand in my direction and I wave back. My right eye twitches again.

A version of this essay was published in GMR, Green Mountains Review.


Debra J. Stone is co-founder and co-facilitator of the Northside Writers Group in North Minneapolis, a community-based writing group for twenty years. She has essays, short stories and poetry published in Under the Gum Tree, GMR (Green Mountains Review),, Saint Paul Almanac Black Magnolia Literary Journal, Gyroscope Review, and Black Berry Review. She received residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Intermedia Arts, Beyond the Pure, Callaloo, The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Kimbilio and New York Mills Arts Residency. In 2019, she was selected for the Loft Mentorship Fellow in creative non-fiction and was a finalist for The Loft Emerging Writers Grant. She has also received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Minneapolis Regional Arts Council. Debra is a Graywolf Press board member and chair of the Governance Committee. Debra is currently writing a collection of memoir/essays and short stories.

Elle Powell is an illustrator pursuing her M.F.A. at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of images to enrich, inspire and educate, and is especially interested in the connections between language and thought. Elle has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Occidental College. Find more of her work at:

1 Comment

  1. This essay touches me in so many ways. First, it drummed in how much our neighborhood has changed since COVID. I don’t think anybody died of COVID here, but many of our generation decided, or were forced by high taxes, to realize the appreciation on their homes (this is an inner-city neighborhood in Austin). They were replaced by just such people as Debra mentions, increasing the diversity and liveliness of the the neighborhood greatly. Second, I am a long distance cyclist, and on a trip back from Alaska 15 years ago I rode through this part of SW Minnesota (I loved the phrase “desert of soybeans” – so spot on) and camped at Pipestone. I have encountered fellow touring cyclists of many nationalities, but few women, and no black people. The women taught me what a different and more dangerous world they experience traveling alone by bicycle, and it now occurs to me that perhaps black people in America don’t travel this way because the risk is utterly too high.
    Thirdly: I am of Manx and Welsh extraction, born in Wales, and married to a wonderful Swedish lady, and I understand the difficulties of cross-cultural, if not transracial, marriages. There are days when communication is difficult.
    Fourthly: I love the counterfactual dreams. What if the Anglo-Saxons had been assimilated by the Celts, and the British Isles were totally Cymric and Gaelic-speaking? Or what if North America had been originally settled not by religious fanatics from the east of England, but by Welsh, Irish and Scots people trying to get away from the English (we did come in our millions, but AFTER the English)? Would the perennially disunited Celts have recognized kindred spirits among the Native Americans and joined forces? Would there even ever have been slavery in this country?
    Thanks for making at least one of your readers think, Debra.

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