Gloryland Brings Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson Full Circle
Editor's note: A general lack of racial diversity across the National Park System has been a growing concern as whites head towards minority status in the United States and worries arise over who will be the coming generations' advocates for national parks. In Gloryland, Shelton Johnson confronts America's ugly history with racism head-on in a novel he hopes will encourage blacks to find a connection with the country's wilderness landscapes. It's a story, however, that can without too much difficulty be applied to other races, and even to different classes in society.
In his first novel, Gloryland, Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson comes full circle.
Though thrown into the national spotlight by Ken Burns' documentary on the national parks for his talents as an interpretative ranger, it was visions of a literary career that powered Ranger Johnson through college. Indeed, it was a fluke summer job as a dishwasher at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park that propelled him into a National Park Service career. And it was that career that sent the African-American off on a search of his cultural, and even familial, history as he sought a connection that could bring more of America's blacks into the parks, both as visitors and rangers.
But not just any parks. From his experience, Ranger Johnson believes there is a scarcity of blacks in the iconic wilderness parks -- the Yellowstones, Yosemites, and Grand Canyons. It's a vacuum that troubles him, for he believes many of his race have lost their spiritual connection to the landscape. With hopes of renewing that connection, he gives us Gloryland, a novel that follows a sharecropper's son from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to a career with the U.S. Cavalry of the late 1800s and early 1900s as a Buffalo Soldier.
“By the time I arrived in Yosemite, I was a fairly skilled interpreter and was doing what everyone else was doing: interpreting the geological history of the park, the cultural history of the park and so forth," Ranger Johnson replies when asked what motivated him to write the book. "I came across this Buffalo Soldier story and I basically realized that that was it. What I mean by that was it, early on I had recognized not only that there was a lack of African-American visitors to the national parks, I recognized early on that there was a lack of African-Americans serving with the National Park Service in wilderness-type parks.
“There’s not a shortage of African-Americans working in national parks in the urban areas, like in D.C., where I worked," continues the ranger. "You go to San Francisco or Oakland, Philadelphia, New York City, you’re not going to find that there’s an absence of African-Americans working for the Park Service. But once you’re out in wilderness parks, whether it’s Shenandoah, the Smokies back East, or Yellowstone, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and so forth out West, there just aren’t a lot of African-Americans working for the Park Service.
“... A lot of African-Americans don’t feel that national parks are relevant to them. There is so much misinformation and lack of awareness about just what the National Park Service is all about that I think a lot of African-Americans would be surprised to learn that Mary McLeod Bethune or Martin Luther King, Tuskeegee Airmen, Brown vs. Board of Education, that these areas that are so specific to African-American culture, are part of the National Park System. There’s that incredible lack of awareness within the African-American community about national parks in general, so, the only pathway that I could find or even envision that would pull African-Americans into the wilderness is a history where African-Americans are in the wilderness."
That Buffalo Soldiers might be the vehicle to bridge that gap came about in 1995 when Ranger Johnson found himself in Yosemite's research library and saw an archival photo of five black soldiers on horseback. He immediately saw how he, as an interpretive ranger, could entice more blacks into the parks by presenting the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.
"I basically was inheriting a history that had been expressed and communicated to the public but for whatever reason did not take root. The story was basically dead. ... What I realized was that the story has to live beyond the work, and the energy, and the efforts of the ranger telling the story. The story has to have a lifespan of its own, separate from that. That was with me from the outset," says Ranger Johnson. "With the outset was the sense that this was a history that was on life-support. How do I bring back the dead? When I saw that photograph in our research library of the five guys that were on horseback who were part of the 24th infantry -- they were mounted but they were part of the infantry -- I realized that this was the story. This was the story that I could use as a tool to create a doorway through which African-Americans could pass into the whole idea of national parks, because I realized early on that it had now become an issue of relevance."
But while he had his story line -- "Buffalo Soldiers ... is the only history of stewardship of wilderness by African-Americans in the history of the National Park Service," he points out - Ranger Johnson had another dilemma to overcome. Most members of his audiences -- he interprets the Buffalo Soldiers through a monologue presented in Yosemite -- were whites. But as he conducted research to strengthen his program, he also was building the resource materials that helped him craft Gloryland, a story that can be read anywhere in the world, not only in a national park.
"Telling the history of one of these soldiers whose parents were probably enslaved, and who basically was functioning as a cavalryman in the Jim Crow South, the same time period as Jim Crow, race became part of the subject because you can’t talk about that time period in America without talking about race because an African-American was being lynched on a daily basis," Ranger Johnson explains.
All this plays out in Gloryland as Elijah Yancy travels from his boyhood home in Spartanburg -- the same town where Ranger Johnson's father grew up -- to Nebraska where he joins the cavalry, and eventually to Yosemite. Along the way the character's first-person narrative takes the reader to Florida and then to the Philippines so the author can portray the cultural challenges blacks encountered and endured a century ago.
The book's connection with the spiritualism that can be found in land is not new -- indeed, Ranger Johnson makes that point in one of his segments in The National Parks: America's Best Idea -- but in fact is well-seated in history, he notes.
“Where did Moses go for enlightenment? He went up to the mountain top. What was Martin Luther King Jr. talking about, saying he had 'come down from the mountain.' This is part of African-American cultural tradition. It’s from the Bible. It’s part of who we are," explains Ranger Johnson. "And it’s also part of many other traditions as well. Native traditions where people go out to the desert or go out to the mountains to have their fasting, and when they’re out fasting, these visions come to them. So this whole idea of a vision quest, the whole idea of a walkabout among aborigines, these are traditions that go across culture, go across time, and go across continents. And so for me I just made it literal.
"Elijah did go to the mountain top. It's just that it's the Sierra Nevada. And so for me, when he was stationed in Yosemite, it was not just a physical posting, it was also a spiritual posting, that being in the presence of mountains can transfigure oneself, can change the way that one looks at the world and how one looks at oneself in the world," he goes on. "These are these environments that speak to that primary experience of being human on this world, on this planet. Because the thing is that we tend to forget -- we’ve spent far more time as indigenous people than as civilized people, and we’ve forgotten that.”
The novel's thread also, to some extent, mirrors Shelton Johnson's travel from being raised in inner-city Detroit to a job in Yellowstone and then on to Yosemite.
“I think for every author to some degree there’s a lot of biography that filters into (the story). In literary criticism it’s called biographical fallacy, where you don’t want to assume that what you’re reading pertains specifically to the author," he says. "But at the same time, your experiences do effect who you’ve become and how you look at the world, and so I took my own journey to Yellowstone, and was transfigured by the experience. Basically, I felt that how could one of these soldiers have an experience of the range of light, the Sierra Nevada, and see Half Dome and see Yosemite Falls and not be transfigured as well, because it’s not a cultural thing in terms of being Euro-American or being Hispanic or being African-American. It’s a human thing to respond to beauty. And so I felt that if it happened to me, it might have happened to one of these soldiers. And that was the jumping off point."
In Gloryland the ranger displays both his interpretive and literary skills, painting images and carrying across the racism of the day with deft use of the words contained in the English language in a rolling narrative that stabs at the racial bigotry of the past, such as in an early passage in which a young Elijah gets accosted by a white Southerner while he and his mother are walking through Spartanburg.
What I can't forget is Mama talking to me when we got home. When we got inside where there was shelter, her holding my face in her rough warm hands like she was praying, I felt how warm it was and safe to be there in her hands. Nothing could hurt me in that shelter that was hands and love, and she said, "Elijah, you forget that man, he nothin to you or to me or your daddy. But you ain't nothing, cause I didn't work a day and a half bringin nothin into my life. You could never be nothin, you could never be anyone's nigger. You my boy Elijah, you my son, and my son ain't a nigger, and your daddy ain't a nigger, and I ain't a nigger, and it don't matter how much it get said don't make it true.
"That man's cussin somethin inside him, somethin he hates inside him, but not you cause he don't even know who you are, Elijah. Cause what I'm holding in my hands is somethin good and kind, and I know you'll never be a nigger unless you forget who you are!"
That's what Mama said, so I never try to be something I ain't, and I ain't ever been a nigger. But I'm Seminole and I'm colored, just like sundown I'm colored, like dirt that's warm and black and red too, like the sun's been shining so long the dirt remembers all that light and holds onto it. It takes a lot of sunsets to turn the ground red down deep, but I guess there's been plenty of sunsets since the beginning, and there weren't no niggers then. Niggers came later.
But knowing I wasn't a nigger made me sick, cause white folks treated me like something I wasn't. When I got older I corrected them, I told them who I was. I said, "Elijah Yancy's my name, what's your name?" I didn't really care if they told me. What mattered was that they knew who I was. I could've been saying I was God, I said it with such pride. I believed my mama when she said Elijah Yancy is God's child, her child, a boy who's got a mother and a father, people who love him, and love ain't nothing. It matters like water matters, or the sun.
Naturally, Elijah also finds nature.
Everyone's got a favorite place, a place that's who you are, and you can move through it, breathe the air, walk the ground, and be home in a way that you're not anyplace else. I found a place like that in Yosemite, or it found me.
It was a high meadow so close to the sky that the blue of heaven began to stain the plants below. You could see it in the high grass and flowers with the blue of the sky in their petals. Sky was so close there, maybe it was leaching its color, so after a rain the plant just pulls it from the air and gets drunk on it, waving back and forth in the breeze, giddy with indigo.
You'd be giddy too if you could walk there with snowy mountains rising around you, holding the trees in place. It was high and rocky and green and cold. Even in the sun it seemed cold and warm at the same time. Some places can hold oppose things, like putting something to your lips that's hot and cold and sweet and bitter, that's what the meadow was like. It was cold as if winter was walking out but warm as if spring was strolling in, and when they passed each other, they stopped and turned round, then spoke in the heart of it, comparing notes. It was a long conversation. You could hear their talk in the grass and in the trees and inside yourself.
Shelton Johnson acknowledges that he wrote the book with blacks in mind, but he also believes that anyone can find the spirituality that nature offers.
“I think we’re in danger of being the first species on the planet to lose all spiritual connection with the earth. Deer do not have to be reintroduced into wilderness to give them a sense of being grounded again. They’re deer, they don’t know anything else," he tells me. "But with the fact that now we have over 90 percent of Americans who classify themselves as being urban, whereas in 1900, the time of the Buffalo Soldier history, about 90 percent of African-Americans would have classified themselves -- not just African-Americans, but Americans in general -- would have classified themselves as being rural. It’s such a short time ago. 100 years ago we were mostly rural. But now we’re mostly urban, and African-Americans are more urban than urban, they’re the least likely of a cultural group to be users of wilderness. And this is not me coming up with these statistics, these are verifiable stats that you can find among the social scientists.
"So, for me, yes, I agree that is the other subtext of all of this, that not just African-Americans need to be reconnected. I think that all Americans need to be reconnected because my feeling has always been that it is wilderness, it is the American landscape that made us into Americans."
The trajectory of Elijah’s army career parallels the nation’s imperial adventures in the late 19th century: subduing Native Americans in the West, quelling rebellion in the Philippines. Haunted by the terrors endured by black Americans and by his part in persecuting other people of color, Elijah is sustained only by visions, memories, prayers, and his questing spirit which ultimately finds a home when his troop is posted to the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903. Here, living with little beyond mountain light, running water, campfires, and stars, he becomes a man who owns himself completely, while knowing he’s left pieces of himself scattered along his life’s path like pebbles on a creek bed.