I had never hunted before moving to West Virginia, never tasted venison, never skinned or gutted anything larger than a channel catfish. But moving to the Mountain State triggered an interest in wild food, foraging, hunting, and the skills needed to get out and take advantage of the food landscape.
There was only one problem: I am a 250-pound, bald, bearded black man in a largely rural state with less than 5 percent people of color.
The fall of 2012 was a mixture of emotions and transition for my then-girlfriend (now wife) and me. She had completed her Ph.D. and been offered a faculty job at West Virginia University. We had finally found a house in Morgantown we wanted to buy, and I was negotiating my postdoc offer from the geography department at WVU while trying to figure out the most romantic and creative way to propose. Compounding my anxiety was the constant reminder that the state I was moving to was predominantly white and presumably not the most welcoming place for black folks.
Here’s how virtually every conversation I had with my black friends and family before my move went:
What part of western Virginia are you moving to, again?
Morgantown. But it’s not western Virginia. It’s West Virginia.
Oh … Oh, shit, are you sure you want to move there?
No, I’m not sure, but we both got jobs at the university, and that’s hard to pass up.
No doubt. I hear you. But West Virginia? Good luck, brotha.
My first two attempts at hunting were awkward and successful and among the most memorable experiences of my life. A mentor colleague in the wildlife department was gracious enough to invite me once to hunt on his land just outside town and again after he and his wife moved to a larger plot farther out. On that first hunt, I didn’t see a single deer and mistook the sound of squirrels foraging in dry leaves for the footsteps of a deer. My host didn’t know me well enough to let me borrow one of his rifles, so I just tried to soak up as much of the experience as I could. I’ve yet to see a more beautiful predawn in the woods.
Two years later, he trusted me with his spare rifle, and we went out again to hunt deer. Two and a half hours into the hunt, I was so lost in my insecurity of not having any camo that I failed to notice a grazing deer less than 30 yards away, broadside, head down. As the animal’s two vertical antlers came into view I silently moaned in disappointment. A spike buck—too old to harvest. My only consolation was the young male was never quite sure I was there, despite his becoming increasingly agitated as he grazed within 15 yards of me on his way down the hill.
It was the middle of the night in late September—two years after my second hunt—and my dreams were a constant replay of the landscape we would be hunting in at dawn, a landscape filled with deer willing to graciously fill my freezer.
“Wake up, dude. It’s time!” Mike Costello, a co-owner of Lost Creek Farm, said as he walked past me sleeping on his futon. Damn it! I had overslept, and it was almost 7 a.m.—too late to get into a spot without being seen by our quarry. Time for plan B: Hunt any deer naive enough to walk close to the house. It could work. Twelve hours ago, I could have thrown a rock from the porch and hit half a dozen deer. Perhaps they’ll think the house is a safe place amid the growing number of rifle shots echoing in the valley. We still have a shot at this.
After breakfast, Mike grabbed his rifle, and we walked quietly outside, scanning the hill just west of the house. No sooner than we stepped down from the porch, we noticed five deer tracking our progress from 150 yards away. Busted! Three of them immediately took off, triggering another two we hadn’t seen to do the same. One more doe trotted off, while the final doe remained, nervously keeping an eye on our slow approach. Three minutes later, Mike fired the fatal shot.
As we walked up the hill to begin the work of processing her, a flood of emotions hit me. First, relief that Mike’s shot ended the doe’s life exactly where she stood, before the final echoes of his .270 had even faded. Next, gratitude for the social and ecological web that made this the easiest and most successful hunt of my life. And last, as I placed my hand on the deer to give thanks for her sacrifice, pride.
I had set out to learn to hunt five years ago. This hunt was only my third attempt, yet here I was, a nerdy black kid raised in the Baltimore suburbs standing over a freshly killed white-tailed deer in the middle of rural West Virginia.
My hunting and foraging education began with some household names—Hank Shaw, Steven Rinella, Samuel Thayer, Daniel Vitalis. Despite the incredibly valuable information they shared with me, I struggled to articulate a nagging frustration that surfaced whenever I heard or read these men say, “Just get out there and do it.”
That was fine for white guys, but I’m not about to drive anywhere in rural America with a rifle in the back of my Subaru and hike into a public space where white people have rifles aimed at brown animals. Not after Philando Castile was killed because he told a police officer he had a concealed firearm. Not after Rodney Bruce Black shot and killed Garrick and Carl Hopkins from his living room window in 2014 in Cabell County, W.Va., because he thought the brothers were trespassing on his property. It didn’t matter that the brothers were inspecting a shed on their own property, which they had just purchased. Those black men died because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt. They died because Americans associate blackness with danger and criminality.
On a trip to my local spring, a spot I located on Vitalis’ FindASpring.com, I pulled in behind a car sporting a “Blue lives matter” bumper sticker. Was the lovely family of five there, like me, for the pristine water? Nope. They were there to teach their middle-school-age son how to fire a pistol at a tree stump next to the spring. Sorry, Daniel Vitalis, for some of us, tap water is safer than spring water. Adventuring in the outdoors just isn’t the same for black people.
Last year I bought Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, a book published in 2014 by geography professor, actor and activist Carolyn Finney. Within the first 20 pages, I deeply regretted not buying it sooner.
Outdoor spaces—national and state parks, hunting and fishing areas and others—like all spaces in the U.S., are highly racialized, as Finney brilliantly articulates. Her work helped me face my anxieties, move through them, and be more confident in these woods with these white folks.
By no means are white West Virginians the raging racists many of my friends feared. And while I can’t remember a week since moving here when I didn’t see a Confederate flag, the white folks I’ve met have been incredibly friendly, welcoming and kind.
Microaggressions? Sure. It’s the United States of America, a country that fights to maintain its ignorance of its white supremacist foundations. Macroaggressions? You bet. Over 60 million people voted for a man who began his presidential campaign with the claim that Mexico is sending rapists across the border.
When you’re black, you learn to read white folks as a matter of safety and survival.
Despite the reality of racism and consequential racial cynicism, I’ve made connections with some of the most awesome, welcoming white folks I’ve ever encountered. People like my dear friends Amy Dawson and Mike Costello, who hosted my third deer hunt and invited me to share one of the most amazing dinners of my life. At my favorite Saturday morning hangout, the Morgantown Farmers Market, I’ve befriended farmers like the Stemlers who, after my hunt with Mike, invited me to do the same on their gorgeous farm. The Stemlers make some of the best pork I’ve ever had, which has inspired me to learn how to make my own sausage. The Sicklers have also become good friends, and Poppa Sickler, when he heard I hunted on the Stemlers’ land, busted my chops about not hunting on his land first. Next year, Poppa.
I could go on about the Evanses and the delicious free-range chicken and warm hugs I get from them at every farmers market or how I hope Gene comes back because her goat meat is everything, or how one Sunday afternoon I got a phone call from Todd asking if I could help him butcher a road-killed yearling doe he and his wife saw get struck in the head on their morning walk. Or how I’ve asked both my neighbors to let me harvest chestnuts and pine pollen from their respective properties after listening to a Hank Shaw podcast.
I’ve had to build a race-conscious network of people to access hunting spaces because, like so many black folks before me, the spaces we seek are almost never prepared to deal with us well—not without explanation or pretext. The overwhelming majority of rural space in the U.S. is owned by white people, and that’s not accidental. But the racial violence of the past that shaped our landscapes and the momentum of that spatial violence that maintains white-majority spaces have never been inevitable.
Who we expect to see in outdoor spaces can change, should change, and is changing. More important, we’ve always been here—even my family and even in West Virginia.
Before I moved to Morgantown, I found a photograph of my great-great-granduncle Joseph J. Nickerson, who started the first black Baptist church in Hinton, W.Va., in 1919. We are indeed out here with these white folks—the racist few, the colorblind many (not a compliment), and the somewhat surprising number of welcoming ones who want to build community with different types of people—and that’s a beautiful thing.
I can’t wait for deer season this fall. Will I test on public land the skills I’ve been building? No way. But what I will do is continue to tap into the network of mentors and friends who see my blackness and accept me for our common interests.
My path to becoming a hunter looks different from most West Virginians’, but that’s OK. I’ll just add the extra work of learning to hunt while black to my reparations tab. Now excuse me while I pull some deer burger from my freezer. I’m about to be out here with these white folks, grilling up something wild and wonderful.