"The adventurer's racial and gender identity play key roles in how individuals map and navigate this risky terrain." --Kristin JackbonsonWhen I began reading Kristin Jacobson's book The American Adrenaline Narrative, I knew I was going to be especially interested in her chapter "Risky Natures." It's because the subject of risk or danger comes up in a class that I teach every fall comprised of first-year collegiate black men. At least one or two of the guys ride skateboards or long boards, and I have to warn them about the risk of this notorious hill on our campus.
Now, Jacobson doesn't have extreme sports in mind when she's writing about adrenaline narratives. She's focusing on rafting, deep-sea diving, polar explorations, mountaineering, hiking, etc., which often takes place in wilderness areas. Still, there are some correlations with her explorations and what the guys I work with encounter.
The majority of my black students are from Chicago and then some from St. Louis. For them, a campus like Edwardsville is something of a wilderness. They are initially unsettled by how sparse it is in comparison to their home cities. The guys mention feeling perfectly safe to wander around late at night on campus in ways that would be unthinkable and silly to do in their hometowns.
I make it a point to let the guys know how much gender privilege they have when they mention their fearlessness moving around campus late into the night. "Why do you think women feel less free and comfortable than you do to move around campus at night," I ask. This question and recognition of differences give them pause.
Jacobson mentions "gendered risk regimes" in her book. She discusses the issues that women adventurers contend with as they navigate wilderness areas alone and with men. Still, she offers ample evidence that many women take on the risks. "Despite the dangers and their fears," writes Jacobson, "these women risk physical and emotional hard because the benefits for solo self-discovery outweigh the potential dangers and discomforts" (191).
I started warning those guys who showed up in my classes with skateboards to be careful after a couple of incidents in the past. Students would show up to class with visible bruises or hand wraps on, and when I asked, "what happened?" they'd mention this now infamous hill. When I mention it to new students, they immediately say they know exactly what hill I have in mind. Some guys avoid the risky hill altogether; others take it on and get injured; and others take it on and manage to survive with no injuries.
When I encounter my next group, I'll share a statement from Jacobson where she writes: "Arrogance about risk and danger can lead to disaster" (181). Exactly.
Ok, but then, to be fair, later, she also writes that "Risk facilitates deep play and connection with the natural environment" (183). The kind of risks that these guys are taking on their skateboards late at night involves "deep play" and connections with the closest some of them have come to a wildlife environment, which my students from rural areas would find amusing.
Jacobson devotes a section to the chapter to "Race's Risky Natures," discussing the worries that arise for African American adventurers. "Fear and risk for racial and ethnic minorities," she notes, "stem from a history of racial violence, especially lynching" (193). She explains that fear of white people and the unknown, which includes wildlife, are two central worries.
Jacobson's writing here reminded me of an incident from several years back with guys who rode long boards. They were riding on campus one late October 2013, and a car of white men drove up and one shouted, "get off those skateboards, niggers!" Terrible moments like that and fears of such moments come up in our discussions.
Again, it's fascinating because many of the guys still express that they feel less fearful in Edwardsville late at night by themselves than they do in their urban neighborhoods. I wonder if that would be true if they were inclined to go into true wilderness areas alone. Or put another way, what is most fearful: the violence they've actually witnessed in urban environments or the unknown possibilities of traveling into the wilderness alone?
Blending my thoughts about the experiences of teaching classes of collegiate black men and Jacobson's writing on the American adrenaline narrative has given me more to consider.
• Kristin Jacobson's The American Adrenaline Narrative