My first existential crisis happened when I was in the sixth grade and my brother was headed to high school. I melodramatically proclaimed at the dinner table before the first day of school that our childhood was over, and we’d have to face life as teenagers and then adults and soon enough we’d wake up dead from old age. The truth is, I’m still mourning for my childhood, and I refuse to admit that I left it long ago, so I try as much as possible to incorporate it into my adult life at every possible moment and have romanticized any scrap that ties me to it.
This romanticizing of my youth is at odds with my realistic and, at times, irritatingly pragmatic viewpoint about life and adulthood. Reading the news will do that to you. So lately I’ve started questioning my own objective authority even when it comes to my personal history—not on the facts themselves per se, but my emotions and internalization of those experiences.
One of my favorite conversation topics is to reminisce about my time as a camper at an all-girls Christian camp in rural Alabama. The first summer that I attended I was eight years old, and when they came to pick me up I begged my parents to let me stay longer than the two-week session. For the next seven years I insisted on returning. My camp experience wasn’t roughing it, by any means. We had a prestigious equestrian program; the cabins had running water and glass doors on our showers. Some even had heat and air-conditioning. Otherwise it was your basic sleep-away camp: We learned archery and canoeing, and did ropes course. Each night, everyone participated in a camp-wide activity like a talent show, a dance with the nearby boys’ camps, a three-way game of capture the flag known as “Sock War,” and Underground Railroad.
This is the part of the story where most people begin to raise their eyebrows.
Underground Railroad is (I use the present-tense intentionally because this game is still played at the camp to this day) a role-playing game where the campers play the part of the “slaves” trying to escape to freedom and the counselors play the role of “bounty hunters” looking for slaves to capture and take to “jail.” During the game, each group tries to make it to different safe houses where there are clues about the next safe house and the landmark that serves as “freedom,” To get to those places, the campers have to make it through the bounty hunters. If a bounty hunter sees movement or hears sound (pre-adolescent girls are highly prone to giggling) and they call you out, then the slave is considered captured and sent to jail, where they have to wait to be broken out by other slaves.
It may be important to point out that I was usually the only black camper, or one of only two or three others I can ever remember attending during my camp years. There were a few other black counselors; one in particular was a member of the senior staff. I arrived my first summer, ashy-kneed with tight cornrows ending in bright pink and orange beads that clicked together when I shook my head. During the winter, my pale skin and often straightened hair might have passed for white, but in the summer the tanned glow of outdoor life made my race much more apparent. I can’t remember feeling like I looked different than anyone else, though. Other girls and even counselors liked to touch my hair, but we were all into braiding hair at that age, so it wasn’t uncommon to reach for the ponytail of the girl sitting in front of you during a meeting and ask to play with it.
It’s only looking back that I see the cringe-worthiness of being the only black person in a group pretending to be hunted slaves, and the offensiveness of turning human bondage into a game. Today I would be appalled at being told to pretend to be a slave as a fun and light-hearted activity. The game seems even more dark now, especially since I’ve read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” in which a main character murders her own baby when confronted with returning to slavery after being hunted down by her master.
Seeing my audience’s reactions to the Underground Railroad game (first incredulously amused, and then shocked and horrified when they realize it’s a true story), I have also sought to think about it more and reflect on the game’s impact on my life. Did I feel different and singled-out because being hunted and treated like chattel was a reality for my ancestors? Did having real authority figures talk to me as if I am a captive, even in jest, bring up feelings of inadequacy? The scenario certainly has all the makings of an uncomfortable situation: the rural Southern setting, a racially homogenous organization, and adolescence are the perfect storm for ignorance and stereotypes. Should I feel guilty that I’m OK with the fact that I found the game to be tons of fun and probably came away better for the collective experiences I had at camp? It’s a battle to find my true memories between the rosy innocence of youth and my jaded outlook of young adulthood, since I’m still reeling from being exposed to the reality of the world outside childhood and the college bubble. No wonder I can’t plan what I’ll do next month, let alone a path for my career and relationships, when even memories of how I grew up are filled with so much uncertainty.
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Simone, thanks for such a thoughtful read.
Simone, great article. We all have existential experiences, but you have a gift for making them come alive.