Have you ever visited a national park? Did you know you grants were available to live in national parks and write about them? Did you know that the land the government used to create our national parks used to be inhabited by people? Latria Graham shares a snippet of what she has been working on as a Steve Kemp Writer in Residence in The Great Smoky Mountains.
Latria Graham is a freelance writer and journalist who has written for many publications including, but not limited to, ESPNW, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New York Times, the LA Times, Southern Living and my personal favorite (because it was my home paper) The Spartanburg Herald Journal.
In this two part series Latria takes us behind the scenes in her life as a freelance journalist.
A few of my favorite take aways from part two include:
- Everyone’s story matters.
- Even well renowned writers get intimidated.
- Take risks. Go outside your comfort zone. It can lead to tremendous opportunity.
Latria Graham E-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org
Latria Graham Article: Outside Magazinehttps://www.outsideonline.com/2296351/were-here-you-just-dont-see-us
Welcome: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations with Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women, who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.
Hey Pod Sisters! I hope you
enjoyed part one of my conversation with writer extraordinaire, Latria Graham.
Today I am excited to share part 2. As
you may recall, Latria and I both happen to be from the same home town though
we never knew each other. I am thankful to have met her by chance at Hub City
Bookshop over winter break in 2018. Per her website: she is “a writer, editor
and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina.
Her “writing interests revolve around the dynamics of race, gender norms, class, nerd culture, and- yes, football.” She is “ keeping her eye on publishers that are invested in celebrating the diversity of the human experience. Contributing to online publications that focus their attention on social justice and equality resonates with her values.” She loves “speaking with people who challenge the status quo and care about living and learning without inhibitions.” Latria has written for many publications including, but not limited to, ESPNW, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New York Times, the LA Times, Southern Living and my personal favorite (because it was my home paper) The Spartanburg Herald Journal. So without further ado…here is Latria.
Susan: Tell us a little bit about, first of all, where you just came back from. And then I’d really like to hear how you made that happen. A well renowned, I’m sorry, I’m just going to say it, published writer, you’ve written for, I mean, so many different publications. You’ve written for ESPN, you don’t just stay in one field. So to me hearing that you were even intimidated to apply for such a thing fascinated me. Because I figure once you make it, you make it and then you don’t get scared anymore. So tell us a little bit about, tell us a little bit about what that’s like, even going after something like that and then what it was that you ended up doing.
Latria Graham: Okay, so I ended up applying and being granted the Steve Kemp Writer in Residence, and that’s put out through the Great Smoky Mountains Association. And that means that you get to live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in sort of like a ranger station/ranger housing for six weeks, and you get to learn more about the park and the scientists and do some of your writing out there and do some writing for the park in areas that you’re curious about. But I’ll back up and say that…So I did this piece for Outside Magazine last year called “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us” And that was about black people recreating in the outdoors and being a fifth generation farmer, and sort of what outside and outdoors looked like for me when I was younger, what it looked like when I went to college and got more into the outdoors and climbed Mount Washington, and all of that, and sort of reconciling the two.
And there was a professor, his name is John Lane, and he’s at Wofford College. And he had read that essay and he’s like, “There’s this incredible opportunity. I think you should apply for it.” And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” It’s kind of cool. I was intrigued by the Great Smokies because it is the park closest to me, but I’d never been to it, like I’ve traveled through it as a kid because we live in Nashville, and would travel back to South Carolina where my family is from and so we’ve skirted the park, but I had never been inside of it. And when I got older, you know, when I went to South Dakota, went to Badlands, went to the Everglades, but I had never been into this park that was so close to me because I was never on assignment, and I couldn’t get paid to go there. And right now, unfortunately, time is money and right now as a freelancer, there’s no days off.
So this idea that I was writing about environment and place and had not explored my backyard, so – forgive the phrase—but ass backwards, and I wanted to rectify that, but I did not think that I was good enough to apply. Like, I wasn’t sure who else was applying. And it felt like other people had better cred and somebody else is going to have a better story. And I talked about this with Maggie, my writing partner that I needed to start going after more stuff. I needed to start applying for grants and residencies so that I could get off of this hamster wheel that I was talking about where you just kind of live from paycheck to paycheck, you know, hand to mouth. So this was the first major application that I’d done. And I just told them basically what I told you, what I was curious about, why I wanted it to be this park, why I never had the chance to be in this park, and why I was curious about African Americans living in this area before it became a park.
So it became a park in the 1930s. And there were a bunch of people living within this 800 square miles. And they’re like, “Okay, people, you’ve got to get out. Here’s a check, please leave.” And some people fought it but eventually obviously lost. And now it is a park.
Susan: I didn’t realize that that happened.
Latria Graham: Yeah, a lot of…Especially because the eastern part of the Americas was settled much before the west. So this whole idea of the National Park System, somebody generally speaking, whether it was African Americans or Indigenous People, people were living in these places, and then somebody at a federal level was like, “Hey, we want this now. Get out.” And that’s a major factor that the National Park Service is having to deal with now, and having conversations about those people that were displaced, and how do you honor those people in those histories and all that. So I’m really intrigued by what they did and what they’re trying to do now to rectify it. And some of it is just talking about these histories and acknowledging the people that lived here. And if you go into the Smokies, they preserve some of the houses, not all of them, and some of the records. And so my job…There are no pictures of any of the African Americans that live there. We have a couple of census records, and we have bills of sale for slaves, but that’s basically what’s there. There are no pictures. There are a couple of cemeteries, but we don’t know how many things are buried in them, things like that. So it’s my job to try to find archival work and then pair it with the current landscape and tell the story of a region.
So right now I’m working on a magazine story about Sook Turner, S-O-O-K, and she lives in Wears Valley, which is near the Tremont area of Great Smoky Mountains and she and three of her family members are buried up on this ridge. The archive didn’t even have a photo of the graves. And so I found her in a census record. And I have an oral history of her when some children had the flu, she came in and cared for them. But they had never seen a black person before and one of the little girls was so scared, she hid under the bed. And so it gives you some sense that there were not a lot of black people at least in this particular valley—and start like, putting together her life. I probably will never know what she looks like unless I’m able to find some descendants. And I’ve got one descendant that I’m trying to reach now to see how much she knows about her family from 100 years ago. Right now, I think Sook Turner was around during the 1918 flu outbreak in that area. And so I’m trying to sort of piece together who else she may have cared for within walking distance of her home, or in this valley and sort of work backwards that way as well as work from someone that I think may be a current descendant of this woman.
Susan: Wow! Wow!
Latria Graham: Yeah, it’s a little depressing, you know, because they didn’t…When it comes to people of color, like there’s this one photo we found and it was like Josie and the Cook, Josie is the donkey and they did not name the cook. And so it was just that like black people were not significant enough to document. And so when you think about yourself as a black person now, and obviously I have a huge paper trail as a person census record, like, you know, voting records, all these things and knowing that they did not have that. And also thinking that there were either—it’s either 573 or 537 slaves in this area. There were three major valleys in the park and there were slaves there and trying to figure out what happened to all of them and where their descendants are in and all that, it’s a little haunting and slightly depressing. But it’s also really hopeful to know that some of them survived this and had families and things and try to figure out like the story and sort of resilience of these people.
So it was a little bit lonely in that way in the woods, but there are other researchers. So I’m not the only researcher out there. There’s one in Oconaluftee, there’s one working on the Gatlinburg side of the park, and then I’m in Wears Valley, the Tremont side of the park. But yeah, it feels a little bit like some sort of emotional archaeological dig, and I’m really curious. I thought I would be able to do this in six weeks and obviously couldn’t and now it’s like a two to five year commitment. But I’m really honored that I have the opportunity to do some of this.
Susan: It sounds like you have a book, not an article.
Latria Graham: Yeah.
Susan: I’m not saying that’s what you really want to do.
Latria Graham: Right. Probably, I will not deny that at all. I’m just sort of wary about it because I’d be like I have to find enough people for it to come together because this story matters. I was originally gonna say, I have to have enough pieces for this matter, but I was like, no, like she’s buried there, she matters. Like that is not the questions but in order to give people a full enough story, I have to have enough pieces that comes together. So it may be a book. I honestly don’t know. I also don’t want to, if she has descendants take that—not really take that story from them but give them that opportunity to tell that story or to be like, here’s what I found out about your great grandmother, like it may not necessarily belong to me
Latria Graham: And that’s okay. I just happened to be lucky enough to have found it.
Susan: Well, thank you for sharing what little bit you did with us and I want you to keep going. I didn’t even know – total ignorance— did not even ever think about that area having been previously settled, or that people would have been living there when the US government said, “We’re going to make this a park.” Never even considered in my mind.
Latria Graham: Yeah. I honestly think most people don’t, unless there’s some current contentious thing going on, like the Grand Canyon areas of it, were occupied by Indigenous People who they did not consider to be people. That becomes sort of the like, very frustrating part of this. But yeah, I mean, the places that we recreate in and all of that…Yeah, there was one…This meant something to somebody, right? It’s not even necessarily about belonging, right, because the idea of ownership is really interesting, but it had sentiment for someone. And so that’s why I’m very careful when I’m in national parks and stuff and I really hate to see people both litter and just sort of behave poorly in these areas because it meant something to somebody.
Susan: Wow. Yeah. That is so, wow, that’s just so well said. I guess the big part of what you’re going back and doing then and now I understand it better is you’re going back and you’re telling the history of the parks. That’s what the whole point of this was.
Latria Graham: Yeah. Pretty much. Well, like that was my section. So another woman, the other Writer in Residence was like a poet and songwriter and so her output was a little bit different from mine, which is great, but that was what my specific project was, that I was curious about and tried to execute. And they’re very supportive of me coming back a number of times over the years to figure out. But like, I’m going to start with just one article and maybe it becomes something a little bit bigger than that. Yeah, but that was sort of the point was to get outside of myself, take out some of the fears that I had about both sort of being out alone in the dark, the fear of bears who are actually like, not out to get us. You know, and really, like start dealing with myself and like the bigger works that I want to do as I grow up.
Susan: So how did you…? John Lane is the one who found this particular opportunity and said you should apply for it, yes?
Latria Graham: Yes.
Susan: The piece that you went into do, was that already part of it, I guess, or did you discover that part on your own?
Latria Graham: I discovered that part on my own. I’m always curious about what life was like sort of before what we think of as the Common Era, before the 1980s particularly. I’m always really interested about what life was like before, you know, electricity, plants people use for medicine and things like that, just because of what I grew up doing. But yeah, like originally, I thought—I was really intrigued by these women named the Walker Sisters and their house. Even after the park was made a park, they were like, “We’re not moving.” So the National Park Service gave them a lease and said that they could live there until the last spinster sister died. And so that was like in the 1960s, late 1960s. And so they these women lived without electricity, without running water, and they would create poetry and sell goods on the sides of the roads to people that were passing through the park as a way to sort of make money and live off the land and live off of what they knew.
So they are a million stories, I’m sure within this park, and I just kind of knew an area that I was intrigued by and ended up kind of falling into this bigger story. That often happens by accident for me, so this was something I just happened to stumble upon, because I just assumed, which was, I guess, kind of naive, I just assumed they had it covered. I just assumed that I would be able to go into a bookshop and buy a book on African Americans in this region, and it wasn’t there. They didn’t even have a pamphlet, actually. So they’re working on it, and that’s no shade to them, but like they realize there’s an absence and they’re fixing it. But yeah, I just assumed that like somebody had done this work and they hadn’t.
Susan: Welcome to 2019 where we’re just now figuring out that there is history missing.
Latria Graham: Yeah, government, that’s something that I realized as a freelancer, I can work faster in real time, much faster than like the government can and the National Parks are a government entity in some ways because I asked them, I kind of grilled them on this because I was very frustrated when I went in that like things weren’t further along. They’re like, “Look, we’ve been thinking about this for 15 years.” It’s just by the time you fill out the paperwork and get the approval and stuff there, they’re already approving stuff like the ground penetrating radar that’s going to be done in 2020/2021. And we’re in the beginning of 2019. It’s a long time to get the ball rolling on their end. And so you know, I was 15 or something when they started thinking about this stuff, but it took until I was 32 for it to actually come to reality for some people.
Susan: Which makes such a great point that if you are a writer, or if it’s something that you care about, if there is a subject that you care about… I mean, one of the best things that happened to me at Converse was taking a women’s history class, just because so much of what was in our history books, much like what we read were a bunch of old white dudes, and that’s okay, I guess because, you know, that’s where history was. But we’re not there anymore. And there’s still a lot that needs to be written. There’s still a lot that needs to be said. There are still a lot of stories that need to be told, and they’re worth sharing, and they’re worth telling. And I really appreciate the work that you’re doing to tell that story. It’s really, really important. It’s really important. Wow! I’m kind of at a loss now.
Latria Graham: I’m sorry we can go back to like easier…
Susan: No! I don’t think it should be easy. I think….You know, it’s so funny and it’s weird to— not bad weird, not funny…I’m not a writer. I’m not working using my best words here. I only talk for a living now. And still don’t always use the best words especially when I get flustered. You know, one of the whole reasons I started this podcast was to help tell the stories of everyday extraordinary women doing extraordinary things. Because, you know, you don’t have to be Oprah or Ellen to change the world. And not only do you prove my point in this, although you’ve been published in The Guardian, so maybe you are Oprah or Ellen.
Latria Graham: I’m not. My bank account says no.
Susan: But you’re doing the same thing, and you’re going back and finding women that are no longer here to tell their stories. And I wonder…There’s just so many, there’s so many that are so deserving of being told. I mean, I realize this is not what you do on a daily basis. This is one project you’re doing. But I just want to emphasize that everybody’s story matters, you know?
Latria Graham: Yep.
Susan: And we’re not going to be able to read everybody’s story in a history book. But I do think it’s important that certain stories are told so that we know about the people who were there, and when they were there and why they were there. And now I’m kind of rambling. But I just really appreciate you doing this and stumbling onto this woman and her story and what was going on in the national parks and how they were created. This is something that I’m going to have to go research because I never really even thought about.
Latria Graham: I mean, I think you’ve made some really great points there, like to the point where I wanted I’m like, I need this recording because I need that last little clip. But if we realize its like, if we take that view that we have on history, right, and women surviving and overcoming and then we apply that same empathy and respect to our living comrades and compatriots and people that we engage with, imagine what our world could be.
Susan: Yeah, my mind just exploded, I think, because you’re absolutely right. And the way you said it was beautiful.
Latria Graham: Yeah, thank you, but it’s true. Everybody is surviving some really crazy…crazy is the wrong word, crazy is the word I need to omit from my vocabulary. Everyone is dealing with some tough stuff and all we can do is try to be better than we were the day before. And what I try to do when I’m thinking about, particularly like events, or podcast…Things like this. This is actually my first podcast, and I was sort of nervous but I’m like, be the adult you needed when you were at these various stages in your career or in your life. So like, that’s why I started talking about mental health and eating disorders because nobody was doing it when I was in college, right. You know, nobody was talking about this really hard recession shift, and about money and being on food stamps in grad school and everything that sort of came with that and the shame of being this intellectual that cannot see herself living in a city, you know, when you were a farm girl. I write about being the farmer’s daughter, because people thought that I would never be any bigger than that, and so they treated me like that, right? You know, Dartmouth be damned, right? And that’s how I got to Dartmouth like, I don’t know that I told this story. But like, yeah, my dad worked in retail for a long time. But when we move to Spartanburg, I realized that I did not want to stay here for very long and I wanted to go to the Governor School, I needed three grand to pay for instruments. And my dad is not the type of man…I didn’t even though that we had three grand, number one, like, let’s just be very clear about that. And maybe they did in savings and stuff but you’re not just going to give that to your kid and go, “Okay, you know, go off with my life savings and hopefully you become something,” he made me work for it. And so I still have this pickup truck even though he’s gone but it’s this 1997 Gold F150 and he loaded the back with watermelons and he’s like, “For every watermelon that you sell, I will match your profit.” And what I did not get in scholarships and stuff like that for college, what I did for food money and all that stuff, it was paid for in watermelons and tomatoes and all of that stuff. So people don’t necessarily know that about my background, right, they see the degrees and stuff. But they don’t know that I’m standing on this agricultural background and this legacy and the people that were rooting for me, both in this neighborhood and on the farm and my family, and stuff like that.
So it gives me a lot of empathy when I see people trying to make it because I realized part of it, yes, I worked very hard, but I also got very lucky. You know, I just happened to have a parent that understood business, right? And all of these things came together to make me the person I am. And there are things about my past that I would love to change, but I will never do it because I realized those things made me who I am. And once we start realizing that about ourselves, we realize that what people are going through and the choices that they’re having to make, sometimes you’re just given really terrible choices, you start looking at things a little bit differently and you start treating people differently.
Susan: That’s so true. Are you a first generation college student?
Latria Graham: I’m not. So my dad went to Benedict in Columbia and my mom would FIT in New York City.
Kl Oh, that’s right. I knew about that.
Latria Graham: Yeah. So I got really lucky in that way, but they could not prepare me for the internet. They could not prepare me for student loans. There was so much that had changed about college. And my mom says that now with work and stuff and freelancing—because she’s always, you know, had, I’ll say, for the last 20 years or so she’s had a job where you clock in, clock out, sort of deal, right? She has a job with hours. And so the idea that I am sitting at home, you know, she thinks I’m sitting at home writing and eating bonbons until super recently, she realized I have to be incredibly disciplined. So like the world has changed so much in the 40 years or the 30 years and between when they went to college and when I went to college, that it was very much a different playing field. I have so much respect for people that are first generation college students. Even though that’s not my story…Yeah, trying to figure out how to navigate like the FAFSA, I had to do that all on my own, SATs and ACTs. Prep was mostly on my own and stuff like that, too.
Susan: I actually was a first generation college student and just hearing some of the things that you were saying, really resonated with me and that’s why I asked. How funny? And yes, I would never do a FAFSA again, if someone paid me money. Those were awful.
Latria Graham: Yeah, I don’t know what my kids are going to do. I don’t have kids now, but plan on having them even if they’re adopted. And I would like, one, I will help them with it. We know this, right? If they really need it, I will help them with it, as long as I understand it. But like, that’s such a privilege, because I would be like, “Yeah, I’d love to pay somebody.
Latria Graham: But like, that’s such a, you know, again, that’s beyond and not everybody has that. But yeah, it used to be the most stressful sector of my life. It was like, I don’t know if I can afford to stay here, you know, and if you can’t, yeah, you can pile on the loans and you go home. That’s what I mean by the whole like, tough decisions. And this is another one that was really horrifying sort of for me, and like Dartmouth didn’t prepare me for this. Like, this is one of those things like life things that I had to when, like, my dad was really sick, and like the electric bill got behind, and I had to decide between paying for his medicine and letting them shut the electricity off. And like, that’s not…Like that is a life experience that gives you empathy for other people. It is not something that a business proposal or a paper in college or a presentation with the options will ever give you. You have to look at your parents and decide what you’re going to do.
Yeah, it was…And, you know, my mom was at work because that’s how she kept insurance and like, you know, you get the notification and you have to figure out what you’re going to do. And the fact that I was privileged enough to even make a choice sounds very silly, but I did, I had the money to pay one. I could have been without both.
Susan: And let’s be real. We’re in a situation in this country where there are people without both.
Latria Graham: Yes.
Susan: It does sound odd that choosing one, you could make the choice as a privilege. Because to me, it just doesn’t even sound like a privilege. But I see what you’re saying when you make the point that some people don’t have the choice.
Latria Graham: Yes.
Susan: Oh and other situations we could fix in this country. All right, okay, friend.
Latria Graham: We will fix.
Susan: We will fix.
Latria Graham: Positive, like optimism some days is the only thing that gets me through this job. You feel like Sisyphus, I don’t know if you know that the King in Greek mythology that rolls the boulder up the hill all day long. And then he gets towards the top and it rolls completely back down. And the next day he does the same thing again. Yeah, it’s optimism. It really has the optimism that keeps us in the game.
Susan: Well, thank you for sharing all of this. I know you have to go do work that will pay you money. I wish I could pay you for being on my podcast.
Latria Graham: No, this has been very good for me because again, it gives me that retrospective feeling that I don’t get often, that I don’t think… Yeah, because I don’t think about this stuff. You literally wake up, feet hit floor and go. I’m not as good about the self-care and reflection as I should be. I’m getting better as I get older and my body is making me but like, it’s not in me so I’m not very good at it. So I’m just, one, I’m thrilled that you asked me to be on and that we got to talk about some really good stuff. And yeah, we’ll just go… Yeah, I’m really delighted. Like, I’m glad hopefully we can make May in Spartanburg work.
Susan: Yeah, for sure. Okay, before I let you go, tell us where we can find you online, on social wherever your work is. Give us some highlights.
Latria Graham: Okay, so most of my work is up at latriagraham.com. So that’s my website. And then I am Latriagraham on Twitter. And then Instagram is where I write my really interesting sort of long stories up to, I don’t know, maybe 400 words or something with photos either that I have taken or other people have taken. And you can find me at mslatriagraham on that. And then the Steve Kemp Writer in Residence, it’s Great Smokies Writer on Instagram and we post a lot of our stuff up there and I’m also on Facebook. I am going to say not really a public figure, but like my Facebook is public. And so stuff that I write, stories that I tell, articles I find interesting, things I think other people would appreciate reading, I post on Facebook. So I’m everywhere. And I’m also under my name on LinkedIn.
Susan: Well, sweet, thank you so much for sharing all of that. I know I’m going to have some listeners who are going to go check out your stuff. And thank you for spending time with me today. I really appreciate it.
Latria Graham:Yeah, of course, like this whole…When you told me you were a first generation college students, I was floored and I want to know more about that. I know like outside of this, we will talk—and like trying to figure out how to support those students. Because again, like even I come with some sense of privilege, those kids will not and you thought about…Even though we both had our things that we thought about, we thought about two completely different sets of circumstances.
Susan: How funny. All right, friend. I will chat with you soon.
Latria Graham: Sounds good.
Outro: Hey Pod Sisters, thanks so much for joining me today. If you’re enjoying this podcast, head on over to iTunes or your favorite podcast app and hit subscribe. And while you’re there, I’d really appreciate it if you would rate and review it in order to make it easier for others to find. We also have a private Facebook group, the How She Got Here community page and would love to have you join us there to continue the conversation on today’s episode, as well as any other fun How She Got Here content. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for listening. I’ll see ya soon.