First things first — I am a city mouse through and through.
I was raised across England and Nigeria, and I learned early to depend upon the increasingly overloaded public transport systems of the world’s great cities to get me where I need to go. I cannot drive a car — I took two lessons with a patient instructor more than a decade ago, and came to the conclusion that it was safer for everyone if I steered clear of the roads. Soon, I will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of attempting to learn to ride a bicycle. I can barely stay afloat in water, let alone doggy-paddle or swim. I have inherited bad eyesight, am debilitatingly lactose intolerant, and while I am a good walker, if I were to put a figure on my fitness level, I would say I hover around the 38% mark. A fundamental part of me has always suspected that I would not get very far in a doomsday scenario.
So the idea of survivalism, specifically in the event of a terrible natural or human-made event, is one I have openly dismissed as a real possibility for my life as currently lived. It’s a dismissal rooted in reality, though — I am an average black woman who lives in New York City. Like a huge proportion of the black population in this country, I dwell in an urban sprawl. Much has been written (and filmed) about doomsday preppers, but the overwhelming bulk of the coverage is looking at white preppers. I was much more interested in talking to preppers who looked like me, and whose prepping was centered around that identity.
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And as illustrated in cases from New Orleans to Puerto Rico, in the event of a disaster, the government has not historically done well when it comes to serving communities of color, low-income communities, and the places where those two intersect. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a fundamentally different Kanye West said back in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, and looking at the scenes on TV thereafter, it was hard to dismiss the comment. Only last month, the authorities in Puerto Rico finally raised the official Hurricane Maria death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study. (The official Katrina figure was 1,833.) Earlier, in July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency admitted its response to Maria had been inadequate. In Michigan, the city of Flint’s pipes have not yet been fully replaced after more than four years of the water crisis.
Depending on who you ask, thanks to global climate change and increasingly nationalistic government policy, there are multiple potential disasters heading our way. But what all the end-of-the-world scenarios have in common is that people of color — bluntly put, black people — will bear the brunt of it. And so it begs the question: Are we ready and able to survive and thrive?
If I did survive, it would only introduce more and different questions. How would I go about maintaining my life — and the lives of others in my care and community — to a satisfactory level? Could I, for example, seek and find suitable shelter? Could I identify food sources? And, crucially, how would I defend and safeguard whatever meager provisions I managed to acquire? I was pretty sure the answer to these questions for me was a variation of “try to die quietly, please,” but I knew other people were asking these same questions, and a lot more besides — and were coming up with all sorts of answers.
I first heard about Afrovivalist from a friend who was interested in the idea of survivalism. I went to meet her somewhere off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. On her blog detailing her prepping lifestyle, she describes herself as a “huntress and urban survivalist,” and she agreed to be interviewed as long as I didn’t identify her exact location. (She’s interested in making sure she’s prepared in case SHTF — “shit hits the fan.”) She’s in transition: steadily moving from her current urban life to something completely off-grid, where she and her community of like-minded people will live off the land in chill and prepared harmony. Afrovivalist is a dab hand at a bow and arrow and a variety of firearms. I looked into her eyes when I met her, and I knew, deep down, that she could take me. And it wouldn’t even be that difficult.
I needn’t have worried too much. The Afrovivalist is a self-contained prepping industry: She had her bug-out van, a smaller bug-out bag (generously, she prepared one for me), and all the gear required (knives, guns, bow and arrows) to hunt for her own food and purify her water. From her I learned to fire a bow and arrow (I hit paper the very first time, and failed woefully almost every time thereafter), and learned that sanitary towels also make excellent wound bandages because of their famed absorbency. I thought of Tiffany Haddish’s famous catchphrase: She ready.
When I asked Afrovivalist, after a sadly fruitless early morning attempt at turkey hunting in the woods, why she was a prepper, a beatific smile crossed her face and she said it gave her a sense of peace to know that she would be OK if it all went to hell. “I sleep good at night,” she said. I only smile like that when I am in a city, and food I didn’t cook is winging its way to me. And so I returned to the more familiar city and met two different kinds of black survivalists.
In the middle of New York City, I followed Aton Edwards and a group of trainees on a disaster training drill. These trainees will return to their “vulnerable” communities and train more people, “to train them to respond to these catastrophes, as if the government does not exist.” It’s a stark and effective way of describing what has been proved as the status quo — as history suggests, the government will likely not be coming when SHTF.
“Improvisational Adaptation” is Edwards’ gig, and it’s all about self-reliance that eddies out to the rest of the group, learned from the example set by the original Black Panther Party. At a bookstore in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Edwards spoke to like-minded individuals from all walks of life — educators, entertainers, blue- and white-collar people. Later I watched some of them demonstrate how to make gas masks and purify water, using cheap or free found objects. Cost should not be a barrier to survival, after all. Nor should the labyrinthine system that allows permits for legally owning firearms, according to Crystal Energy and Batin Ashante, who are self-defense and firearm advocates. They want to see legal gun ownership go up in the black community as a matter of urgency. And it was under their joint tutelage I ended up firing my first gun — and gently shuddering moments later. I cannot explain what it is like to shoot, except that the power I felt was both awesome and awful, and I should like to never do it again. But at least it’s off my bucket list now.
Everyone I spoke to cited Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as a defining point for them. People like Afrovivalist, Edwards, and Batin Ashante and Crystal Energy are not concerned about looking ridiculous. To them, this really is a matter of life and death, and their commitment to helping people like them learn how to survive in the event of catastrophe is urgent and real. And that’s why I now have a bug-out bag in my hallway closet and have got a little bit more serious at the gym in recent months. It can’t hurt to, as Edwards put it, “READY UP.” ●