Navigating Race on the Mississippi River: A Conversation with Eddy Harris

Portrait of a Eddy Harris in a black beret and a red and black flannel shirt open over a grey t-shirt looking at the camera without smiling with a big lake in the background under a grey sky.

In 1985, author and explorer Eddy L. Harris paddled the Mississippi River from its source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico at the City of New Orleans. During his remarkable journey, he navigated both the difficulties of a living river and the challenges of being a Black man in America. Thirty years later, he made the trip again—this time, with cameras. Harris’ film, River to the Heart, paints an intimate portrait of what awaits those willing to venture out into the unknown world and discover all that it has to offer.

I had the great honor and privilege to talk with Harris in October 2018, as he made a rare appearance on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. He graciously visited with students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to encourage their interest in adventure travel and discuss the importance of land and water conservation. Because Harris has inspired much of my own work as a writer and educator, I was very eager to speak with him and learn more about his particular perspective. Our conversation explores storytelling and the generosity of strangers, ecological changes on the Mississippi River, and the importance of celebrating people of color who find adventure outdoors.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

James Edward Mills: The first book of yours that I had the pleasure of reading was South of Haunted Dreams. You recounted your experiences as an African American riding a motorcycle through the South. You spent your time fly-fishing, but also just with people in their communities, in their homes, learning about their stories. Why is it that you use this particular mode of storytelling to weave your yarns?

Eddy Harris: I never actually thought of it that way. But it’s something that I do as a literary device. I’m a traveler. I’ve been a traveler since I was 16 years old. The way I travel is not organized. I have no plan when I go someplace. Whatever happens happens. When I meet people and they invite me in for coffee or drinks or dinner, I almost never say no. I’m receptive to generosity, and I just put myself out there. I’ve discovered that that if you want people’s stories, you make yourself available to them and they will tell them to you.

The cover of the book "Mississippi Solo: A Memoir" by Eddy Harris. Features a watercolor of canoes on a river and a blurb from Paul Theroux: "A wonderful book—and a highly original contribution to the literature of travel."JEM: One of your very first projects was to paddle a canoe from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, traveling along the Mississippi River. That was the subject of your book Mississippi Solo. This was back in 1985 at the beginning of your career. Why did you decide to take that trip?

EH: It’s the beginning of my publishing career, but not of my writing career. When I graduated from college, I had my first real job experience, which I hated. I began writing immediately after I quit. Before publishing Mississippi Solo, there were eight years of failure. The journey was inspired by a sense of failure. I needed to do something that was going to spark my life—or kill me—and put me on the right track. The point was not to write a book about it. I was taking this journey to discover if I had the fortitude to continue writing, and who this person was who was trying to be a writer. Put me in a canoe in unfamiliar circumstances and let’s find out what’s going to happen to this guy.

JEM: And you made the entire trip. Is there anything that you learned about yourself or about America?

EH: The trip was really spiritual. It’s a book about an internal journey as much as a physical, external journey. What I’ve discovered about myself is if I can canoe the Mississippi River having no canoeing experience, I can do anything. I can wait however long it takes to get a career started. What I learned about America is not only is it physically beautiful, it’s a country full of people—especially river people—who are there to help you. It makes me think of the movie Shane, where some guy’s barn burns down and all the neighbors say well, we’ll help you build your barn. That’s my perception of what America really is, when you get beyond the layers of politics and race and you put people together one on one. Most of the time, if not all the time, they are really generous people.

JEM: In 1997, shortly after you took this trip, you published an article in Outside Magazine that lamented the lack of visible participation of people of color in outdoor recreation. Tell me a little bit about your observations at that time.

EH: I was trying to figure out why we don’t we see Black people hiking mountains, or skiing, or paddling the Mississippi or the Colorado. Why are we not seeing Black people enjoying the natural world? The short answer is we don’t see them because the numbers just aren’t there. But I don’t know for sure if percentage-wise we’re not there. If you see ten people skiing on the slopes of Vail and nine of them are white and one is black, proportionally that represents the population in the country. Black people probably are doing these things and we don’t notice them doing it.

My aim in this article and also in some of the other writings that I’ve done is to encourage Black people and people of color in general to do stuff. But it’s also to encourage companies to advertise to Black people. Let’s put Black people in some of these adverts so that we can see that the companies are pitching to them. The more you don’t pitch to them, the more Black people think well it’s not for me.

We need more people of color involved in environmental issues because it’s our environment too. We don’t want the conversations dictated by other people.

RIVER to the HEART TRAILER from Eddy L. Harris on Vimeo.

JEM: Your next book chronicles your second trip down the Mississippi River, which is also the subject of a feature documentary film called River to the Heart. It’s very similar to the trip you took in 1985. What’s different 30 years later?

EH: Apart from the fact that I’m 30 years older? Not much. It’s still a guy with very little canoeing experience paddling down the Mississippi River, except this time he’s traveling with a camera crew. But I do know what to look out for. I know this river, even though the river is a changing, living thing.

JEM: I’m curious to know if the presence of cameras had an impact on your relationships with people.

EH: Every encounter you have is different when there’s a camera pointed at you. But there were many times when the cameras were not there, when I’m just paddling my canoe and running across people. That’s what the second book is about. The story that’s told on cameras about the river is about the environment, about society. The story that’s told in the book becomes much more racial. It talks about the generosity of people vis-à-vis this Black person, and how wonderful it is to be out and exposed and to be joyfully reconfirmed in the notion that people at heart are really good. I don’t want to sound Pollyannish, but it’s a Pollyannish kind of story. The more you get out and experience these one-on-one encounters the more you discover wow, this is what I should be doing all the time.

Several medium-sized light-colored fish and droplets of water fill the foreground while a man in a black baseball cap and a blue t-shirt paddles a canoe in the background.

Eddy Harris attempts to paddle through an onslaught of Asian carp. Still from the film “River to the Heart.” Used with permission.

JEM: What specific ecological circumstances on the river were particularly noteworthy?

EH: The river seems a lot cleaner than it did 30 years ago, which is really positive. Environmental and conservation groups have made people aware that the river is important and we need this resource. Great efforts have been made to clean it up. In many places it’s still dicey but it’s really much cleaner. The American pelican is back on the river. I didn’t see a single one in 1985.

But under the surface lots of programs still need be addressed, like the invasion of mussel species. The biggest problem I encountered was the Asian carp. They are taking over the river system. If we’re not careful and can’t find a way to eradicate them, it’s going to be a problem for a long time. These fish are a danger to the ecosystem, but also to anybody in a boat. They fly out of the water like crazy and can jump six feet in the air. If you’re in your little canoe, it can knock you on the head and into the water.

Featured image: Eddy Harris. Photo by Brian Hamilton, October 2018.

Eddy L. Harris is the author of six books, including Native Stranger (Vintage, 1992) and Still Life in Harlem (Holt, 1996), both selected as “Notable Books” of the year by the New York Times. He is the writer, producer, and subject of the new documentary film River to the Heart. Currently he is writing an accompanying book as well as an exploration of race in Eastern Europe. He lives in the village of Pranzac, France. WebsiteTwitter. Contact.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and an independent media producer specializing in sharing stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors (Mountaineers Books, 2014) and produces the podcast The Joy Trip ProjectHe lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Website. Twitter. Contact.

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