An Interview with Barbara Hillary
By Laura Kay
How did you get interested in going to the North Pole?
After retiring I started to look around for something of interest to do, something recreational but also travel-related. When I came across an ad to photograph polar bears in Manitoba Churchill, I quickly made arrangements to go and do it. Soon after that I was learning dog sledding, then snowmobiling. As a natural progression, I started to read about the area and its history, and learn about Matt Henson. And that’s when I made the discovery: no black woman had physically been to the geographic North Pole. At first it started as a point of interest and then it began to nag at me. And so I decided that I was going to try to do it.
It’s kind of astonishing that by 2007, no Black women had been to the North Pole yet. Were you always physically active?
I would say yes. Though you have to understand, growing up, there was limited money and there weren’t team sports for girls like there are now. So, much of the physical activity was self-invented. I made my own scooter and I used that all the time. But there was also a feeling of accomplishment in that.
Tell us something more about your North Pole trip.
I left New York City on April 6, 2007, I believe, and I stood on the North Pole on April 23. So it took approximately two weeks of travel. But the process of getting there really started when I made up my mind to go. It’s a series of hell and heaven, as I like to say. The hell you catch is hour after hour of trying to raise funds, talking on the phone, not having a source of reference, tracking down information.
The process is somewhat alienating. You’re certainly alienated in this area from most black people, and I was an unknown to the white world. So it was a very difficult, lonely road.
Were any black organizations or African American groups willing to support this endeavor?
Ninety-nine percent of all of the help that I have received has come from the white community.
Do you think that’s a historical thing because the famous explorers we hear about growing up were mostly white people?
No, I think the black community has some soul searching to do. The message I would send to the black community is a quote from my mother, who was an incredibly intelligent woman. As she would constantly say to my sister and myself: As you go through life, make sure your own window is clean before you criticize others. If clean your window first, your neighbor’s window will look a lot cleaner. In other words, try to objectively evaluate one’s own racial behavior and involvement before directing criticism. It was $22,000 to get to the North Pole; that’s a lot of money. I was really struggling to pull it together, and the price was constantly being increased. I asked Ebony magazine, would you be interested in a story? A resounding yes. Would you be able to help me please? No.
And I say—shame on Ebony magazine.
I could see how that would be difficult. I heard that some funding came in after the New Yorker article?
Yes. It is a sad commentary that not one major black or African American person, male or female, in the media or the talk shows, reached out to me. And when I returned from the Pole, it went out on the AP Wire; it was all over the media. I was interviewed here in New York by Sue Simmons. So I find it very difficult to believe that these talk show people did not know about the quest. And I’m not saying this because I am Barbara Hillary. If it was Jane Doe, if it was Suzie Q . . . the efforts of female athletes and adventurers are marginalized and ignored.
Since you brought it up—did you study much about Matthew Henson before this trip?
I’ve read quite a bit about Matt Henson. I have tremendous respect for him and I feel pained in terms of the injustices that he suffered.
The Explorers Club took their time in honoring him. I guess you’ve been there, you’ve seen their wall of famous explorers and scientists?
Yes, I have seen the wall, very impressive.
Is your picture up there now?
No, I have been given an application which I will fill out and submit.
To get on the wall or to be a member?
To be a member. I have found the Explorers Club to be very supportive and very sensitive. As a matter of fact, I received a Special Acknowledgement at the Lowell Thomas Awards Dinner in October 2007.
That’s great. Did they show you Matt’s glove? I teach a polar class and we took the students there and they showed us Matt’s glove.
Yes, I saw that.
Did you read about any of these other great explorers before your trip?
To some extent, but I was so totally involved in the challenge of getting there. I can’t begin to relate how consuming it is: financially, physically, socially. Also, as I said before, you become so painfully aware of realities that you never thought about: the indifference of the black community, for instance.
At a conference I attended last month, one of the presentations was about how Matt Henson tried to have talks with black audiences after he came back from his trip with Robert Peary. They weren’t very popular because people didn’t really know what he was talking about; it was just so out of their realm of experience. Also because Henson wasn’t given all of the awards and publicity that Peary got.
I’m a member of the Cook Society, and I went to their centennial where there was a great, tremendous amount of information disseminated and papers read. According to one of the historians, Henson was snowblind when he returned from the trip—and Peary just gave him $50 and said “goodbye.”
In children’s adventure literature, an important part of the book is about the adventurer coming back and telling their story. What it has been like for you to tell your story?
My story has been received with enthusiasm and excitement. And I enjoy relating it because it is not like some controlled Hollywood script. It’s so far from that. It’s so real life. It’s learning about yourself. Challenging yourself. Thinking and re-thinking concepts. The experience moved me into an arena where existing beliefs were challenged, and some existing beliefs were reinforced.
I saw the News Center 4 Sue Simmons interview. Were you also interviewed by any of the big talk shows?
I was invited to the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and I was flown out to California. But unfortunately, she was ill. And I couldn’t wait, I had to come back for business in New York. Jay Leno reached out to me, but at that time I was involved with Ellen DeGeneres. Those are the two major national shows. When I return from the South Pole, I hope Oprah hears about it. [laughing]
I would hope so.
Some adventurers have a really hard time readjusting when they come back home. How has the return been for you? And how long was it before you decided you wanted to go to the South Pole as well?
I decided I wanted to go to the South Pole as soon as I came back. The adjustment has not been that difficult, but now I am in the process of reliving some of the same obstacles that faced me before. For the trip to the South Pole, the base is $37,000. That’s a lot of money to me, I don’t know about other people. I’m trying to add another dimension to this trip, but my first goal is to make sure that I’m financially eligible to go.
And how’s that going?
Are you chartering your own airplane or going on an established tour?
It’s an established group that’s going to the South Pole.
I understand you lived there?
I spent 13 months at the South Pole, 1984 to 1985. I wasn’t the first woman to winter there, but I was the fifth or sixth. The station was smaller then, and had a big geodesic dome. Now the new station looks like condos. It’s very different now. But I still dream about it sometimes.
What do you think you will do differently on your southern trip?
Question the outfits that arranged the trip, question everything pertaining to the trip. I have a body of knowledge that I amassed going to the North Pole. And that body of knowledge includes things that went wrong, the lies that I heard, behavior patterns I didn’t think were ethical.
I’ve learned many things by walking the roads of life that reinforce and enhance what I have always tried to subscribe to, and that is—to question. Not to be a blind believer. Because when we’re talking this type of money, this type of sacrifice, this type of exposure, it pays to be a Doubting Thomas.
The organizations that put together these trips, are they very rigid in their ideas and what they expect everybody to do?
These organizations are all middlemen—they do not own their own plane. So they all funnel through one outfit that controls everything.
And that was true in the North also?
At the North Pole, it’s a little different but basically the same. Russians control the operations at the stops to the North Pole. However, one big difference is that they build a camp when the season starts. A plane comes in, they parachute out, test the ice—and then they bring in and set up this entire camp.
So it’s really their camp. It’s not that they are borrowing someone’s landing field.
Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), who is also from New York, writes about going to Antarctica as “urban deprogramming.” He went down there about a year ago, chartered a boat and went from Argentina through the Drake Passage, recording sounds for his multi-media performance work, “Terra Nova: The Antarctic Suite”. By “urban deprogramming,” he meant how thoroughly, completely different it was from New York and anything he’d seen before. How shocking was the difference for you between where you were and what you’re used to in New York?
I think Mr. Miller has coined a very, very incredible phrase because, excluding the camp sounds, which were minimal, I was struck by the loudness of the silence. Silence. How refreshing. Silence. I just marveled at having the good fortune to have experienced it.
Not a bird, blade of grass. Just silence. And the beauty of the ice in different forms.
What would you say was the most surprising thing about the trip?
The overwhelming joy of standing at the North Pole. I cannot describe it; to call it an adrenaline rush is the understatement of the year. If you compressed every positive feeling, every thrill, every nuance, every joy, and then multiplied it and multiplied it—that is the feeling.
That sounds pretty amazing.
Yeah, it’s like pinching yourself and saying: I really did it. Because I’m human. That feeling is one that I will always have. It can never be duplicated, it can never be taken from me, it can never be stolen. It is part of my DNA.
What is the least favorite question people ask you?
It’s a combination of sustained ignorance and geographical ignorance, which I find very unacceptable.. People who perhaps did not have the advantages of education—that’s one thing. But the bizarre questions don’t come from them, they come from the “intelligentsia.” I think the educational system and academics have to take a long look at why Americans are so ignorant in geography. The kinds of questions I get: What hotel did you stay in at the North Pole? What path did you take? Did you have a good time there on your vacation? Like it’s a resort. [laughter]
I just came back from visiting my 70-year-old aunt in California, who has had similar experiences. She just spent two years and four months in Thailand, and when she returned to Oakland, people would ask: How was your trip? Like it was a vacation.
Yes, yes, yes. So she understands, yes. However, the man in the street, in the black world, has displayed tremendous pride, as a result of my feat.
My aunt actually marked her fifth-year anniversary post-cancer treatment by training to run a marathon. Then she went to Churchill to see the polar bears. And then she joined the Peace Corps and went to Thailand. So she sort of became an adventurer later in life, and she has certainly been a very strong inspiration for me. If you don’t want to answer this, that’s fine, but I was wondering, how much of this trip was something you decided to do after completing cancer treatments?
Well, once I became aware that I had cancer, I did not undergo some metamorphosis, as some people do, in all due respect to them. The skies didn’t open, a ray didn’t come through, I didn’t hear the great organ in the background—and now you suddenly see.
This didn’t happen because I have tried to take the best path forward in my life, and leave the worst behind. Life is not a dress rehearsal and I do not believe in reincarnation. So I have tried to focus on making life meaningful within the framework of my financial and my physical ability. In short, I have tried to live one hell of an exciting and fun life.
Since death is inevitable, that is not the time to say “I woulda, I shoulda, I coulda.” I don’t want to die any more than anyone else, but if I have to go today, tomorrow . . . when the undertaker looks at my face, he’s going to say “damn, look at that smile.” [laughing]
What was your background before all of this? I gather you were a nurse?
Yes. I graduated from Bellevue School of Nursing and then obtained my undergraduate and masters of professional studies at the New School University. Then I went on to study political science and international affairs. I don’t have my doctorate, but I did do some post-graduate studies.
You might say to yourself: what is the relationship between political science, nursing, and international affairs? Well, I believe that as we strive to be educated, we should take ideas that have been taught to us, or superimposed on us, and again—question them. Take New York City for example. Why is it that some people live and some people die in a city that has a fairly good medical system? I’ve always been interested in how the world impacts me and other people . . . and how the behavior, the philosophy, the actions of the United States impacts the world and other people.
Since you mentioned political science and international relations, what do you think of this business where Russia planted a flag onto the North Pole and is making a claim that it’s theirs?
Well, I’m frankly a bit amused. It should be interesting to see how it plays out.
People think that, as the ice melts and the oil becomes more accessible, there’s going to be a real land rush for drilling in the arctic regions. The northern countries are meeting to discuss it, but there is no political framework like there is for Antarctica. Do you foresee a lot of strife?
Well, perhaps it’s a more resourceful way, a more updated way, than American colonialism. And ways that we have used to control oil. As I said earlier, if you clean your own window first, your neighbor’s looks a lot cleaner.
Well, the U.S. is of course also involved with this, mostly with the drilling in Alaska, and taking of land that had been given to various native and tribal peoples in Alaska—who have been trying to take it back for drilling. Did you encounter any native northern people?
No. When I was in northern Manitoba, I did. And I met people indigenous to Svalbard. But once I reached base camp and beyond, no.
Just curious. Because that was part of the whole Matt Henson story: how he was the one who learned the language and learned the sled dogging, and supposedly was able to work with the native people.
I understand the indigenous people called him “The Kind One.”
So the plan to go to the South Pole—this is for next winter?
For December of 2009.
Are you physically training for this trip?
Not as much as I’d like. My first priorities right now are to arrange speaking engagements and fundraise. I’m looking for donations and help of any kind.
Are you mostly working with universities or businesses?
I’m approaching this on more than one front: the educational arena, businesses, and non-profit organizations.
So what haven’t I asked?
There is one thing I would like to talk about. Often when people know some measure of success, they become so full of themselves that they forget the bridge that brought them across. But there is no way I could have accomplished any of this without the underpinnings, the fiber, the character that was built into me by my mother. So when I reached the North Pole, after jumping up and down and just enjoying the thrill of the moment, I dedicated the trip to the memory of her.
My father died when I was about two years old. My mother was the one who demanded education in our home. There was no such thing as a GED in pregnancy [laughing]. I fought as a child, but it was made very clear to me: “If you fight after school, Barbara, and you’re beaten, do not come home crying. Someone, somewhere is tougher than you, and you may get your you-know-what kicked, and don’t expect me to breast feed you when this was your decision.”
Now, by today’s standards, that might sound terrible, but it wasn’t really. It prepared me for the real world. And it made me a stronger person.
She sounds great.
Oh, what a woman. What a woman. We grew up during the Depression, but there were always books under our Christmas tree.