I saw on my reading list where one blogger did a “What I’m Reading Wednesday” post. Brilliant idea, thinks I. It’s not always possible for me to work up a book review post, but I am constantly reading one book or another — usually nonfiction — and I can certainly post about them. So here it is.
When I first heard the term Exodusters I thought it was some sort of sci-fi like title: Exo- Dusters. I imagined a Morpheus-like fellow, complete with long black coat and sunglasses, blasti bad guys while flipping through the air.
Yeah, I know. I am taken by fancies quite often.
A little googling told me that the term came from Exodus, as in the book of Bible. Therefore, Exodus-ters. Exodusters were poor black families who left the South after the heartbreaking failure of Reconstruction, following the Civil War. As the South descended into an abyss of white supremacy, violence, fear, and pain, news of hope came from Kansas. It was the land of John Brown, that fiery abolitionist who denounced slavery with violence, and died for his crimes. Families who had emigrated there wrote to those still oppressed in the South and encouraged them to flee, to come to the Promised Land. Many thousands did just that, the Exodusters.
The definitive study of this group of people is by historian Nell Irvin Painter in Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1976, 1986), and it is brilliant and dense. Painter puts into words concepts and ideas that have, in less than three chapters, made her one of my history heroes. For instance, for years I have been taken aback by the term “white trash” because it assumes that everyone else, who is not white, is naturally trash. But I could not articulate this feeling. Painter, speaking about a similar concept, does so succinctlyThis political conflict between masters and slaves, so often identified as a racial conflict, was, at bottom, a conflict between workers and employers, between poor people and wealthy people, in which race functioned as the idiom for discussion of class. Unless the terms of the discussion were modified–“poor” white, “educated” Black–the word black meant poor and white meant rich. (p. viii)
As a historian myself, there’s nothing more thrilling than to connect the thread of some unwinding truth from age to age, as Painter has done here and with many other such revelations. But she also includes heart, as she quotes Louisiana farmer John Solomon Lewis in 1879 as he and his family fled the oppression of the deep South for Kansas.
“When I knew I had all my family in a free land, I said let us hold a little prayer meeting; so we held a little meeting on the river bank. It was raining but the drops fell from heaven on a free family, and the meeting was just as good as sunshine. We was thankful to God for ourselves and we prayed for those who could not come.
“I asked my wife did she know the ground she stands on. She said, ‘No!’
“I said it is free ground; and she cried like a child for joy.” (p. 4)
It will take me quite a while to get through this book, and as I do so I will be underlining and making notes and pondering what Painter says, but as I read the pleasure is all mine.