Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)

bookxxx

“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.

Negroland_and_Guinea_with_the_European_Settlements,_1736

(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.

AfAm_History_Month

Advertisements

Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid (2002)

book414After reading some earlier work by Jamaica Kinkaid (see review of Annie John), I already knew that Kinkaid was a really good writer, and so when I happened upon this volume, I picked it up with little hesitation as I knew it wouldn’t disappoint me. And it didn’t. Hooray for good consistent writers!

This novella is rather a coming-of-age/bildungsroman recount of how a young woman from the unnamed “islands” (but clearly referring to the Caribbean area) takes her first job as an au pair for a rich white family in the States. Lucy, the titular character, is young and not very experienced, and is excited about this opportunity to travel. Happy to be elsewhere, Lucy strikes out for this new adventure with trepidation and anticipation, but also colored by her having just finished a rather difficult childhood with a complicated relationship with her mother. This mix of emotion is a constant thread throughout this short story, and colors every experience that Lucy has in this new world of au pair-ing.

Being an au pair is a tricky situation. Most families try to be welcoming and include you as “part of the family”, but there is always a reminder that you’re not actually equal to the other family members, and it’s difficult to set up boundaries for both the au pair and the family. When is an au pair really off the clock? How private can his or her time really be? It seems to be fraught with issues, and the situation with Lucy is no different than that.

So this title follows a year of employment for Lucy with her au pair employers, and it’s certainly a year of growing for everyone involved: the children, Lucy herself, the parents… Just like any development, this gradual maturation can be a situation filled with dissonance for all.

Lucy has grown up on a small Caribbean island with her mother and step-father. Her mother is educated and employed as a social worker, but as is quite common, her mum is very patient and understanding with her clients, but this doesn’t carry home for Lucy. It’s curious – her mother is big on her clients growing and learning new skills, but she is resentful of Lucy continuing her education and of spreading her wings. (Perhaps it’s jealousy…)

Stateside, her employer family are having complications of their own, and they can’t help but involve Lucy in these problems as well, since she is with them all the time. As the saying goes, you can never step in the same stream twice, and as the novella continues, the family and Lucy grow and change both as a group, but also an independent beings.

Lucy is a bundle of conflicting emotions: happy to be away from her claustrophobic country, a common vacation choice for the Americans who surround her, Lucy also deeply misses her island and her family. Given the difficult childhood that she’s had, Lucy is relieved to be away from her family, and yet she yearns to be understood as only a family member could do. She yearns to “belong,” but she also wants to be independent from everything that she’s known before, so although this is a short novella, there are a lot of contents to be unpacked when you go through this read.

Considered to be highly autobiographical for Kinkaid (who lived a similar experience in her younger days), it’s a challenge to enjoy Lucy due to her fractious ways, and yet at the same time, I felt sympathy for her at the same time. As an expat from England who also moved away from home to a foreign country at a similar age, it’s true that you do really have a lot of mixed emotions about the first year in your new home. So much is different that, at times, you yearn for it to be more familiar so everything is not a surprise or a puzzle. And yet, at the same time, I’d been wanting to live abroad since I was a young girl ready for a change, so it can be tough to balance those two conflicting views.

This was well-written, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed this particular read that much. 😦 Aah well. Can’t win them all.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (1952)

bookxxxxI had no idea of what to expect, but went along for the ride with this book to see how the narrative would go. I’d heard of this title, naturally, but had not read it, and thought this month would be the month to try it.

Hmm. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed (or even understood) the read. It’s strongly influenced by Christianity, specifically the African-American Pentecostal perspective, and so I think, since I’m not religious, that I probably missed half the references and thus didn’t really understand what the book was talking about.

It’s well written – very lyrical – but hell’s bells if I wasn’t mightily confused for the majority of the read. So, this might be a short review!

The title of the book comes from an 1865 African-American spiritual song, “Tell it on the Mountain”, and this book has been highly ranked in both the Modern Library’s 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005.

So – short post today. Glad I read it. Highly unlikely that I will ever read it again. :-}

This title is part of JOMP’s celebration of African-American History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)

native_son

…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…

Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.

To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.

I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.

Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.

Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?

Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…

 “No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”

The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.

wright_richardWright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.

So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.

On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.

After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.

And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.

Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.

The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.

The second part, Flight, is right after Bigger murders Mary, and the events that occur very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…

The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.

But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation. Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why Bigger murdered Mary. Was he culpable?  Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?

Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

The Negro Motorist Green-Book – Victor Hugo Green

The_Negro_Motorist_Green_BookSo, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.

Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.

Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.

AfAm_car_ownersOriginally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.

The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦

This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?

  • ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)

AfAm_History_Month

Sula – Toni Morrison (1973)

book378a

The purpose of evil is to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing that they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.

Read for a bunch of different reasons (including Black History Month and to fill in a year in my on-going Century of Books project), Sula was a great read once you got into it. It’s not the easiest book to read as it flips back and forth between an experimental style and a more straightforward narrative arc, but once I let go of any notions of expecting the traditional format, it became a really good read. It features two women, both very different from each other and the others in their small community. They meet when they are twelve, and from then on, they float in and out of each other’s lives as they get older and their lives change.

It’s a rather uncomfortable friendship with both friends choosing to be rather direct with each other (and crossing over into mean at times). The dichotomy between the two is around what the book revolves: Sula and Nel are frenemies for most of their years on earth, and it’s not a gentle read at times.

Having both grown up in a small community called The Bottom (although it’s up in the hills), their childhood overlaps and they are inseparable for their adolescent years. It’s not until both are young women that Sula leaves their home town and then disappears for years. Not until much later in their lives, does Sula return to her childhood home changed herself and bringing a tornado of memories and unpleasant truths with her to disrupt the Bottom’s own balanced little world.

It’s a good read with a lyrical tone to the writing – almost sultry and dream-like in places – and the structure of each paragraph reflects what’s happening in the characters (similar in some ways to Zora Neale Hurston and as things get complicated, the sentences become longer and longer and run on — similar to how dreams don’t really start or stop or have a logical arc to them. At first, I was wondering what was going on, but as with other experimental writing I’ve read, I found that the best approach was to just go with the flow and see where you end up. (It’s not even that experimental, really, when you compare this writing to others, but it’s not a straight-up A-Z narrative arc for sure.)

Morrison has written a lot of books, including The Bluest Eye (pre-blog) which I read years ago about a small girl who gets bullied by her school friends due to the color of her eyes. Similar to this read, it’s an uncomfortable and slightly edgy read but it’s really good all the same.

I recently read Morrison’s Beloved, and am looking forward to reading that whole trilogy. I’ve already ordered Jazz from the library. Squee.

Loved it. Highly recommend Morrison’s work.

Great Speeches by African-Americans – edited by James Daley (2006)

book379

It’s African-American History Month here in the U.S., and although the month is almost half over now and I’ve been tardy, I have been making an effort to read some work by POC (specifically people of African descent). As part of that, I happened to drop by one of the library branches (I know, shocking, right?), and they had a display of interesting looking titles that were themed with this. As I am a sucker for library displays, I picked a couple of titles, one of which happened to be a slim Dover Thrift edition of a collection of speeches by African-Americans over the years.

Obviously, being an edited collection means that someone will choose and miss pieces, but I thought that this book had such a good selection – at least to a neophyte such as me. There were a variety of speeches, long and short, from both male and female speechmakers (more men since historically men were more likely to be in such a position), and this was so interesting for me.

I have a smattering of African-American history having immersed myself in it on and off over the past few years, and it was so interesting to read some of the words that reflected (and in some cases changed) the course of history in the U.S. for people of color.

As historical background, here are the large markers that illustrate the hideous history of slavery in the U.S. and the U.K.:

Brief run-down on the early history of U.S. history:

  • 1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery
  • 1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)
  • 1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies
  • 1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

There was quite a list of speeches in this title, and so thought I’d spotlight a few of my favorites for you:

  • Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth (1851).  A short but powerful speech delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, its brevity adds to its power and this is a fire-cracker speech not to be missed. Seriously.
  • What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July? – Frederick Douglass (1852)  Given on July 05, 1852, this is an inspiring speech given by freedman Frederick Douglass to show the hypocrisy evident when Americans were celebrating Independence Day from England, and yet a large percentage of their population were still not free. It’s powerful, it’s long, and I would have loved to have heard this speech in real life. I’m not sure how many people would have stuck it out to the end – brevity is not in this work – but it’s a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of the time. Frederick Douglass has an amazing story and I reviewed his diary earlier a few years back. See here for the link.
  • Black Woman in Contemporary America – Shirley Chisholm (1974). Chisholm was the first AfAm woman elected to the U.S. Congress and in 1972, she was the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for the U.S. Presidency. (How brave is that??) She served in Congress until 1982, and gave this speech in 1974 at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
  • The Ballot or the Bullet – Malcolm X (1964). Like Malcolm X or not, he was a pivotal influencer on the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in this speech, he argues that if America can send black men overseas to fight in the Korean War, surely that gives AfAm people the right to stand up for themselves and each other. It’s a fiery speech, no doubt about it, and his passion shines through. Interestingly (and frustratingly), many of the same issues that Malcolm raises are still social justice issues of today. Have a looksee.

This was not an easy read – quite a few of the speeches are really dense and last for more than a few pages – but they are worth reading to see their speech-writing skills and the passion that each presenter demonstrates. A really good read about an important battle that continues, I’m sad to say, to this day in some parts of the country.

s_chisholm_1972

Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

Dr. Cornel West rocks.

cornel1_rev

Wow.

Dr. Cornel West visited our campus last week as part of the African-American History Month, and wow. He was a fantastic orator. You can tell that he has experience as a spoken word performer and you can tell that he is probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever hear from. (Huge vocabulary!) It was great.

cornelDr. West’s talk was along the lines of how African-American lives have been changed (or not) during the Obama administration and I had been expecting to hear how great President Obama has been and all that jazz. Instead, we heard a fairly diluted message of support for him, and a lot about how it’s much more important to be the best person you can be, regardless of color. Great message. However, Dr. West was also very astute in his biting commentary about how racism still exists for African-Americans in the U.S. and he particularly focused on the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. It really got me to thinking and linked nicely back to Ta Ne-Hisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me. (See my review here.)

(I had expected the lecture hall to be as packed as it was with Black Violin , but instead (and rather disappointedly), it was only two-thirds full and mostly with older white people. I was saddened because Dr. West was rather a coup for our university to secure. He’s an important intellectual activist and his messages crosses boundaries of all kinds. They missed out is all I can say.)

So – to the talk. Instead of focusing on President Obama’s eight years in office, Dr. West revolved his talk on the problem of systemic racism in the U.S. and linked that with four questions from the African-American writer, W. E. B. Du Bois:

  • How shall Integrity face Oppression?
  • What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception?
  • What shall Decency do in the face of Insult?
  • What Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

(Du Bois had some other questions as well, but these were the four that Dr. West chose to focus on for his talk.)

It was a powerful talk. Dr. West is a fiery and passionate speaker and covered a wide swath of issues. He addressed some uncomfortable realities (at least for me, as a privileged white person) and the advice that he gave to address these four questions in an honorable and powerful way was dead on.

It was really a good lecture, and if you should ever get a chance to hear Dr. West, then please go. It was a thought-provoking and energizing talk from one of the leading activists and philosophers in the U.S. Highly recommended.

(I’m also going to look for some of Du Bois’ writing at a later date. It looks v interesting to me.)

Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994)

 

book369

Subtitle: The Story of an African-American Frontier Town and the Pioneers who Settled It.

“All colored people that want [sic] to go to Kansas on September 5th, 1877, can do so for $5.” (Taken from handbill issued by the Nicodemus Town Company.)

This was a fascinating read about a part of the Wild West which I’ve not seen receive much mention before: how the pioneer world also included African-Americans in its spread westward during the nineteenth century. What was so interesting for me was learning that Kansas was a hub for these African-American pioneers. Kansas, I hear you say? Really? Well, yes.

In 1865, the U.S. cemented the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment secured citizenship for African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 secured voting rights for African-Americans (at least on paper).

kansas mapSo in the later nineteenth century, former slaves were now free-ish (depending on lots of factors and not just the law), but although they had their freedom, it was not without its own set of problems. Former slaves were often just released without any resources to support them; many had no land, no money (and little chance of getting any), no home, no job, and limited access to employment due to a lack of skills and to rampant job discrimination. How was a former and newly released slave supposed to support him/herself and the family?

Thus the Freedman Bureau  was established to address this need, but it fell wanting in numerous areas. Most slaves were minimally agriculturally skilled which only allowed them to earn a living through share-cropping (where they don’t own the land, but work on it and then share a portion of what is produced on that land). With no means to buy land and thus no opportunity to own land, what was a former slave to do?

afam_pioneers_homestead_act

Along around now also came the Homestead Act (1862) which opened up land ownership for many people in the newly established western states (including Kansas). So with the numerous land companies popping up and with their exaggerated exhortations with regard to the amount and quality of resources that were available in these states, newly freed men and women were targeted for populating these wide open states. Slaves with few other opportunities jumped at the chance for a better life and thus a door was opened for the African-American pioneers of the time.

Kansas was, at that time, a mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery with the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” due to its liberal values. With the abundance of flowery literature portraying it as a land of plenty and with the fact that famous abolitionist John Brown lived there, the state looked really attractive to the freed slaves and so thousands of African-Americas moved there. The influx of new settlers were called “Exodusters” and estimates go as high as 40,000 people who moved there.

Alongside this was an African-American Kansas resident called Pap Singleton who is credited with being one of the earlier visionaries with regard to establishing all-black communities for these new incomers. His ideas, along with the huge influx of settlers, led to the formation of the town Nicodemus and other communities run for and by black residents. It was quite a revolutionary idea for the times.

afam-cowboy

However, with the now-free slaves with few resources and not many skills, many preferred to live close to the already established communities and so although the incomers were many, few had the skills to homestead. Such an increase in community population led to an increase in crime, of poverty and other social ills, and in 1880, the Kansas Governor finally had to say no more to the newcomers and to the town companies who were promoting this state.

Roughly two-thirds of the incomers left the state after that, either going home or on to different states, but even so, it still left a pretty large population of African-Americans struggling to make Kansas their home.

And so the story goes on. It’s an amazing tale and one that I had never heard of, despite having lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I knew that there were African-American cowboys – in fact, I happen to know two guys who do that now – but I had no idea of the sheer numbers of freed slaves who came west. Just imagine how brave these newly freed pioneers were – and what a risk they took to create new and better lives for themselves and for their families. Amazing.

I’m really interested in learning more about this more unknown side of pioneer life, so I’m looking out for other books now. This was fascinating.