Archive for January, 2010

Just because it’s funny.


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I recently finished reading this lush novel for one of my book groups, and found it to be very thought provoking. It’s the story of a slave named Cassius Howard who lives on the tobacco plantation Sweetsmoke in Virginia. The time is 1862, and the Civil War is taking it’s toll on everyone.  For Cassius, life takes a dramatic turn when he learns that a freed woman who was special to him has been murdered. He gives himself the task of learning who killed her and why, and to extract some kind of justice for something so unfair. Intelligent, thoughtful, patient, and even ruthless, Cassius tests every boundary that has held him prisoner throughout his life, risking his life at every turn, to find the answers that he needs. Since finishing the book, I haven’t been able to get a number of questions out of my head.

In that time and place, it was illegal for anyone to teach a slave how to read. Throughout the book, Cassius has to walk the knife-edge of danger as he hides his ability even from other slaves. Laws like this are based in fear, and I’m guessing that the raionale here was that if a slave could read, he/she would then have the audacity to consider themselves equal and want their freedom. Given the economics of the plantation system, this would have been disasterous for the finances of many a family. In contrast to this fear there seemed to exist the belief that the slaves were too stupid to even learn how to read anyway. This contradiction leaves me scratching my head because if that were true, then why were they so afraid of it? Why were they so afraid that they had laws against it and severe punishments for anyone caught teaching a slave and any slave caught with a book? Why, then, did some decide to risk punishment anyway and teach select slaves to read? As it happens, the mother of a key character in the book inadvertantly sets off an extended chain of events by teaching one of her slaves to read. So did the white people, in that time and place, really believe the slaves were too stupid to read? Or did they only tell themselves that for comfort or justification?  Did these laws extend to freed blacks? They had their freedom, to a limited degree, but I’m sure there were concerns about them demanding greater equality.

Certainly there was the sense among the whites, slave owners or not, that they were the superior race. What I got from the book was that they saw themselves as parents to many ungrateful, rebellious children that they had to monitor constantly. In their minds, they took good care of the slaves by giving them a home, food, and clothing.  In the book, and surely in real life, there were those that found this to be enough. Freedom can be a frightening idea if you’ve never had it, don’t know what to do with it, and you don’t see how life would be any better than what you have. For many more, it didn’t matter how you were treated, well or not. What mattered was the lack of freedom, the lack of any self-determination. Maybe this occurred to the slave owners, maybe it didn’t. Either way, they continued to justify owning other human beings for their own means, even though my understanding is that they considered themselves to be good Christians. How can someone reconcile their Christian faith with slave ownership? Did anyone struggle with that at all?

There was apparantly a kind of order of preference among the plantations. It was better to be a house slave than a field slave. It was better to be a field slave on a tobacco plantation than a field slave on a cotton plantation. There are a number of references in the book about how being sold to a cotton plantation was essentially a death sentence and so the most dreaded of punishments. Was this because the work was harder? Were conditions in the deep South harsher than in the states closer to the Mason-Dixon line? Were the cotton slave owners crueler than the tobacco slave owners? Was it better to be a slave on a small farm than on a big plantation?

Daily life for a slave was a minefield. The slightest transgression, however unintentional, could bring severe consequences. Everything from extreme physical abuse, to being sold off and never seeing loved ones again, even death, was fair game. Those who were brave enough took off on the Underground Railroad in a desperate attempt to reach freedom. In the book, Cassius is instructed in how to use the Railroad by another slave. Although he faces the greater risk, don’t those who work as “conductors” face risk, too? What were the laws on that? Was anyone ever caught and punished for helping slaves escape? How and when did the Railroad start, and how did one become involved?

There are so many layers to this book that I could probably extract even more questions from another reading of it. In the meantime, I’ve got some more reading to do :).

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With it being time for Martin Luther King Jr. day for 2010, I’m reminded that it’s good to have a day set aside to remind us how important civil rights are and how hard so many have had to fight for them. Until I moved to Kansas, I had never heard of the Dockum Drugstore sit in and have sinced learned it’s been an overlooked part of our history. It’s been my understanding that the 1960 Woolworth sit in that took place in Greensboro, NC was considered to be the first civil rights sit in protest. Really, though, it was the 1958 Dockum sit in that happened in Wichita that was the first. It’s been overlooked, though, because local media didn’t want to offend their advertisers so they didn’t carry the story. Plus, the NAACP was not yet sanctioning sit ins, so the local participants did not receive any national support.

They were ahead of the curve, and I appreciate how much courage that must have taken. They were students, in their teens, and every day for several weeks they went into Dockum and quietly sat at the counter, in hostile territory. By turns they were ignored, stared at, and insulted, and still they calmly remained in their seats. It was store policy not to serve African Americans. If they did receive service, it was in a to go container at the end of the counter. The idea was that they weren’t supposed to sit and stay. White customers began avoiding the store because they were too uncomfortable with the idea of sharing the space. After a month, the owner caved in, not because he suddenly had a change of heart, but because he was losing too much money. He came in and told the store manager to serve the students. Just like that it was over and the students had won.

PBS recently made a documentary on the Dockum sit in. The video clip here gives you a small taste of the film. I haven’t seen it yet but I sure would like to.

If you’re like me and want to learn more about this subject, check out Wichita historian Gretchen Cassel Eick’s book Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72. Luckily for me, it’s available at the Wichita Public Library, and once I read it, I’ll do another posting on what else I’ve learned about the subject. And if you’re in the area, be sure to stop in the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, or the The Kansas African American Museum.

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Hello world!

This will be a fun blog (I hope!) of my adventures in history, exploring, books, my attempts at artistic endeavors, and whatever else is catching my fancy at the moment. I’ve never blogged before, but I’ve been inspired by the many blogs that I’ve visited over the past year and so I thought I would give it a go. I hope to have lots of adventures, make many new friends, and just have an all around jolly good time. I hope you’ll join me.  Cheers!

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