September 21, 2009
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Ecclesiastes 7:10
There’s a book in the small shop here at Homestead National Monument that makes me laugh every time I see it: The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! The book describes how time-consuming and laborious it was “back then” just to go about the activities of daily life. Perusing its pages makes me glad I live in modern times.
The program I produced yesterday at Homestead as part of my residency requirement is about those olden times. It’s a monologue I wrote and performed, about a white woman from New Jersey (me) telling the story of her move to Kansas with her family to become a homesteader, and her friendship with a black migrant from the South.
The number one question non-writers ask writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer is always the same—by reading. In this case, the germ of the idea for my monologue came when I applied for the Homestead residency. I searched the park’s website for information so I could write a coherent proposal, and came across this article on the nineteenth-century exodus of southern African-Americans, who became known as Exodusters.
What prompted this flight was President Rutherford B. Hayes’ withdrawal of the last of the federal troops from the South in 1877 (you thought the 2000 election was a doozy? Congress had to decide the winner of the 1876 election, and part of the alleged compromise to put Hayes in the White House included this stipulation). This ended the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction and, as you might expect, conditions for blacks worsened dramatically. Eventually, an estimated 20,000-40,000 of them poured out of the South, most leaving in 1879 and 1880. Kansas, with its abolitionist history, was the prime destination of these former slaves.
This is one of the greatest migrations in American history, yet I had never heard of it. I asked several people, black and white, and found only one person who had.
So naturally, I knew this HAD to be my subject!
My character tells the story of her friend’s journey from Mississippi to Kansas and how, despite the parallel of the biblical Exodus of slaves out of Egypt (hence, the name Exodusters), the North was not always the “promised land” for so many of them.
And how does this relate to the book title I mentioned? Sometimes we (and I include myself) fret over how our country’s values are going to pot, kids these days are disrespectful and rude, etc. etc., and conclude, “If only it could be like the good old days!”
Well, guess what? Those good old days had their own share of difficulties! For some people, there was nothing good about them at all! We can either wallow in what has gone on before, or take the enjoyment and lessons learned from the past and move forward. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past,” God says in Isaiah 43:18. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Don’t get me wrong: I love history (especially now that I don’t have to take tests!), and I delight in memories of happy times. And I enjoy being able to take a significant event in America’s past and make it come alive.
But I sure don’t want to miss what God is doing right now.
P.S. Don’t forget—the Ken Burns’ six-part series on the national parks begins this Sunday the 27th on PBS, and runs through Saturday, October 3. I’ve seen two previews here at Homestead, and boy, is it gonna be good!