Dixie it ain’t

I am a white man living in Kansas. Which means I am one of the boys, because we, and I am including our white girls, account for 79.9% of the state’s population. “Kansas? That’s white bred making wheat bread.” Which tells you my whiteness doesn’t stand out like it did in New Mexico, in fact I meet Kansans who are even closer to being albino than I am and not surprisingly so, for many have a northwest European background, their settler-forefathers migrating from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Great-Britain.

In New Mexico, in Española, a predominantly Hispanic town near Abiquiu of 10,000 mostly raven-haired “Messicans,” I found myself standing out as a whiter than white guy. In the beginning I didn’t always feel comfortable, and later I didn’t always feel welcome. Once or twice, I was accused publicly by young Hispanics of being an intruding and most unwelcome “Yankee” who needed to be told to “go home.” When “attacked” in New Mexico for being a member of the white race, I learned to react to the reverse racism with a smile and if I was in the right mood I explained I had recently arrived from the Netherlands, therefore had nothing to do with, and should not be blamed for, the theft in the 19th century of their great-grandfathers’ lands, and thus was no Yankee. This always helped break the ice more than a little. Until one of them got smart and started yelling, “Hey you, Gringo!” …

In general, being Dutch in America is an advantage. When Ans and I were traveling, we already discovered that most Americans reacted very favorable to our Dutchness. Doors would easily open and there was often something memorable to talk about. Being Dutch proved to be especially helpful when meeting Native Americans. One semester, I participated in a Río Arriba County community college course about the ‘Hispanic Legacy’ and found myself in class with a young man from Santa Clara Pueblo who, upon learning I was Dutch, broke out a most welcoming smile and told me that they, the Indians, had always highly respected the Dutch. So, I asked him if, maybe, this was because of the Dutch soccer heroes? “No, no,” he said. “We Indians were and are looking up to the Dutch because, in the 16th century, you were the only people in the world who not only resisted the Spanish intrada, but also managed to kick the Spaniards out of your country.” “It took us eighty years,” I said humbly, yet suddenly feeling … a little national pride. Yes, he knew of the Eighty Year War but its duration didn’t diminish the fact that in the end we’d kicked them out. “We Indians succeeded only once to make the Spanish conquistadores retreat, during the Pueblo Revolt, but then they came back – and since then we are stuck with these darned Hispanics.” He used the F-word, though.

Native Americans are almost non-existent in present-day Kansas. Latinos make out 9.3% of the population (the national figure is 15.8%), Asians 2.3% (national 4.6%) and 6.2% of the Kansans are black, which is less than half of the national percentage of 12.9. Anyway, Latinos, Asians and black people are much more visible than fifteen years ago, when I first visited Kansas. When entering the Emporia campus of Kansas University, I now jokingly say I’m in Chinatown, so many Asian students I see strolling around. The young Asians are real newcomers and so are the Latino families, who in the past fifteen years put their stamp on each and every Kansas town by opening and operating at least one “Mexican” restaurant and making the margarita a common and popular drink. The black Americans are visibly more present than in the 1990s but only in the larger towns, hardly ever in the rural areas. Nevertheless, the African Americans have the longest non-white newcomer history in our ‘Sunflower State’, a history almost as long as that of the white folks themselves.

Nicodemus means “born again.” It was the name of the first slave to purchase his freedom in the United States and it became the name of the first western town built by and for black settlers. In its heyday, they counted 700 inhabitants and quite a few businesses. Today’s population: 27. Only five or six families still farm. The town itself is less than a shadow of what it used to be until the railroad decided to pass Nicodemus by. A present-day aerial view clearly shows the town’s grid but most of the buildings and homes are gone; notwithstanding being a National Historic Site, it is a desolate and barren place in a depressing and bleak northwestern corner of Kansas. Not that it was much better at the time of the “Colored Exodus,” the “Exoduster,” when thousands of black Americans left the post-Civil War South looking for new roots. Willianna Hickman recalled her arrival in Nicodemus, spring 1878: “The families lived in dugouts, the scenery was not at all inviting, and I began to cry.” For the courageous individuals who migrated to the high plains, Kansas was “a natural draw, after all, it was a Free State, part of the Underground Railroad, and home to the abolitionist John Brown.” If the colony was to prove successful, then the question of “what shall become of the colored race in this country is solved,” wrote William Eagleson with too great optimism. But he was right in stating that, “There will be no need for our people to remain in the abominable South.”

I am not the only one who became favorably impressed by the white Kansans in regard to their past and present relationship with their black neighbors. But was Kansas indeed the Free State it proclaimed to be? As always, the true picture is bleaker than the image created over time. Prevailing assumptions about the South offered “a sectional imaginary through which white Kansans interpreted the racist violence in their own midst,” writes Brent Campney (Emory University). “On the one hand, the South, and the violence that occurred there, provided a means to obscure, dismiss, and justify incidents in Kansas,” allowing for a sort of historical amnesia and deem each anomaly the exception that proved the rule of Midwestern virtue. “On the other hand, the idea of the South constituted a powerful enticement for resistance to racist violence among white Kansans fearful of becoming associated with it.”

“Two concepts,” writes James Shortridge, “pastoralism and the Middle West (…) became virtually synonymous,” creating an image of Kansas as a land of “bucolic virtue, of sturdy, thriving agrarians inhabiting a blissful Middle Landscape,” the land of freedom, a place of equality, where the challenges of the frontier left little space for bigotry. The land of pastoral virtue and racial harmony? “These images are so pervasive that even historians sometimes represent a Midwest fundamentally incompatible with racist violence,” even if they themselves document evidence to the contrary. A large group of white settlers was anti-slavery merely on economic grounds, which did not mean they welcomed the Negro. It was only in the aftermath of the Civil War that white Kansans began to reshape the memory of the Free State in such way that it included the liberation of African Americans. “Free State settlers had suffered like martyrs at the hand of Southern pro-slavers (…) but in the end, through the perseverance of the Free Staters and the will of God, the righteous triumphed (…) the lesson of the story, oft repeated, was that Kansans (…) possessed a certain moral superiority” (Michael Lewis Goldberg).

Yet regardless of the Free State narrative, there was systematic and enduring racial violence in Kansas in more than fifty years after the Civil War ended: 603 separate incidents were officially identified, 37 mob killings, four race riots. In the university town of Lawrence, then the capitol of abolitionism twice sacked by pro-slavery Missourians, nowadays one of the most liberal of Kansas towns and proud home of the Free State brewery (brewers of excellent beer, I can tell you that), a wave of racist violence was unleashed during the Exoduster movement including mob murder.

Nevertheless, white Kansans kept envisioning their Free State as the anti-South and, according to a state politician, “occupying a position in the foreground of enlightened progress.” For, “Blood was shed on Kansas soil for the Negro.” Thus wrote the Leavenworth Times, which, with most other newspapers, all too often speedily after a black laborer was gunned down concluded that the murderer was a stranger in town “and probably a southerner.” Or, when a black man was beaten by a mob, they mused why it could be that the “poor Negro was treated to the methods employed by the old Klu-Klux gangs of Georgia,” and therefore “outrageous reaction was demanded as it should be in free Kansas.” For, don’t y’all forget: “This is not Dixie!”

Meanwhile angry blacks were advised to remember that, “The black man had no rights until the white man gave him (…) the liberal laws of Kansas.” White Kansans in the end had little alternative but to stifle racist violence or to surrender to hypocrisy, as they finally understood that, “Denial does no good.”

The Free State narrative is still vital; the extent of the participation in racist behavior and violence is either denied or minimized. The violence disappeared with the progress of the 20th century; in general, the blacks in Kansas experienced no more turmoil than their brothers and sisters from elsewhere, rather less, probably because they were not around in great numbers. But how, in 2011, is daily life for black Kansans? Is it still possible that a black lawyer mowing his lawn without a shirt on gets called to by a dignified lady passing by in her Cadillac, “Boy! Boy! What are they paying you to mow the grass?” (In response of which the lawyer turned to her and said, “Well, as a matter of fact, the lady of the house lets me sleep with her,” and the dignified lady drove off, suddenly in a great hurry.) Is this still possible? Possibly not. Or maybe it is. I meet most-talented black men and women who appear to be very much at ease in Kansas and say they “love it here.” I detect at least one black, or rather multicolored, neighborhood in Wichita that I’d say is “wrong side of the tracks.”

Meanwhile, more than 10,000 new African Americans and their children born in the U.S. took residence in Kansas metropolitan centers. Somalis, Kenyans, Nigerians, Tanzanians, Zanzibari, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Sierra Leoneans. They are political asylum seekers, refugees, students, doctors, and other professionals who, often, are disappointed not to find work in their field. Upright, law-abiding persons most of them are. They create what other immigrants did before them: self-help organizations. Their factions strive for unity in the United States. They chose the Midwest because, “life is more straightforward and there are more opportunities than in the cities of the East Coast.” They hope to gain more visibility in American society, which all too often doesn’t know anything about Africa – that’s why the new immigrants think the prejudice they encounter is born of ignorance on the part of Americans. And not one of them understands why upon arrival they suddenly become generic Africans or blacks or African Americans.

Prejudice is just as malleable in Kansas as elsewhere. Through much of recent American history, blacks have been viewed low on the competence index (negative feelings), but warm enough to be pitied (a protective, fuzzy emotion), writes Patricia Williams (Columbia University). “As blacks have made greater symbolic strides (…) that ranking seems to have been shifted: there is envy, suspicion, resentment (…) that blacks are taking over as the recipients not of due process but of undue favoritism.” Williams concludes that the invisibility to white fellow citizens, who are driven by fantasies of competitive victimhood, of the grim reality that blacks are still the most segregated and unemployed of all Americans is a danger to the nation. A study by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers has found that white Americans perceive black progress has come at their expense and that anti-white bias has become a bigger societal problem than anti-black bias.

Alas, “us” versus “them” continues to dominate especially the media discourse, them being not just blacks but Mexicans, Japanese, Salvadorans, Iranians, Pakistani, non-born-again Christians, the entire People’s Republic of China, Canadians, the French, liberal elites, and probably the Dutch, too, although I personally haven’t been bothered since the confrontations I experienced in New Mexico. By the way, when defending myself against the racial slur by confessing I was a latecomer Dutchman and therefore innocent of whatever they were accusing me of, I guess I was the only one present who understood that the disparaging word Yankee basically has a Dutch background. In the early days of America, Yankee was the generalization used to identify or address a Dutchman. Yankee came from Jan Cheese, or from Jan Kompagnie, or from both. Kompagnie standing for the then ruling Dutch West Indies Company, the managers of New Amsterdam. Jan Cheese in Dutch is, Jan Kaas. Another way of saying Jan Kaas in Dutch is, “Kaaskop” (cheese face). Indeed, I am a Kaaskop in Kansas.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, July 2011 

Almost totally missing from the conventional history of the American West is the role of the black cowboy. A deliberate exclusion by historians, artists, writers, and the movie and TV makers of Hollywood, of course. Yet no less than 25% to 40% of the trail-riding cowboys were black. 

Photo: Oakland Black Cowboy Association