In Search of the Promised Land

In May 1864, at the height of the U.S. Civil War, the Reverend W.G. Kefant recorded his impressions from Alabama, where he had spent time in the company of black people who had recently been freed from slavery by the Union army. Kefant, a Northerner, arrived in the South as the chaplain of an infantry regiment from Iowa, and this was his first introduction to the slave population and their Christian beliefs. He was amazed by what he discovered. In one of his letters, he noted unhappily that there was no biblical story with which they were more familiar than the Exodus. The central figure in the spiritual world of these American blacks was Moses, he complained, while Jesus the savior was pushed aside and considered, at best, his successor.

Like Kefant, other Northerners who came in contact with slaves also took note of this phenomenon. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an army colonel who commanded a regiment of freed slaves, noted that his soldiers tended to attribute all the central events in human history to the direct intervention of Moses. They were not interested in hearing about the life of Jesus, he added.

Indeed, the Christian beliefs of blacks during the slavery era did not focus on Jesus' salvation, but rather on the Exodus from Egypt. Millions of slaves took the story of how the people of Israel went from bondage into freedom as unequivocal proof that the enslavement of human beings was in violation of the will of God, and that it was fated to come to an end. The biblical tale gave content and significance to the lives of these people, who had been turned against their will into little more than beasts of burden in the service of cruel masters. It also offered them the means to contend with the widespread belief among Southern whites that they were sub-humans and doomed to live as slaves. They wanted to believe that they, too, like the people of Israel, were a chosen people with a unique fate and history, and that their day would also come.

Blacks in the South did not conceive of the Exodus from Egypt as some far-off piece of history, a story that had happened to another people during a different era. Rather, for them, it was a realistic event that could reoccur at any moment. In the eyes of many, such salvation was their only hope.

The slaves expressed their total identification with the people of Israel in a wondrous, cultural creative effort, whose impact is felt still today in America. Even though the vast majority of them did not know how to read or write, the first African Americans created songs, sermons and folk tales that enlivened the myth of the Exodus from Egypt and gave it a contemporary flavor. As they picked cotton under the blazing sun while a white boss armed with a whip kept a careful eye on their every move, they would sing about Moses and Pharaoh, about the armies of the Lord and the people who were waiting patiently for divine intervention. For a moment perhaps, it was possible to forget the brutal reality of daily life as slaves. Past, present and future intermingled in the story of the Children of Israel:

When Israel was in Egypt's land

Let my people go

Oppressed so hard they could not stand

Let my people go

Go down Moses

Way down in Egypt's land

Tell ol' Pharaoh

Let my people go.

In bondage once again

In the spring of 1865, the dream came true. Slavery was abolished by means of the blood, fire and columns of smoke of the Civil War, which took the lives of 620,000 people. The role of Moses was filled by Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, who was murdered just days after the war came to an end, and the place of the armies of the Lord was assumed by the soldiers of the North, who defeated the slave owners and forced them to free the slaves from bondage. The moment of the Exodus from Egypt had arrived. Hundreds of thousands left the plantations and started searching for their own promised land.

Some of them marched to the next town, where they tried to start new lives. Others wanted to return to the places where they had grown up, or began searching for relatives from whom they had been separated during the years when black people could be sold in the South to the highest bidder. Thousands migrated to Texas in the wake of rumors about huge salaries paid to agricultural workers there. A small number, particularly men who had served in the Union army, plucked up the courage to leave the South for the western and northern states. Men and women, alone or in groups, took advantage of their newfound freedom by setting out and looking for a place where they could build their lives as free people.

However, after a short while, it became clear that the United States of the 19th century was far from being the biblical Canaan. The slaves had indeed been set free, but the whites, in both the North and the South, neither considered them to be equal as human beings, nor did they want to absorb them. Without property, without education and without government support, the freed slaves who left their bosses found themselves in most cases unable to earn a living. In the aftermath of the war in the violent, destroyed South, there was nowhere for the freed slaves to go; most of them lived off battle rations distributed by the occupying army and donations from charitable organizations in the North.

In the rich and flourishing states of the North, there was indeed plenty of work, but most of the population was vehemently opposed to a mass influx of blacks for fear they would compete for work and imperil the purity of the white race.

Little by little, after many had reached a point of near-starvation, the blacks started returning to their former homes and to the people who had held them in bondage all their lives. They found themselves signing binding work agreements that effectively returned them to a state of vassalage, as they resumed working in the fields. The Exodus from Egypt, about which they had dreamed for so many years, ended in muted tones.

However, even after this failure to reach the promised land, they did not give up the dream. Time and again, even to this very day, African Americans continue to go out and look for a new place where they can live a life of freedom and dignity - a place where they will not suffer from hatred and discrimination, a place where they can enjoy the riches of America and the opportunities it offers its fair-skinned citizens.

Exodus to Kansas

A few years after the Civil War, when it was clear that the whites in the South were determined to suppress black freedom at any price, a movement for migration westward, to the state of Kansas, began. The migrants hoped that there - in a place that had not been affected by pathological hatred for freed slaves and which still had numerous open spaces - they could build a new Canaan for themselves. The migrants who specifically wanted to reenact the story of the Exodus were given the nickname of "Exodusters."

Some 40,000 black people took part in this movement, and in 1877 they established a town called Nicodemus, named for an African prince who had bought his freedom from American slavery. For several years, Nicodemus flourished, but when the regional railway companies chose to bypass it, leaving it totally isolated, the town began to decline. The new settlers began dispersing around the West or returning to the South. One more attempt to exit Egypt had failed.

The next opportunity came only with the succeeding generation and thanks to an event that was no less dramatic: the outbreak of World War I. The war in Europe halted the waves of European immigration to the U.S., and created a tremendous demand among the fighting nations for weapons, vehicles, food and clothing. In 1917, after America joined the war, hundreds of thousands of men left their workplaces to enlist in the army. As a result, a serious shortage of workers was created in the industrialized North, for the first time in decades. As they had no choice, and despite the fact that for decades they had refused to employ blacks, Northern factory owners turned to Southern blacks, suggesting they join the industrialized work force. The African Americans did not need much persuasion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the black minority in the South was subject to one of the worst regimes of racist oppression that the Western world had known. With a combination of legislation and violence, the white majority disenfranchised the blacks and imposed a harsh apartheid policy. Millions lived in abject poverty as the sharecroppers of white land owners, and any black person who dared to demand basic rights such as to vote in elections, study at a white school, or even drink from a fountain reserved for whites, risked immediate and cruel death.

The war offered blacks the first genuine chance to exchange their way of life in the South for a dignified existence as laborers in the North; there the blacks could participate in political life and offer their children a proper education. Hundreds of thousands enthusiastically left their homes and settled in industrial centers like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland. By 1930, some 1.5 million blacks had gone north, doubling the size of the community outside the South and creating a significant African-American presence in the cities and states where blacks had hardly been seen before that.

"The Great Migration," as it was known, remolded not just black society, but the fabric of life in the entire United States. It transformed the blacks from Southerners into Northerners, from peasants into laborers, from villagers into city-dwellers. In the next few decades, the trend continued, and by 1970, some 7 million blacks had left the South and dispersed all over the continent. The vision of the Exodus from Egypt, as many believed, had finally been realized.

A change of regime

During the 20th century, however, it became increasingly clear that the North, just like the South, was not the promised land. After generations of yearning for the land of freedom and equality, the migrants found that Canaan was not much better than a more moderate version of Egypt. True, the whites in New York and Chicago expressed their racism and hostility toward the blacks in more refined and less murderous ways than in the towns of Alabama, but the reality of life that awaited the migrants from the South was in many ways no less difficult and depressing.

From the moment they climbed off the train, the migrants realized that the Northern public had agreed to accept them as a cheap labor force, but nothing else. Blacks earned less than whites, and were the first to lose their jobs at times of economic crisis; whites refused to live close to blacks and to send their children to the same schools, and they chose not to share the same public institutions such as hospitals or movie theaters. Within the space of a few years, the African American communities in the large cities were pushed into overcrowded and poverty-stricken neighborhoods, filled with crime and drugs. There was little point in turning to the authorities for help, since they too blatantly and consciously discriminated against the black population.

The consequences of this legacy can still be felt today. Almost 100 years after the Great Migration began, the average income of a black household is 62 percent of that of the average white household; the property of a black household is worth only 10 percent of the property of a white household; black men have a nine-time greater chance of being murdered than white men; and their life expectancy is eight years shorter than that of white men.

Even in the midst of the Obama era, there is very little daily contact between the two communities, and millions of African Americans continue to be trapped in penury and oppression. The success of black sports stars or entertainers, and even the rise of black politicians, should not deceive us: Life in the black neighborhoods of America's cities is still intolerable.

It is therefore not surprising that, in recent decades, millions of blacks have begun returning to the South. After being disappointed by the Canaan of the North, they are now seeking new opportunities in the states where the black community of America struck its roots historically. They are escaping the urban ghettos of the North and the West in favor of the developing cities of the South. They left Detroit, where the number of jobs in the decades after World War II began to drop, in favor of Atlanta, which was enjoying unprecedented economic and cultural prosperity; they took advantage of the revolution in civil rights and the fact that the white South had internalized the need to create a more just, multicultural society. Some of them returned to their places of birth, while others sought to be close to family members who had remained behind. They enjoyed the comfortable weather conditions and cheaper way of life. Gradually they began to realize that while they had been searching for Canaan, there had been a change of regime in Pharaoh's Egypt.

The African-American community has upheld the story of the Exodus from Egypt with enthusiasm and faith for hundreds of years, but they have not yet arrived in the promised land. No migration attempt, no matter how courageous, has ended with the fulfillment of the dream of finding a plot of land free of racism and hatred. The blacks will have to continue to fight for their place in American society from those same places where they live today, despite their history and the obstacles imposed by white society. For after all, Canaan is not merely a plot of land, but also an ideal of justice, freedom and equality. For far too many people in America, this ideal is still far from being realized.