Next Stop Cairo!
Next Stop Cairo!
I recently traveled back through the Midwest to visit my father who is sick. The trip from Colorado to Ohio was a long, tedious drive. I decided to drive because I had several large paintings I wanted to get to my family. It was an emotionally hard trip. I took a different route this time instead of spending 10 hours of my life that I would never get back crossing Kansas. Nothing against Kansas, but it is a slow boring drive. Every now and then you will see a bird looking for a tree. The landscape is very plain. You can see a house from the highway in the distance, however it may be 2 hours further up the road before you actually are near the house!
I headed up north to Nebraska then crossed Iowa to get to Missouri. The next few states went fairly quickly. I have traveled back and forth across the country more than 18 times since 1980. The drive was more pleasant this time, since the crossing was further north. My daughter also helped drive. She did an amazing job dodging raccoons in the early morning hours crossing Missouri. We got lost for 2 hours in Illinois crossing over into Indiana. I was lost in the farm lands of the Midwest for what seemed to be a life time.
The trip back from Ohio to Colorado was easier. I passed through so many small towns along the way. I remember seeing signs that pointed south to Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was one of my inspirations for the painting “Moving North” included with this article. During the Black Migration from 1860 – 1930 many Blacks relocated to northern states for a better life. The train ride north from down south was a hard ride. Blacks had to sit in the backs of train cars. Sometimes the only thing that separated them from the Whites was a curtain that was put up when they rode the buses and the trains north. The ride north was a symbol of escaping the Jim Crow laws that started in 1876. These laws became progressively worse in the American landscape. For many Blacks when they rode the train north the railroads maintained segregated cars. When they reached Cairo, Illinois the porters would yell out “Cairo!” The Blacks on board knew then that they had crossed over to a new freedom. They could get up and change seats. They had the freedom to move among the Whites without fear of retaliation. It was the landmark for a new life of being treated with some respect.
In the painting, I took several photos I found of the Black migration north. I combined these photos on large 3 x 5 pieces of wood. I wanted to create an idea of what it must have been like to board the train knowing that Cairo, Illinois was your landmark for equality. I imagined the Blacks on the train clapping and crying when they heard the porter yell out this special city. For many Whites it must have been hard to understand what it was like to live in America as a citizen, and yet to be denied almost every right because of the color of one’s skin.
The hatred, lynching, and killing of Blacks was rampant in America. President Woodrow Wilson showed the “Birth of a Nation” in the White House in 1915. He proclaimed it to be the best depiction of Blacks he had seen. This remark only intensified the racial climate that was boiling in America. In 1919 the RED SUMMER was a result of racial tension the spurred deadly race riots across the country. Race riots and lynching became even more engraved in the American fabric.
Down South it was open season on Blacks. The justice system had failed, during the reconstruction and post-reconstruction periods, in many Black communities throughout the south. The lynchings, murders, and killings were sanctioned by the legal system down south. Tennessee was the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest who was the founder of the KKK. Tennessee’s record of lynchingss and killing exploded during this time. Crossing Tennessee, outside of the use of trains or buses, was deadly for Blacks. The KKK had gained national strength following the summer of 1919.
Cairo, Illinois was a landmark for many Blacks to feel a relief that they got through Tennessee. Cairo like many other cities still had Jim Crow laws and racial tensions. Its place in history for the Great Black Migration is that it marked the line, that once crossed, took Blacks to the Promised Land. Sadly enough, America participated in racism in different degrees in the northern states. The north is not exempt from the hatred, lynchings, or killings of Blacks. Racism was more institutionalized in the north. This made it harder for Blacks to achieve success, but success could be achieved through perseverance.
This painting depicts for me the need to understand the history of being Black, and the struggle to overcome the American racist climate created over the past 400 years. We still have a long ways to go. We are not “Post Racial”. I just got followed by a cop the other day, for just being Black. I get followed in Target regularly for just being Black. We still have a need to heal as a country.
I still have the need to paint and depict art the expresses the struggles from America’s history with Black people, and move toward the problems we face in contemporary society. I was bussed out to White schools when I was young. I endured racism in the school system and in college. The changes we have made as a country are great but still problematic. There is not enough wood in the world to paint the millions of images in my mind to express how I feel, see, and understand about the reality of being Black in America. I will be painting for a lifetime. One day in my soul instead of hearing the porter yell “Cairo!”, I hope I will hear God say to all f us who have survived the many years of hatred, discrimination, and division, “Heaven! Enter in my Child!”