Wednesday, November 4, 2015

“Comin’ onta Kansas”: Place in Crystal Bradshaw’s Eliza: A Generational Journey

                                              Photo Credit: Will Cunningham

Crystal reading from the Eliza manuscript in June 2015
[by Meredith Wiggins]

In African American writing, the South often exists as a place of both danger and beauty, the North as a place of both alienation and promise. One body of African American literature that explores the dynamics of place is that concerning African Americans’ movement west to Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado as part of the Exoduster Movement of the 1870s. This migration—the first large-scale migration of African Americans after the Civil War—occurred as a result of growing racist violence in the post-Reconstruction South. Following historian and author Nell Irvin Painter’s lead, Bradshaw changes the dominant South/North paradigm in black literature. Painter is the author of Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1977), the first full-length scholarly study of the Exoduster movement. In literature, the most famous Exoduster novel is undoubtedly Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997), but there are other excellent takes on the topic, as well, such as Gabriel’s Story (2001), by David Anthony Durham.

To these, we can now add another: Eliza: A Generational Journey, a beautifully written short novel by HBW staff member and novelist Crystal Bradshaw.

Eliza is based on the life of Bradshaw’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, an Exoduster who, as an adult, settled with her family in Jetmore, Kansas, after enduring years of slavery in Kentucky. In Project HBW's interview with Bradshaw, she has previously cited Lalita Tademy’s Cane River (2001) as a major influence, which shows in the way Eliza weaves together Bradshaw’s considerable historical research with her imaginative recreation of the circumstances of her ancestor’s life. Using close first-person narration for the vast majority of the novel, Bradshaw places readers directly in her protagonist’s head, allowing us to experience the world as Eliza experiences it.

The importance that place—physical location—holds for Eliza is evident throughout the novel, right down to its subtitle: this is a book of movement, of journeys large and small. Readers follow Eliza as she navigates her identity within the space of the slave cabin and the Big House, multiple plantations, Kentucky and, finally, Kansas: “Folks call us Exodusters,” Bradshaw writes. “We like the chillen of Israel, God leadin’ us by the harness outta Kentucky….[W]e’s keep on comin’ onta Kansas.”

The duality that characterizes depictions of North and South in African American writing characterizes Eliza’s understanding of Kansas, as well. The Kansas of Bradshaw’s novel is variously “that Land of Flowin’ Milk and Honey” and a place of blankness, devoid of family history, just “yeller and brown colors flashin’ past” the train window. The Bradshaws’ decision to move there is optimistic but ambivalent: it “may not be any bettah” than Kentucky, they realize, “but ‘least it ain’t nevah been no slave state,” and that is worth any risk they might encounter on the journey west. The novel ends by reiterating this point; as Eliza reflects on the continued movements of her friends and family and her own determined settlement in Jetmore (where generations of Bradshaws still reside) she decides that though “Kansas may be real ruff,” her daughter was right to call it “the freedom land.”


Bradshaw is a 21 year old junior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism. Eliza is her debut novel. Bradshaw has said she plans to write more novels about her family now that Eliza is finished. It will be interesting to see how the places inhabited by her family of characters inhabit her future fiction, as well. 

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