A seminal event in black history, the Great Migration has particular resonance in Chicago.
Starting in the early decades of last century, millions of black Southerners resisted the oppression of the Jim Crow era and headed north to what many called “the Promised Land.”
Chicago was one of the primary destinations; the new residents’ arrival was to have social, cultural and economic consequences.
The size of the city’s black population exploded, leading the civic elite to adopt restrictive covenants that forbade owners to rent or sell to black, and in some cases Jewish, tenants or buyers.
Lorraine Hansberry makes Walter Younger’s decision about whether to accept money from a local association in the neighborhood he and his family plan to move-an offer than amounts to a bribe to not integrate the neighborhood-the climactic point in her classic play, A Raisin in the Sun.
In his new book, The Making of African America, venerable historian Ira Berlin argues that there was not just one, but four, great migrations in black history that have contributed significantly to the country and the community’s development.
Berlin articulates and explores these four migrations and what he calls the contrapuntal narrative that developed between being rooted in space and incorporating the memory of continuous dislocation in this accessible and insightful book.
The first migration is from Africa to what became the United States during the Middle Passage. Much has been written about this before, and Berlin takes us through the gruesome experiences that had some variation for men and women, but were united by their horrific character.
The second migration occurred in the years starting with the early nineteenth century and continuing through the Civil War. Once in America, black people took about a generation to get their bearings and start to reconstitute their culture, he says, before again being moved from the country’s inland to the interior.
The third migration is what we commonly know as the Great Migration discussed briefly above.
The fourth migration in some ways is the most interesting of the four because it is the least explored. Berlin points to the 1965 immigration reform legislation passed during the Johnson Administration as having triggered a wave of African immigration. These new immigrants, while defined as black and subject to the same discriminatory treatment with which African Americans have contended in different forms for centuries, do not have the same historic experience of slavery in America.
This has leading to vigorous discussion, some of which surfaced during President’s Obama’s presidential campaign. Berlin writes that black Americans became more accepting of Obama’s African background when seeing that many white Americans considered him “too black.”
In addition, this group of people have created the need to revise and expand the community “master narrative” that has been rooted in slavery as a fundamentally defining experience for the community.
In addition to this conceptual framework of four, rather than a single, migration, Berlin’s work is noteworthy for his discussion of music as a vital element in black culture. He demonstrates the different forms music has taken and the lyrics that have illuminated the community’s struggles.
I got this book, which sports a Jacob Lawrence print, from the New Books section of the Evanston Public Library. I’ll be returning it soon and hope that those of you in other places consider reading this worthwhile book.