Archive for September, 2011

Week 4 Notes

September 29, 2011

We’ll spend the first hour watching the end of Within Our Gates (I’ll start with a little plot refresher, since the continuity was disrupted by my DVD difficulties). Last week’s viewing of the first part followed our discussion of Gregory’s maladjustment story, and we can look at the film almost as a menu of adjustment options, as illustrated by Sylvia, Dr. Vivian, Larry and Ned the preacher. Some are successful, some not, and their sum serves to illustrate Micheaux’s own word view. He believed in the uplift theory: if blacks did the right thing, lived morally, worked hard and helped themselves, white racism would eventually become untenable. He was no fan of urban living, having grown up on a farm in Illinois and homesteaded in the Dakotas, but believed that his recipe would work anywhere.

But even uplift has its limits, as Nora discovers in Marita Bonner’s story One True Love. Bonner graduated from Brookline High School and attended Radcliffe, although her fame as a writer occurred after she moved to Chicago in the 1930’s. One True Love was first published in Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP, in February of 1941. Gregory’s treatment of the maladjustment story would probably have counted Nora a success, at least when the story begins. As a maid for a prosperous white family, she had a relatively good position in the black community. But by most other standards her adjustment was, sadly, incomplete.

We’ll have time in the second hour to talk about both Bonner’s story and Micheaux’s film, and I think it’s interesting to think about the questions they raise (and answers, if any, they provide) about the practical problems of urban adjustment for southern migrants. Although race is obviously an important factor in both narratives, might some of what we find  here be relevant for white migrants too?

Bonner and Micheaux not only complete our treatment of the maladjustment story, they help us introduce our next story, that of the Black Metropolis. There are a few ways to look at the black community-building efforts of the migration period. One is to see black urban enclaves as ghettos, places of poverty, deprivation, and crime: ground zero for the maladjustment problem. A second is the more positive concept of a “community building process” (which Gregory attributes to Richard Thomas), acknowledging the great accomplishment that took place despite racism and ghetto conditions. Gregory chooses a third: reviving the term “Black Metropolis,” explicitly invoking its celebratory element, which he sees as inherent in its origination within the black community.

I’ve included Gregory’s Chapter 4 on this week’s syllabus readings along with One True Love and the Black Metropolis playlist (I sent a link by email and there’s another in the blog page labeled “Syllabus”). We probably won’t spend too much time this week on either Gregory (although it’d be nice if you got a feel for what he means when he writes “Black Metropolis”) or the playlist, but I hope you will start listening to the playlist so we can spend some time on it in week 5. I’m planning a blog post with details on the music sometime this weekend.

You might also want to peek ahead at week 5 readings, where I’ve included an entire Chicago Defender (the October 1, 1927 issue) for your reading pleasure. This is a reading I think you’ll have fun with – probably best enjoyed on a screen of some sort where you can enlarge it to a readable size. It’s the whole issue, ads and all, and gives you a great picture of what things were like in that special place and time. We’ll take a more detailed look at Chapter 4 and these readings on October 5.

The video is a great example of how rural music adjusted to urban conditions during the 30’s. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were one of the greatest of the Western Swing ensembles that thrived during the 1930s and beyond. The New San Antonio Rose was one of his classics, with vocals by Tommy Duncan, the McKinney Sisters and (here and there) Wills himself. Please enjoy.


Week 3 In Review

September 28, 2011

A thousand thanks to all for putting up with the technical glitches during our second hour. I will obviously do everything I can to avoid a repeat.

As I said, if any of you want to take a look at any part of Within Our Gates, it’s on YouTube in its entirety, although with an incredibly obnoxious soundtrack. Due to time limits on YouTube videos, it’s up in x parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7. Each is 10-12 minutes long. Today we got through most of Part 3, so if you want to see today’s portion in a complete (but silent!) version, go ahead.

Birth of a Nation is also on YouTube, here. This is the whole movie in one chunk, with a 15-second ad at the beginning and a few more scattered through. Anyone who wants to borrow my DVD is welcome to do so.

The video today is a brief (five-minute) clip from Micheaux’s Body and Soul, which was also Paul Robeson’s film debut. Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon wrote a score to accompany Body and Soul, and that’s the music you’ll hear behind the clip. Gordon has also done a score for Within Our Gates, which had its world premiere this past August 26 (details here). Please enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

Quilts and a Playlist

September 25, 2011

I’ve posted the playlist for Weeks 4 and 5 over at 8tracks – find it here. It starts with Robert Johnson and ends with the Temptations and Aretha. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. We probably won’t get a chance to talk about it in class until Week 5 (October 12) but start listening anytime.

Jane pointed out on Wednesday the similarities between a quilt in one of Lawrence’s paintings and the quilts made at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which were exhibited at the MFA in Boston in 2005. She’s right – and the quilts are beautiful! You’ll find the MFA exhibit link here and an NPR Talk of the Nation show about the same exhibit here.

The video is from T-Bone Walker, who did not make the cut on the playlist. I decided to limit the list to 12 songs, which made it impossible to include about a zillion artists who belong in all our ears. It was filmed in 1962, past T-Bones hit-making years, but he still has all his chops. An exceedingly influential guitarist – Chuck Berry would not have been possible without T-Bone Walker. Listen and enjoy!


Week 3 Notes

September 22, 2011

Last week we considered a few of the narratives inspired by the Diaspora itself, as produced by academics and mass media (the latter often influenced by the former, the former occasionally influenced by the latter). In this week’s first hour we consider one of those narratives in detail: Gregory refers to it as “the urban maladjustment story,” and spends most of Chapter 3 demonstrating that the evidence in its favor is not nearly as strong as it once seemed.

The maladjustment story is simple and intuitively appealing: rural migrants, both white and black, were ill-prepared for the transition to urban life and disadvantaged due to their backgrounds. As a result, their accomplishments lagged those of non-migrant northerners. Gregory’s analysis of detailed census data shows that whatever problems the migrants brought with them, those problems had little effect on their economic well-being. Migrants shaped up very well compared to native northerners.

The migrants came north at a time when the importance of urban America was peaking. Cities were politically powerful and, beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s, attracted a disproportionate share of government attention and assistance. The blue collar jobs for which most migrants came north were also, with the advent of a strong labor movement, becoming ever more lucrative, relative to traditionally higher-paying white-collar work. Both black and white workers were able to keep up with their better-educated northern counterparts thanks to these trends.

Things were, as always, harder for the black migrant, but not much harder than for the old settler, and certainly easier than for those who remained in the south, even those in comparable jobs. Blacks were last hired, first fired, paid higher rent for inferior housing, and had limited opportunities in employment and education. But even this bleak picture became less bleak during Phase II of the migration as union segregation waned and government jobs began to open up.

While Gregory makes a convincing argument that the maladjustment story was overdone, we shouldn’t minimize either the difficulties the migrants faced or their not infrequent failures. Both the readings and our second-hour film provide examples. William Attaway’s novel Blood on the Forge was published in 1941. Mat, Chinatown and Melody are the three Moss brothers, who flee a likely lynching down south for the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Our excerpt documents their arrival and first weeks up north.It’s not a pretty picture.

The Sweet trial website documents the ordeal of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family, who faced murder charges in Detroit for defending their home from an armed mob of whites. There were two murder trials of Sweet family members, the first ending in a hung jury, the second in an acquittal, thanks to the defense provided by Clarence Darrow. Darrow’s second closing statement was an eight-hour expression of faith in the American system of justice: an edited transcript appears on the website and will reward your attention.

We’ll start the second hour with a brief excerpt from D. W. Griffith’s spectacular Birth of a Nation. Its racist message led the NAACP to attempt banning it, and helped inspire an independent black film industry. One of the first and most successful of the black filmmakers thus inspired was Oscar Micheaux. After the Griffith scene, we’ll watch the first half of Within Our Gates, Micheaux’s earliest surviving film (1920). Micheaux’s films presented his recipe for black success in the new northern urban environment: an updated version of Booker T. Washington’s “uplift” theory. Micheaux believed that the best way for blacks to succeed in a world dominated by whites was to work hard, live right, and thereby both prosper as a race and diminish white racism. These ideas are on display in Within Our Gates, which, despite a rickety plot, is more than just a historical document. Griffith’s America is born when northern and southern whites unite to subjugate what they come to see as the “inferior race.” In Micheaux’s view, America’s birth awaits whites’ understanding of the folly of racism. Micheaux’s vivid depictions of white-on-black violence (which we’ll see in the film’s second half, on October 5) underscore his own knowledge that the wait might be a long one.

The video is Duke Ellington, band, and vocalist Betty Roche (she pronounced it Ro-SHAY). The song, of course, is Take the A Train.” The clip is from the 1943 film Reveille for Beverly, which TCM shows every seven years or so. Please enjoy!

Week 2 Summary

September 21, 2011

Thanks to all for your participation today – here are a couple of links, a correction, a question clarified, and a video I hope will be of interest.

First to indoor plumbing: please find here a link to census data from 1940-90 giving percentages of indoor plumbing by state. It will not surprise you to learn that in 1940 (a few years after the Adamic article was written) many southern states had fewer than 20% of housing units with indoor plumbing. The highest percentages were in northeast and New England sates, most of which had more than 80% with indoor plumbing.

Second to Jacob Lawrence: go here for the Power Point file we saw today in class. It’s a pretty big file, so give it time. You can find the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center here. It’s sometimes slow to load – be patient. This site was the source of the images for today’s slide show.

The correction is to my statement that Lawrence painted the series in his residence – he actually had an $8 a month studio (paid for by way of a Rosenwald Grant) in which he did his work.

The video is longer than what I usually post, but well worth the 19 minutes it takes to watch. It was produced by the Phillips Collection in conjunction with the 1993 exhibit of the Migration Series. Lawrence himself discusses his work (I was surprised at his New York accent!) and there’s some excellent historical footage and even some good talking heads. Please enjoy!

Week 2 Notes

September 15, 2011

Last week we talked about some of the other great migrations that help, for better and worse, to define American history. Each migration has a narrative that lets it fit (or not) into the larger national story. This week we look at (mostly contemporaneous) narratives of the diaspora, and find first, and not surprisingly, that they sometimes depended as much on the point of view or training of the narrator as they did on the facts. We’ll also consider the subtler (and perhaps more surprising) possibility that the mass media narratives produced during the diaspora were more than its artifacts: media accounts, Gregory contends, were also important factors in how the diaspora developed and in how the migrants saw themselves.

The Phase I narratives agreed on one thing: history was being made. But they disagreed on its import. Was this a long-overdue exodus to the Promised Land or a southern problem becoming a northern problem? It depended on what newspapers you read. Were the newly settled blacks an exotic and dangerous presence in the cities or were they just like anyone else? It depended on which radio station you tuned in to.

The Depression narrative wasn’t much simpler. Were the Okies refugees from an impersonal capitalism that cared nothing whether they lived or died? Or were they just hillbillies that ruined everything they touched? Snuffy Smith or Henry Fonda? Steinbeck or Erskine Caldwell? Take your pick.

By the Phase II the sociologists had stepped up, led by Robert Park at Chicago. They tried to replace sensation with science, but how scientific were their methods, really? And how much difference did it make, when their results were appropriated by journalists, novelists, songwriters and others, who took the sociological concept of the “marginal man” and made him flesh and blood? The marginal man became characters like Bigger Thomas, and the everyday adjustments of everyday people got lost in their rage and despair. Phase II did bring a more even-handed look at race: blacks could still be dangerous, but no more so than the hillbillies, and the civil rights battles just beginning brought them a nobility heretofore unnoticed by most whites.

The readings and music this week cover mostly the white side of the diaspora. The Adamic piece (see Gregory, page 65 for his take) is interesting in that it provides a left-wing critique of the white migration from the point of view of a nascent labor movement. As we’ll find out, both black and white migrants were recruited as strikebreakers and with the expectation that they’d be anti-union. Votaw’s article, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1958 (see Gregory, page 76) deals with a new generation of white migrants, and presents a point of view that we might return to later, when we consider the political changes brought about by the diaspora. Did views like Votaw’s create Wallace voters? Or did they arrive that way? We’ll discuss in November. The Life Magazine piece on the 1943 Detroit race riots are an example of the sociological “even-handedness” Gregory refers to, as seen in mainstream journalism. By all means browse through the magazine if you like, but if you put 93 into the little box over the display, and hit “return” you’ll go straight there.

The music playlist picks up where Gregory (73-74) leaves off: the songs are an assortment of what Gregory calls “wanderer” songs (Dave Dudley, Six Days on the Road, Merle Haggard, Sing Me Back Home and Mama Tried, Jimmie Rodgers, Waiting for a Train) along with the homesick songs: Porter Wagoner’s Green, Green Grass of Home, Jack Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills (co-written with his cousin Woody), Bobby Bare’s Detroit City, Ray Price’s City Lights, and Kenny Chesney’s Back Where I Come From.

We’ll spend most of the last hour looking at Jacob Lawrence’s brilliant, 60-painting series, The Migration of the Negro. I’ll have a slide show of all 60 paintings, and I’ll leave us some time to discuss them before we adjourn. The New York Times article on the reading list gives you some of the background of the creation of this American classic. Lawrence’s paintings give us a powerful and direct narrative of the Great Migration, painted as it happened (1940-1) and where it happened (Harlem).

The video is B Ruml’s nomination for greatest country song, Conway Twitty’s rendition of It’s Only Make Believe. Mr. Twitty (real name Harold Jenkins), had a theme park named (you can’t make stuff like this up) Twitty City.

See you Wednesday at 10.

Week 1 Summing Up

September 14, 2011

Thanks to all for a great class today. If you’d like to continue the discussion, leave a comment! We’ll pick up next week where we left off with a look at Gregory’s treatment of narrative. He deals more explicitly with narratives of the Southern Diaspora, looking at them not only as artifacts of history, but as factors in the migration itself.

A couple of quick points about today’s discussion: the population of Ireland peaked at about 8 million in 1830. A current emigration estimate is that during the worst of the famine (generally dated 1845-1852) as many as 250,000 Irish left each year, for Canada, Scotland, England, the U. S. and Australia, for a total of 1.5 to 2 million.

As for myth, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and copied their definition:

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.Myth is strictly distinguished from allegory and legend by some scholars, but in general use it is often used interchangeably with these terms.

That’s OK with me.

Today’s video says a lot about the American myth and its durability in the face of hard times. Paul Simon and Willie Nelson together on Simon’s American Tune. Please enjoy!

Week 1 Notes

September 8, 2011

Gregory calls it a diaspora, from the Greek for “scattering.” It’s a word not usually associated with internal migrations, but maybe it fits here, for a couple of reasons. For blacks living under the thumb of Jim Crow, this was hardly an internal migration at all: when they came north, they came to what was at least another country, in fact almost another world. And as Gregory points out, the word “diaspora” just sounds more important than “migration.” What we’ve got here is a very big event in American history, an event that, until recently, hadn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. Maybe if we call it a “diaspora,” we’ll look at it a little differently than we’d look at an ordinary migration. So diaspora it is.

We’ll spend most of today getting an overview, setting the scene, getting familiar with the who, what, when, where and why of the diaspora. Gregory gives us a lot of numbers and charts in Chapter 1 (the rest of the book isn’t like this) and I’ll have a few handouts that break things down to the bare essentials. Our story begins around 1915, and America was changing from a mostly rural country to an industrial powerhouse, from a peripheral player on the world stage to a military juggernaut. The migrants who made up the diaspora effected that change, and we’ll take a look at the country they started with.

We’ll spend a lot of time this fall reading, watching, and talking about narratives: stories as small as one Okie hopping a freight train west, or as big as the African-American community’s fight for civil rights. Our second task today is to begin to develop a context for thinking about all these stories, and relating them not only to each other, but to the whole sweep of American history, a history often told in terms of journeys and migrations. We’ll talk about some of these other journeys and see how our diaspora and its makers fit (or don’t fit) among them.

I had to make a lot of hard decisions putting this course together, mostly around leaving things out. I mostly followed Gregory, but added an extra helping of topics I particularly love (gospel music) or things I took an interest in as I did my reading (fundamentalism and its relationship to American politics). Some of you might have made, and might wish I had made, different choices. If you are in that group, the time to act is soon. If there’s something you’d like to see treated in more detail, please: talk to me on a break or before or after class; comment on the blog; call or email me; take matters into your own hands and do a report. It’s your involvement that will make or break this group. So far your involvement has been off the charts amazing, and I know you’ll continue coming up with ways to make this a better group. See you at 10 on Wednesday in Room 219.

My nomination of Golden Ring as the greatest of country songs was met with, to put it politely, skepticism. There were a bunch of suggestions in comments, and I’ll put some of them up here as we go along. First is Dolly Parton, in an exquisite acoustic performance of one of her many masterpieces: Tennessee Mountain Home. Please enjoy! Note: They won’t let me embed this video, but if you click on it, you’ll be magically transported to YouTube and watch Dolly there.

Week 2 Playlist is Online

September 6, 2011

As promised, I posted it on, which works pretty well, but is not without its bumps.

Here’s the link to the playlist: When you go there, you’ll see a “Week 2 Playlist” heading, and underneath, an arrow which you can click to start playing. Click the same spot to pause (and then again to restart), and the double arrow to skip a track (but give it a chance before you skip!). You can do all this without signing up or, if you prefer, you can sign up for free. There’s also an iPhone/iPad/iPod app which I have not tried. Whoever tries it first, report back, OK?

I will post some notes on the music a few days before our September 21 meeting, either as part of my usual weekly blog post (most likely) or as a separate blog post (less likely).

There are some rules about how many songs you can skip in an hour, and it randomizes play order if you play the playlist more than twice. I’m sure there are other rules I don’t know about yet.

When the playlist is finished, 8tracks will automatically take you to another playlist that it thinks you will like, unless you make it stop. Just click the “stay here” box to do that, and you can make “stay here” your default setting if you want to.

The playlist has 9 songs and lasts about 25 minutes. 8tracks identifies each song as it plays.

Give it a try before our first meeting – if you have trouble let me know and I’ll do what I can to iron it out.

This is a very special video – we’re totally neglecting white gospel music. It’s a rich genre, but, unfortunately, one that will have to wait for another course. To give you a taste of how beautiful this music can be, here are Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Fred Price performing Daniel Prayed on Pete Seeger’s old Rainbow Quest TV show. This one is probably from late 1965 or early 1966. Doc is still going strong at age 88. Please enjoy!

Why Do a Discography, Bibliography, Filmography?

September 4, 2011

My hope as I’ve put this course together is that some of you will either do reports in class (please!) or will be interested enough in one of the topics we don’t have time to do right (and there will be many) to do some off-syllabus reading or listening. In either happy event, rather than put three or four books or CDs on reserve at the Dunlop Library, I’ve made a list of books, CDs, DVDs: all of which I have on hand, all of which I can lend to whomever is interested.

The rules are few: you can’t have it if I still need it; you need to accommodate others who may wish to share the same material; three weeks is plenty; I get everything back by the end of the semester.

There’s a blog page devoted to each category: bibliography, filmography, discography. Each is subject to revision as I find more stuff (the road goes on forever and the party never ends) but is pretty well set by now. You’ll find links to them in the usual place, under the “Pages” heading on the blog’s home page.

Since you all are going to be listening to a good deal of country music in this group, maybe it’s time to start breaking you in. Here are George Jones and Tammy Wynette, performing Golden Ring. I’m going to call this the greatest country song of all time and ask you to name challengers in the comments. Please enjoy!