Week 12 Notes

Sometime during the 1970s, migrants into the South began to outnumber those leaving the South. Many were true “reverse migrants,” returning to the region they’d earlier left. Most, however, were headed south for the first time: things had changed down there, and these migrants were both responding to and amplifying those changes.

What had changed? The South attracted great amounts of government and private capital in the post-WWII years. What the cities were during the New Deal, the South became in the 1950s: a magnet for investment, and with it, job creation. The decline of blue-collar unions in the North sent manufacturing jobs south, and attracted the same kinds of migrants who’d come north looking for a better life during the Southern Diaspora. These new migrants were not necessarily going home: almost half of returning southerners moved to a different state from that they’d left.

Racial attitudes in the South had changed, too. While discrimination was by no means a thing of the past, it was now illegal, and random white-on-black violence was not the danger it had once been, so blacks felt more comfortable about returning.

Gregory cautions us not to see this reverse migration as a sign that the Southern Diaspora had failed. The diasporans, since they made it up north while the good blue-collar jobs were still being created, were for the most part still in pretty good shape. Later arrivals were not as advantaged, but those that came up in the immediate post-war years were hanging on to the last of those jobs. For the most part, reverse migrants were younger workers to whom these jobs were not available.

Gregory finishes his book by summing up his major themes, and we can take a look at these as part of our getaway-week discussion: he singles out race, geography (Black Metropolis vs. white dispersion), class (black unity vs. isolation of white working class), and institutional access (migrants acting through political parties, unions, mass media) as key factors in the shape the diaspora took and the impact it had.

We’ve got a couple of other readings, and some listening, for this meeting. The 6/21/11 NY Times article deals specifically with blacks moving south, and raises the possibility that not only have race relations improved down south, but that they’ve worsened up north. Make sure to watch the video associated with the article, in which Candace Wilkins (about to move to Atlanta) describes her run-in with the NYPD. The later NYT piece (not listed on the Syllabus, available only on the “Readings” page), brings us up-to-date on migration patterns based on recent IRS and Census data. In my Wednesday afternoon post I included a few other links related to the current state of internal migration in the U. S. I hope you’ll have time to take a look at some of them.

Finally, I’ve paired an excerpt from Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, with Arrested Development’s Tennessee (music video below). The first of these two migration narratives took place at a time when a reverse migration south was hardly an option for blacks (Wright moved to Chicago in 1927). Chicago was never a “promised land” for Wright, but it certainly beat Mississippi or Memphis: when he migrated again, he went to Europe, not back to the South.

Arrested Development’s Tennessee is a different place from Wright’s: it is, just maybe, “home,” a place of possibility, a place of redemption. The South now becomes a place to connect with the figures Toni Morrison called “ancestors”: she wrote of them as “timeless people whose relationship to the characters is benevolent, instructive and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.” Wright didn’t acknowledge the existence of these ancestors, but for Speech and DJ Headliner (founders of Arrested Development), the ancestors are in the South, in the trees, in the soil, in the “roads my forefathers walked.” The ancestors’ voices are there for the hearing, and in Tennessee, we get to hear from a generation for whom the south can be a real home.

When we did our midterm evaluation forms online, I asked you to raise questions that we might talk about during this last session. I picked three sets of questions from the array of great comments you all left on the site, and hope we can make something out of them.

We’ve been kicking the first around almost from the beginning: did the Diaspora really transform the U. S., and if so, what was the nature of the transformation? These go to the heart of what the course is about.

The second: is there anything going on now to compare with the Diaspora? The links I gave you yesterday, plus the readings already on our list, should allow us to talk about migration-related events. Any other candidates?

And finally: “So? Where is this going? What difference will knowing about this make? When the course is over, is that it?” The answer to “is that it?” is “no.” The others I’m not as sure about. Maybe you can help.

Here’s the video of Tennessee. It was a top ten single in 1992, and holds up pretty well almost 20 (!) years later. We’ll see this again in class. Please enjoy!


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