Week 8 Notes

October 27, 2011

We saw when considering the Black Metropolis that job and housing discrimination, while terribly damaging to the black migrants, forced them into a critical mass that fostered a spirit of community, and enabled cultural and political victories that would otherwise have been much more difficult to achieve. There was no “White Metropolis.” Class differences were more deeply felt among whites, and diminished the sense of unity that black migrants shared, and while the cultural and political impact of white southerners was by no means trivial (especially later in the period) it was watered down by the fact the it was much easier for whites to blend into the larger culture than it was for blacks. Whites didn’t have to stick together, so they didn’t.

These differences in community-building were reflected in the two groups’ church-building as well. As Gregory writes, religion was “something of a synecdoche for the larger story of the Southern Diaspora.” (p. 198). And this is true even though there were many similarities in the religious impacts of the southern migrants on the northern churches they joined or established: both white and black churches in the north reflected a new pluralism in worship as the number of sects and denominations multiplied, and this pluralism mostly represented a resurgence of evangelical beliefs.

It amounted to a “southernization” of the northern religious establishment.

The important differences were in the churches’ secular effects: black churches served as gateway institutions for the Phase I migrants, helping out with housing, jobs and social services. Later they became a powerful moral force for black political empowerment and a major factor in both the northern and southern civil rights movements. White churches, especially early in the period, were less politically engaged, and stood for social and political conservatism, especially after the 1925 Scopes Trial ended in a defeat for fundamentalism’s reputation.

After you’ve read about these similarities and differences in Gregory’s text, we’re going to hear them in excerpts from sermons by both white and black preachers. Leading off is Rev. C. L. Franklin the most widely known black preacher of his era: his Sunday night radio show was heard nationwide, and he toured the country with a musical revue, performing his best-loved sermons at stops along the way.Perhaps the best known of all C. L. Franklin’s sermons is “Dry Bones.” Gregory gives us a bit of background on it on p. 202, and we’ll hear the last ten minutes or so, when Franklin really gets going. The text is drawn from Ezekiel Chapter 37.

Gregory puts J. Frank Norris forward as Franklin’s white counterpart, and the contrast between them could not be clearer. Norris was an attacker, slashing away at sin (especially the sin of drunkenness) wherever he found it. He performed to an audience, while Franklin and the best black preachers collaborated with their congregations. Both were politically active: Norris’s unending crusade against “modernism” took him from his 1928 opposition to the “rum and Romanism” of Al Smith to the post-WWII anti-communism that presaged the rise of the religious right. Franklin, after a reluctant start, became a leader in the civil rights movement, and fought hard for equal rights and opportunity, not only in Detroit, but nationwide. We’ll hear a few minutes of Norris, more than enough to get a feel for the great contrast between his style and Franklin’s. The two political strains they represent developed, on the white side, into the working class populism of George Wallace and finally into the religious right. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement that culminated with the 1964 Civil Rights act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act owed much to religious leadership. The tensions between the two were centrally important to the American politics of the late 20th century.

Two more sermon excerpts show this political component more explicitly. The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was not only pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, he was Harlem’s congressman for many years. We’ll see a piece of his famous “what’s in your hands” speech. Finally we’ll hear a bit of the young Dr. Billy Graham, filmed at his Los Angeles crusade in 1949. We’ll read more about Dr. Graham next week, in his role of restoring fundamentalism to national prominence.

I’m hoping we’ll have time to hear some of the music on the CD I handed out last week – make a request if you want me to play a particular song – or to see a video or two.

Our only outside reading this week is the Darden chapter. Darden is not the most exciting of prose stylists, but he has three remarkable women to tell about, and their stories shine through.

The video is a musical setting of a selection of photographs by Dorothea Lange. These aren’t the ones you’re used to seeing: her subjects here are southern blacks. She took these during the 1930s, throughout the south. No doubt many of those who posed here for Lange later ended up in the Black Metropolis. Looking at Bronzeville or Paradise valley next to these southern backgrounds gives us an idea of the changes these folks went through. The background music is Blind Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris. See you on Wednesday!


The Watermelons of Wrath, plus Ralph Ellison!

October 26, 2011

After the movie today, we talked a lot about the current plight of migrant workers in the US – I don’t know too much about how things have changed since Tom Joad picked peaches, so decided to look up a couple of sources. Here is an informative link from the Department of Agriculture (heroes once again!) that provided some (for me at least) surprising facts: the number of true migrant workers, those who follow the crops, is only 5% of the farmworker total. About 75% of hired farm crop workers work at a single farm within 75 miles of their homes. About 70% are Mexican, and half are undocumented. More good stuff at the link.

You might also enjoy this article from the October 31, 2011 issue of The Nation. More than you ever knew about the art of watermelon picking, plus an easy way to raise worker wages quickly and almost painlessly.

Until just now, we had nothing from Ralph Ellison in this course. Ellison is the author of Invisible Man and left a number of great essays as well. I couldn’t find a way to excerpt anything of his, and reluctantly left him off our reading list. Rhoada, however, referred me to a little essay of his (actually an excerpt from a longer piece) anthologized in Philip Lopate’s excellent (thank you, Rhoada!) Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. You may download it here and I will add it to the reading list for Week 12, so it will remain easily accessible.

You have a Soul Stirrers song on the CD I passed out today – the video is also from the Soul Stirrers, but Sam Cooke is not present. I’m not sure who the lead singer is here (Johnnie Taylor, maybe?), but the song is I’m a Soldier (In the Army of the Lord). Those of you who know Robert Duvall’s The Apostle will remember Lyle Lovett’s version of this song. Please enjoy!

Notes on the Gospel Playlist

October 26, 2011

Here are some notes on the songs and artists you’ll find on the CD I handed out in today’s class. I won’t try to relate the songs to our topic of migration, but will say that gospel music itself can be considered a product of the Diaspora. Just as black religion was transformed (there’s that word again!) by the Black Metropolis, so was the music that accompanied it. A readable and thorough guide to the history of gospel music, from Africa to very nearly now, is Robert Darden’s People Get Ready: I’ve assigned a chapter from Darden’s book for our November 3 meeting.

Thomas Dorsey, generally regarded as the father of modern gospel music, introduces Marion Williams’s impassioned performance of his Take My Hand, Precious Lord with the heartbreaking story of how he came to write it. It was the favorite song of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King – Mahalia Jackson sang it at his funeral. Marion Williams was a Florida teenager visiting a Philadelphia friend when she sang to an audience that included Clara Ward. Williams spent years as a star solist with the Clara Ward Singers (you’ll hear her on Leave It There), and had an illustrious career as a soloist as well.

Trouble So Hard is as close as we will get to hearing what the old spirituals might have sounded like. This is a field recording made in 1937 in Livingston, Alabama, and the singers are Vera Hall and Dock and Henry Reed. “Don’t nobody know my troubles but God,” they sing, and I believe them.

Arizona Dranes was a blind singer-pianist, and her music is an early (she recorded between 1924 and 1928) example of the more permissive musical styles of the holiness churches (Dranes was a member of the Church of God in Christ). Her piano accompaniment to Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean owes a lot to the her ragtime contemporaries, and would not have been heard in church much earlier than this.

Blind Wille Johnson, a street musician who cut only thirty sides, recorded Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground in 1927, and based his wordless vocal on the old hymn Gethsemane, which begins: “Dark was the night and cold the ground/On which the Lord was laid.” In 1977, this performance was shot into space on the Voyager Golden Record as one of 27 musical selections intended to impart a sense of life and culture on earth to any extraterrestrials that might come across it.

You’ll read all about Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the Darden reading so all I’ll say about Didn’t it Rain is that it’s from 1958 and the piano comes to us courtesy of the great Mildred Falls.

The Silver Leaf Quartette was based in Norfolk, Virginia, and were quite popular up and down the east coast during the 1920s and 30s. Daniel Saw the Stone is from 1931, and is based on Daniel 2:24-49.

The Staple Singers were led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples (he grew up in Mississippi with Robert Johnson and Charley Patton) and here includes his children, Pervis, Cleotha, and the incomparable Mavis, who sings lead on Sit Down, Sinner. The Staple Singers moved from pure gospel in the 1960s and had hits with Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There, among others.

Strange Things Happening Every Day was a huge hit for Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1945. It’s been covered by many artists, most recently Tom Jones (it’s not bad, really!).

Dorothy Love Coates was one of the great voices of gospel as the lead singer of the Original Gospel Harmonettes. She came from Birmingham, Alabama, and those southern roots were always apparent in her raw vocals. Here live performances were legendary. Later in her career she became quite active politically, including in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The Harmonettes recorded I Wouldn’t Mind Dying in 1959.

The Chosen Gospel Singers were formed in Texas in the early 1950s, but relocated to Los Angeles soon after. They were a part-time, weekends-only group, so their recording career is spotty, but at their best they were very good indeed. They recorded Stay With Me Jesus for Art Rupe’s Specialty record label in 1955.

Professor Alex Bradford was a performer (since the age of 4), composer, singer, choir leader, preacher and talent scout (he discovered Dionne Warwick among many others). His influence on other performers (not only gospel singers – think Ray Charles) was huge, and his own records were big sellers: Too Close to Heaven sold over a million copies in 1954, and it’s easy to hear why.

Run While the Sun is Shining is a traditional spiritual, here performed by Bessie Griffin. Bessie Griffin ended up in Los Angeles by way of New Orleans and Chicago. Like Clara Ward, Griffin did a lot of nightclub work and even did the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s.

Leave It There is from 1952, and this configuration of the Ward Singers includes Clara Ward (she takes the first solo turn), Henrietta Waddy, and Marion Williams, who takes the lead in the second half of the song.

Clara Ward’s work was a huge influence on the young Aretha Franklin (the Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father toured with the Ward Singers and was a very close friend of Clara’s) and here Aretha pays tribute to her mentor with a cover of Clara Ward’s signature song, How I Got Over. This is one of many great songs from Aretha’s 1972 gospel album, Amazing Grace, which she recorded live with the Rev. James Cleveland at a Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Believe me, you need to hear the whole thing.

Who else could close this CD but Sam Cooke? Sam Cooke took over as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers in 1950, while still in his teens, and from then until 1956, when he left gospel for a career in pop music, he was at or near the top of the gospel world. The Last Mile of the Way shows his pure tenor at its best.

For a video, I’ve got the Edwin Hawkins Singers, since I didn’t put any choirs on the CD. They had a big hit with Oh. Happy Day in 1970 – this is In My Father’s House from a 1971 Johnny Cash Show. That’s Elaine Kelly singing lead. Please enjoy and thanks for listening!

Week 7 Notes

October 21, 2011

We’ll lead off this meeting by watching the second half of The Grapes of Wrath. After our break, we’ll have about forty minutes to talk about the film and its relationship to the rest of the course. We won’t have time to do the film justice, which is too bad. I hope we’ll get a chance to talk a bit about how it came to be made and how it relates to Steinbeck’s novel. There are some important issues surrounding the role of mass media and the migration that fit nicely here.

For example, Gregory argues that during the Diaspora, mass media (and obviously best-selling novels and Hollywood films fall into that category) not only documented the migration, but affected its course, in part by influencing the way migrants saw themselves and were seen by others. Clearly, Steinbeck’s book and Ford’s movie present different views of the migrants’ plight. Can we say that either of these depictions of the Dust Bowl had such an influence? Why or why not?

One of the “why nots” might be that history took many of the migrants out of the fields. While poverty in the San Joaquin Valley remained a problem, the coming of World War II changed a lot. Wartime industries (especially aviation) and other war-related jobs provided new opportunities for many of the white migrants. Many, of course, ended up as part of the military. The war wrote a kind of fourth act to The Grapes of Wrath. Some of the Joads might in 1941 have joined the Army, or worked in a defense plant. Mexicans returned as the next generation of “Harvest Gypsies.” The WW II Bracero program placed many thousands in the fields, where their poor treatment received little notice.

These upwardly mobile white migrants were part of the base that built the religious right in California. As they moved into the middle class, they would have been among the crowds who attended Billy Graham’s epochal California Crusade in 1949. Later they might have voted for Ronald Reagan when he ran for California Governor in 1967.

So by the time we get to the 1970s, there’s no doubt that the southern migrants have transformed California, and California in turn played a big role in transforming the political landscape for the rest of the US, a transformation which even now we are still digesting.

Another interesting question is this: can we look at this film in terms of the African-American migration narrative schema we looked at in Week 1? I think so. While it’s not a rural-to-urban move, the Joads’ new life is different enough from their old one to qualify as a radical dislocation. I think the 4th of Griffin’s narrative elements takes place after we leave the Joads, but (see the two paragraphs above) we know enough to fill in most of the blanks. Looking at it this way helps me to see the process in non-racial terms – just people in hard times trying to make a life.

The excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s autobiography was on the reading list for two reasons: first, to encourage you to pick up this underappreciated classic. Everyone knows Woody the singer-songwriter, but he wrote books, stories, letters and essays and drew thousands of cartoons, portraits, illustrations: you name it, he did it. Woody was an American giant on a par with Walt Whitman and deserves to be more widely read.

The second reason was to give us a brief look at a second group of Dust Bowl migrants: the hobos. Hundreds of thousands of men and women rode the rails or hitchhiked west during the 1930s. Woody’s account isn’t really history, but it does give us a flavor of what things might have been like.

The video is Pare Lorentz’s beautiful and powerful film, The Plow that Broke the Plains. It’s a history of the Plains region that became the Dust Bowl, and Lorentz made it for the Resettlement Administration in 1936. Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath was certainly influenced by Lorentz’s work – Lorentz even introduced Steinbeck to Nunnaly Johnson, who wrote the screenplay for Grapes. It’s on the long side for one of my post videos, 25 minutes, but do give it a try.

Harvesting the Grapes of Wrath – UPDATED

October 19, 2011

Our viewing of the first half of The Grapes of Wrath was a very powerful experience for me – films are always more hard-hitting when you see them as part of an audience, even if the audience is invisible to you. As many times as I’ve watched this film since April, today was the first time I felt it so deeply. A couple of you indicated to me after class that you might want to skip the movie part next week; I hope we’ll all be together for it, but if anyone feels they’d like to take a pass, we’ll be done at around 11:15. For those of you who might want to take a peek, or fast forward through, or skip the tough parts, it does stream on Netflix.

At the end, we had a tantalizing little discussion about casting a remake of Grapes – may I rekindle the discussion by proposing Kathy Bates as Ma Joad? It gets tougher after that – please share suggestions in comments below.

Thanks to Mark for sharing his stories as a Massachusetts Yankee in Oklahoma. I’m going to put him on the spot with a public appeal to bring his award in for show-and-tell next week. OK, Mark?

Next week’s reading includes a bit from Woody Guthrie’s autobiography. Here’s a song of his to go with it. There’s unfortunately no video of Woody performing this, but the pictures attached to this audio version are pretty good, and the lyrics flash across the screen for no extra charge. It’s Do-Re-Mi. Please enjoy!

UPDATE: The video has been disabled for embedding by whomever did the YouTube posting. You can still watch it, but clicking it will take you to YouTube.

Week 6 Playlist Notes

October 13, 2011

This week white folks get some time in the spotlight, and the playlist focuses on the giants of country music from 1925 or so right through the 1970s. Country music was almost entirely made by white performers (Charley Pride was the token exception) but was not necessarily the favorite music of all, or even most, migrants. It turns out that easy listening music was near the top of the migrants’ list, and country music often became the favored genre for whites who’d never been south in their lives. We’ll read a paper later this semester that examines this phenomenon in detail.

We open up with Charlie Poole, one of the first in a line of hard-drinking, hard-living musicians whose influence long outlives them (see Hank Williams, below). Charlie learned banjo at the age of 8, playing an instrument built from a gourd. His stylistic innovations paved the way for Earl Scruggs and others, but Charlie never saw it happen: he died during a multi-week bender in 1931, at 39. You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me is a good example of the string band style of the 1920s and ’30s.

Robert Cantwell, in his Bluegrass Breakdown, describes the Carter Family’s recordings as representing “the essential spirit of Southern rural music.” Truer words were never written. There’s still a lot of the Carters in country music, which tells us that in spite of its best efforts (which we’ll read about) country has stayed largely southern in its outlook.  The Carter Family recorded Gold Watch and Chain in 1933, soon after A. P. and Sara separated. I first heard it done by the New Lost City Ramblers, but Emmylou Harris’s version is probably the most famous.

Gregory tells us at least as much as we need to know about Gene Autry. Back in the Saddle Again was Autry’s second biggest hit. He used the song’s title as the title of his autobiography.

Western swing is a perfect example of the genre-mixing brought about at least in part by migration. Western swing was part cowboy music, part jazz. Bob Wills was its leading exponent. Maiden’s Prayer is even more of a genre-bender, as Wills took the melody from a piano piece by a 19th century Polish composer. The lyrics are Wills’s, the vocal by Tommy Duncan.

Lefty Frizzell was born in Texas but ended up in Bakersfield (about which more later). Lefty was neither in Texas nor in Bakersfield when he wrote I Love You a Thousand Ways: he was in prison, and composed it as an apology to his wife. It hit number one on the country charts, the marriage didn’t do quite as well.

“Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will/He sounds too blue to fly/The midnight train is whinin’ low/I’m so lonesome I could cry.” I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry was one of Hank Williams’ most-covered tunes. The version here is from The Unreleased Recordings, a 3-CD set that belongs in every home. I wrote more about it here. The video accompanying the post has been tragically wiped from YouTube, but the post is still a good read.

The Louvin Brothers made beautiful music together. Charlie Louvin died last year after a long solo career, Ira died in a car crash in 1965. When I Stop Dreaming was recorded in 1955 and was the first of their hits. Their influence on later artists (due primarily to the efforts of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) far exceeded their record sales, thanks in part to Ira’s drinking problem, which led to more than one on-stage rhubarb.

Patsy Cline was a legend in life and remains one almost 50 years after her death in a plane crash at the age of 30. Jessica Lange does a great job of portraying Patsy in the movie Sweet Dreams, but didn’t dare to rerecord the vocals. Every note is Patsy, and that’s how it should have been. Crazy was written by Willie Nelson and represented a breakthrough for both Willie and Patsy – it not only made the country top ten, but the pop top ten. When she first performed it at the Grand Ole Opry, she got three standing ovations.

Loretta Lynn is another for whom Gregory gives us all the background we need. If you’ve never seen the movie, do: it streams on Amazon, and Sissy Spacek is amazing. You’ll hear Coal Miner’s Daughter and You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man on the playlist.

Next, an especially apt tune for our white migrants, The Streets of Bakersfield, a migration narrative sung by Dwight Yoakam and the great Buck Owens. Buck was born in Texas in 1929, and his family was part of the Dust Bowl migration, ending up in Arizona when Buck was 8. He became a truck driver, made a lot of trips to the San Joaquin Valley (destination of many Dust Bowl migrants) and finally settled there with his family in 1951. He started his music career as a session guitarist, but later recorded on his own, and as leader of the Buckaroos defined what became known as the Bakersfield Sound. Dwight Yoakam’s family started out in Kentucky, moved to Ohio, but returned to Kentucky on weekends (I wonder how Gregory’s census data deals with that!). He eventually headed west on his own. Is the song an example of Gregory’s maladjustment story? Listen and decide.

We close with one of American music’s greatest songwriters. Dolly Parton with Coat of Many Colors. No more need be said.

The video is kind of a repeat, but it’s so well done I couldn’t resist. It’s Buck and Dwight with a joyous version of Streets of Bakersfield – I think they’re having fun. Please enjoy!

Week 6 Notes

October 13, 2011

In last week’s discussion about the Black Metropolis, we learned that critical mass and infrastructure building served black migrants well. Housing and job segregation was and remains a handicap for the black community, but the racism that enabled discrimination also enabled at least some of the solidarity that helped the community’s identity coalesce.

White migrants organized very differently. First and most obviously, the need for white community building was hardly acute. While blacks migrants hugely outnumbered the old settlers, whites mostly moved into areas where plenty of established white residents had put down roots. Next, they were unaffected by racism: while class and income boundaries kept them out of some neighborhoods, whites could, for the most part, live wherever they could afford to live and work wherever they were qualified to work.

What migrant whites mostly did (with a couple of important exceptions, like the San Joaquin Valley) was to find their own niches in established communities, rather than building their own from scratch. This niche-building (as opposed to community building) worked in many different ways: often, as when migrants simply lost their accents and blended in, the niches disappeared. But most didn’t disappear, although (as Gregory points out) most researchers and writers looked for them in the wrong places. Whites moved to suburbs, mixed with ethnic whites in urban areas, and generally avoided the hillbilly enclaves that got the sociologists’ juices flowing.

The dispersion of white migrants was most efficient in making the south and its ways more familiar and less foreign to northern residents. Given the greater likelihood of white migrants returning home (and often accomplishing frequent round trips) the reverse was also true: white southerners became more acquainted with their northern counterparts. We’ll look in some depth at two ways this happened: country music, and (using Willie Morris as an example) the white southern intelligentsia.

While country music has mostly been made by southern performers, it has been (with varying degrees of success) marketed to northern audiences. Gregory sees it as a shaper of southern white identity, but it also served to portray that identity in a favorable light to northern audiences and thus make the conservative southern values the music espoused more palatable to northern whites. We’ll listen to some of country’s greatest on the Week 6 playlist, now up on 8tracks.com/bashline. I’ll post music notes later today.

The southern white intelligentsia, which Gregory describes as almost a community in exile, served a more complex function, showing northern readers that the south was not a racist monolith, and helping pave the way for the civil rights advances of the 1950s and 60s. In Willie Morris’s memoir, North From Home, he writes movingly of how a Mississippi “white liberal” can serve not only to aid understanding between regions, but to highlight those misunderstandings that might otherwise have remained undiscovered. All of this is illustrated in the brief excerpt we’re reading this week. Morris discovers that he can’t escape the southern legacy he carries with him, but understands at the same time that to do so would be a profound and terrible loss, and in that understanding he represents the whole nation.

During the second hour we’ll watch the first half of John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I’ll have more to say about the film in next week’s notes. As part of his research for the novel, Steinbeck lived among the migrant workers of California, and wrote up part of that research in a powerful, seven-part series published in the San Francisco News in 1936. The first Steinbeck link on the “Readings” page, goes to articles 1-2 and 4-5 of the series. I’ve added separate links to articles 3, 6 and 7. Please read the first 5 – 6 and 7 are optional. The 6th article is a history of migrant workers in California, the last a set of policy prescriptions: interesting but not essential.

The video is Grandpa Jones, a perfect example of some of the ins-and-outs of southern white identity Gregory has us thinking about. Grandpa Jones adopted his “comedic-historic” Grandpa persona at the age of 22. He was born in Tennessee, grew up in Ohio, and first did his Grandpa act at WBZ in Boston. In spite of the humor that was always a part of his act, Grandpa Jones was a serious musician and did much to preserve traditional banjo styles. Lots of contradictions and surprising complexity! This is Mountain Dew – please enjoy!

Week 5 Loose Ends

October 12, 2011

We have a few – first, a link to Aretha Franklin’s performance of the National Anthem at Comerica Park in Detroit last night: look here.

Next, Lionel estimated that 90% of American blacks are descendants are slaves. This seemed high to me, so I did a little checking, and he was pretty close. I am no good with census data, so consulted Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America. According to Berlin (pp.212-3), in 2000, immigrants were about 5% of the total African-American population, but that number was more than 10% “in the largest American cities.” In Washington, D. C. over 15% of the black population was made up of immigrants, and in New York City nearly a majority.

Also as promised, here’s a copy of what Jane forwarded to me on housing segregation data:

Data from the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses show that residential segregation for blacks continued to decline from 1980 to 2000 by all five measures of segregation used in the Census Bureau’s analysis. By contrast, segregation of Asians, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics tended to  increase. Nevertheless, residential segregation remained higher for blacks than for the other groups. The biggest declines in segregation of blacks occurred in the West and South –particularly in California, Florida and Texas. The big metropolitan areas of the Midwest and Northeast that were the most highly segregated in 1980 (and earlier?) have remained so. By metropolitan area, the most segregated metro areas for blacks in 2000 were Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Newark, Buffalo, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The least segregated for blacks were Orange County, San Jose, Norfolk-Newport News, Tampa-St. Petersburg, San Diego, and Providence-Fall River. (The data from the 2010 census are not out yet.) I thought these data raise some interesting questions.

One of the answers to those interesting questions, I fear, is “racism.” It’s the answer to too many of the questions we’ve asked so far.

Finally, a link to the Harvard libraries’ collection of African American newspapers: look here. I believe you need an HUID to access the collection itself, which is, miraculously, searchable. This was my source for the Defender we looked at.

Tomorrow, I’ll post notes for next week’s class, and for next week’s country music playlist. The playlist is up right now, for your listening and dancing pleasure, at http://8tracks.com/bashline. It’s the one with the picture of the Carter Family (leftmost).

The video, by request, is a film of the Louis-Schmeling fight we saw today. The audio was obviously recorded much later.


Week 5 Notes

October 6, 2011

For our first meeting we read dozens of letters from southern blacks considering the move north. Many of them had no connections in the north, no resources but their own skills and courage. When they arrived, they got what help they could from churches and other institutions like the Urban League, but in many areas there were just too many newcomers to be assimilated easily. Turning these hundreds of thousands of migrants into communities took time and effort. Institutions and infrastructure needed to be built, power tested, skills refined, and it all had to be done in the face of housing and job discrimination that kept migrants almost literally trapped in the least desirable neighborhoods of any city.

But it got done. The black populations of Chicago, New York, Detroit and other cities not only built their own communities, but contributed to a nationwide sense of racial identity that transformed American society. How did this happen? We’ll spend the next few weeks looking at different aspects of this community building effort: this week we’ll talk about the Black Metropolis.

For Gregory, the Black Metropolis idea provides evidence that community building took place not only in spite of racism, but in part because of it. His revival of the Black Metropolis trope allows us to see the racism that forced blacks into segregated housing arrangements as also enabling an array of accomplishments that would otherwise have been impossible.

Gregory cites a few examples of how the Black Metropolis accomplished what it did. First, the newcomers found what he calls an “ethos of growth and welcome.” The black business community welcomed new customers, of course, but even those old settlers who might have had reason to resist mostly did not. Once on board, these newcomers helped build a new cultural apparatus, led by a powerful black press. The new black-run media fostered the growth of a black intelligentsia, the most famous example of which became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Most white people had never heard of the Chicago Defender, and had never read Jean Toomer. But they did know Joe Louis, and had heard Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. There is a legitimate difference of opinion about whether the fame gained by black entertainers and athletes was a sign of new attitudes of acceptance by the white community, but Gregory contends (and the Ottley chapter we read for this week agrees) that no matter what whites thought, the “morale and momentum and activism” inspired by these celebrities in the black community were hugely important in bringing about the important changes that eventually did come.

This week’s reading and listening give us a few different perspectives on the Black Metropolis. The October 1, 1927 issue of the Chicago Defender is a snapshot of the community at a point when it is just beginning to realize its growing political (see the American Legion and Indiana school integration stories) and cultural (the social pages and many of the ads depict a growing middle class) power.

Each of the black performers on the playlist is an example of the power of celebrity cited by Gregory. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Aretha and the rest were all sources of inspiration for the community, and each advanced the larger cause. But none of these had the impact of Joe Louis: by the power of his fists and the power of his example he united the community as no other had.

At some point during our session, we’ll take a look at some of the photographs of James Van Der Zee. Van Der Zee ran a photography studio on Lenox Avenue in Harlem for sixty years, from 1916 to 1976. He shot weddings, funerals, portraits, groups, you name it. His pictures are an unparalleled look at the Harlem community.

Since we’ll have the whole two hours for discussion today, I’d also like to begin with a call for any leftover questions or topics that you think we need to address before we move on. If you have questions or comments about what we’ve done (or not done) up until now, please bring them next week.

The video is a clip from Bessie Smith’s only film, and includes a performance of St. Louis Blues, inexplicably accompanied by a chorus. Please enjoy!

Week 4 Stuff

October 5, 2011

Thanks to all (except our uninvited guest) for your comments and contributions during today’s session. It got a little unruly at times, but I think (assuming that everyone’s being respectful, and today we all were) that’s good – that’s how we break new ground, that’s how we start thinking about things in new ways. A bit of disorder is a small price to pay for a bit of insight.

One of our insights today was around the impact of migration as a unifying force. This was a point Jim made, about migration as something that affected every part of our society: as south came north and blacks and whites had more contact, the resulting regional and racial reorientations enriched all concerned. There’s no question (as we’ll see when we discuss the Black Metropolis next week) that migration brought different cultures closer together and combined them in creative and productive ways. The uncertainties we explored today deal more with where our country is now. Are we more fragmented now than we were? If so, what happened? Is what happened related to recent changes in migration patterns, as the south rises again? I don’t know, but I think it’s useful for us to look at our current situation in light of the history we’re studying.

Jim raised another point today, about black novelists’ work being converted to mainstream movies. I found three good examples – there are no doubt more. The Color Purple, based on the Alice Walker novel was released in 1985 and nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Not bad. Toni Morrison had her novel Beloved filmed in 1998, and I was surprised to find that James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain was turned into a 1985 TV movie.

Instead of a video, you get a cultural fragmentation quiz. No googling until after you answer, please.