the Great Migration
By the 1960s, the economists had become sufficiently interested
in the Great Migration to develop equations, and that I definitely
do not suggest that you try to do with your students, you know
multiple regression equations.
One particularly diligent young scholar, from the University
of Chicago in fact, created an equation that would allow him
measure a wide variety of variables across time and space in
the South and the North to find the most significant factor.
But he decided that since racial discrimination
was always present in the South and it can't be measured, it
couldn't have caused the Great Migration. Well, see it falls
of the equation: it's a constant [laughter] so it can't explain
anything, it's a constant. Now it never occurred to him that
though racial discrimination was always there, it might have
changed its shape, it might have changed in degree, it might
in spatial dynamics. But as far as he was concerned it was a
constant. And in fact I once, he was a student here in the 1960s
and I once asked John
Hope Franklin, who taught African American history and Southern
history at the University of Chicago, how this guy could possibly
done this and he just looked at me and said, "he
never talked to me," [laughter] he said, "he never
came into my office."
Now another economist, this one out at Stanford, took a different
tack. Based not on what the economist could measure but on what
the migrant could measure, so you still have to measure. She
came up with the following, which I again suggest you don't try
teach to your students as a model approach. "Dealing
with a particular case of poor, unskilled laborers, it is surmised
that the non-pecuniary attributes of the residential environment
constitute luxury items in the consumption basket, and thus
largely beyond the effective consideration of the analyzed population."
In other words, poor people respond only to economic motivation,
poor people can't think about anything else.
Now, oddly enough, I think that this economist was on the right
track. In terms of trying to think about history in a particular
way that I think is useful, to try to get your students to think
about history, not just the Great Migration. She was asking
humanist question but was locked into the economist way of answering.
If we are to understand what these newcomers to northern cities
did when they arrived and hence their politics, their religious
institutions, their decisions regarding work, leisure, family,
residence, whatever, we need to separate what you might call
the macrohistorical, the larger historical question of causation,
which as I said, I think in this case it's pretty easy even without
the equation, and the more slippery concept of motivation which
is actually what she was getting at. What she was trying to get
at is how could she quantify, how could she figure out what
is that made people do what they did.
Amiri Baraka has put it, I think, in a very interesting,
very straightforward way saying that we need to recognize that
migration was a decision, a decision to leave the South, not
historical imperative. In other words, not something that something
called history said they had to do but a human decision, something
people had to mull over in their minds. What were these people
thinking? Why did they make a decision to leave a familiar world?
And that again goes back to these letters. That's where a source
like these letters can help you try, at least begin to do, to
try and figure out what is going through these people's minds.