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13. Analyzing the Letters

Now to answer these questions we need to leave aside any kind of metaphor of a laboratory, history as a science where we can simply take these factors and work them out. We also need to leave behind, at least temporarily, the large explanatory powers of what I sometimes call the "izations," which I hate to discourage because I know that those of you who are teaching to any of the tests that your students have to take whether it's the AP or other standardized history tests, if they don't know the "izations" they are going to be in trouble: industrialization, urbanization, modernization, proliteritization, bureaucratization, whatever other words people have come up with. Because what these terms do, I think they make us lose sight of the migrants as historical actors and they subsume their experiences into these kind of large historical processes.

Now there's two ways to do this. The first would be comparatively, which would mean to look for common elements in the migration experience, to look at these different sets of letters. And actually this helps you to integrate this topic into the "izations" that your students are going to have to understand for their tests, because you are looking for the common elements in the migration experience, you are looking for the common elements in the experience of urbanization, how people actually lived through each of these large processes in general and the letters are great for doing that.

The second way of doing that-I think these are complementary, they're not mutually exclusive-is to take a deep analysis of one group; in other words, so if you have a student who wants, says "I want to look at Polish immigration," or in this case the Great Migration and here the answers tell us only about the people we are studying. We are unlikely to discern general principals about human behavior because we're not asking what is typical; what we're doing is we're asking what's particular. What makes this group of people different from other groups of people--another group of people? We're not saying, "Tell me what's typical about black southerners," because during this period only about five percent of black southerners left and went to the North, so the people that we are studying in fact are weird. And if we say, "Well, what's a typical black southerner," then we're not going to find the people who are migrating. One of the interesting questions that you can ask is what is the difference between them and the other ninety-five percent.

[Female voice] Only five percent?

Yeah, sure, because only about, between 1916 and 1919, about five hundred thousand. No, I'm sorry, it's not five percent it's, well, I'm trying to think, is it about five percent; I'm trying to remember what the popular black--well yeah, five hundred thousand out of ten million for the first period and then another million later.

[Female voice] And if you took the whole, from either _______,

[2nd female voice] ______ if you took the whole of the period that's ________ the Great Migration…

Right, well then you've got a lot more. Because, well I don't know because the population changes over time so you would need the kind of statistics that could track population change; you'd probably [track] half of all people migrating out or more. You are looking at a transformation in the location of the black population. But for this period, when people are commenting on the huge phenomenon between 1916 and 1919, it's five hundred thousand people out of about ten million. And then another million in the 1920s, and then the forties, fifties and sixties is where the numbers get really big.

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