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21. Voices from the Letters

Now in addition to having a sense of what these people can see around them, which is how we can understand them, what's their life like, what's going on around them, we can also hear their voices. The letters have patterns. The letters mention higher wages; there's no question about it, the letters that you have talk about making more money. But they also, well I don't know if I gave you the right ones for this, but they also talk about "tired of being a flunky" as one of them put it. They talked of voting, they talked of schools, they refer to feeling like a man, the great chance that a colored person has of making a living with all the privileges that the whites have. And you see the word 'privilege' in these letters a lot.

So then what you have to start doing is doing what literary scholars like Ken hate historians to do which is that we mine sources, we don't read the whole text, think about the text, we just look at these things and we just pull stuff out almost randomly and use it for whatever purposes we can. And one of the words that you just see in here over and over and over again is 'privilege.' And again, in terms of working through these with students is to ask them, OK, if you see this word all the time, what does the word mean. What did they mean by privilege? Does it mean the same thing you would-what does it mean to you? Is it different for you for what it would be for them? And you could also then take them--take a set of letters from Polish immigrants, Irish immigrants, and say, did they use the word 'privilege' or is there some other word that they used. And if so, why does that matter?

Well, I think if you read the letters closely, and we also have some interviews from the period, one gets a sense that during the first stage of the Great Migration, a small minority of black southerners, but enough to dramatically affect white people in these cities, is beginning to shift from envisioning land ownership as a material basis for citizenship to industrial work. And what they are saying is that what privilege is, is the ability to make a wage-a cash wage, and it's that privilege that gives you-in essence entitles you to the rights that come along with citizenship.

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