Accounts of Migration
And thrn its essential to understand what happens when some
of these goals are frustrated, so for example, when the right
to vote doesn't translate to political power or when advancement
in the workplace has its very clear limits, which I think helps
us to understand the appeal of Marcus Garvey in the 1920's and
eventually the dynamics of the civil rights movement.
And then its essential also to work them through the implications
of the second Great Migration, that period in the forties to
1960's and early seventies. The reason is that if we- from looking
at all these sources come to say, "Well, this was an active decision
that people made; it mattered that they didn't have to move,
that they were trying to decide where to move"; go back to the
questions about southern cities.
Something very different happens in the second Great Migration
because in 1948 the mechanical cotton picker was introduced for
the first time on a large, southern plantation. By the early
southern plantations all over the south are using the
mechanical cotton picker. Does anyone want to guess why that
changes the whole dynamics of the Great Migration?
[Female voice] _____________
That's right, that's right. So where before you had people on
the land saying, well I can be a sharecropper for another forty
years and my son can be a sharecropper and his son can be a sharecropper
and my daughters can marry sharecroppers but I would rather go
to work in a factory.
In 1956 that's not the decision facing them. The decision facing
someone now in rural Mississippi is I'm out of here, where do
I go, I can't stay here. And those are two very different dynamics
of migration. They are two very different processes. In one case
there's a very active decision making going on; in the other case
you've got people who are really being pushed and they've got
to figure out what to do.
Now, what all of this then gets you to, and I'm going to stop,
is it gets you to different ways of thinking about what happens
when people get here, and different ways of thinking about the
process of migration in general and I think in some ways this
is best expressed in fiction.
There's a short story that, if you want to give your students
a real sense of the exhilaration of migration, there are two
I think there are, and Ken probably knows more examples, but
there are the two that I can think of, the classic ones, and
the last chapter of Richard Wright's Black Boy, and
the first chapter of American Hunger, where he talks
about leaving Memphis and then coming to Chicago. And in American
Hunger he talks about
coming to the railroad station and not seeing signs white or
colored signs in the railroad station in Chicago.
"It was strange to pause before a crowded newsstand
and to buy a newspaper without having to wait until the white
man was served." You get a real sense of what this all means.
But in some ways you get a more powerful sense in Rudolph Fisher's
short story, "City of Refuge," which is in Alain Locke's,
The New Negro, published in 1925. And at this point that
I'm going to read, Fisher is talking about a recent migrant
he's from North Carolina and he's emerging-I think his name is
Solomon Gillis, and he's emerging from the subway at 135th
Lenox Ave., in the middle of Harlem. He's taken the train from
North Carolina and the subway up to Harlem, and he's just coming
out of the subway.
"Casting about for direction, the tall newcomer's glance,
caught inevitably on the most conspicuous thing in sight. A magnificent
figure in blue that stood in the middle of the crossing and blew
a whistle and waved great, white, gloved hands. The southern Negro's
eyes opened wide-now opened wider. If the inside of New York had
mystified him (the subway), the outside was amazing to him, for
there stood a handsome, brass-buttoned giant directing the heaviest
traffic Gillis had ever seen. Halting unnumbered tons of automobiles
and trucks and wagons and push carts and street carts, holding
them at bay with one hand while he swept similar tons correctly
on with the other. Ruling the wide crossing with supreme self-assurance
and he too was a Negro yet most of the vehicles that leapt-that
leaped or crouched at his bidding carried white passengers. One
of these overdrove down a few feet and Gillis heard the officer's
shrill whistle and gruff reproof, saw the driver's face turn red
and his car draw back like a threatened pup. It was beyond belief,
it was impossible."
But one of the things to think about as you read these letters
is to ask yourself, how many of these people would have seen
as beyond belief, as impossible? What kind of expectations did
they have? And going back to the questions, it takes you back
I think to question number one; was The Defender the
only source of information. For many black southerners it was,
that people going to New York, Cleveland, often had images that
looked like Chicago because they read The Defender, and this was
their image of the North.