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Book Reviews

African-American migration


James Grossman. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Pp. 384 with appendices, notes, bibliography and index. $14.95 (paper).

Alex Kotlowitz. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. New York: Double-day, 1991. Pp. 324 with bibliography and index. $21.95 (cloth).

Nicholas Lemann. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1991. Pp. 410 with notes and index. $24.95 (cloth).

During the 1980s I felt the need for additional studies of 20th-century African-American migration movements. Acknowledging the usefulness of earlier works, I believed that certain issues ought to be raised or revived, given both the time lapse since the last wave of substantial migration and the increasingly clear implications of those momentous movements. Among the issues needing attention were reasons for migration and institutional responses to migration. Further, it seemed imperative to explore these matters from a black vantage point.

Three recent works on African-American migration examine these questions and attempt to project the views of the black participants. Chicago is the promised land of these accounts the land of hope, but also the land where there are no children. Actually, these books can be seen as sections of a single text on migration. Land of Hope concentrates on the first large movement of black southerners to Chicago during and immediately after World War I. The Promised Land focuses on the second such movement, from World War II to 1970. And although There Are No Children Here emphasizes the years 1987-1989 in the lives of two black boys relegated to the Chicago projects, it traces their fate to the mother's entry into the city in the 1950s. In joining these studies, one gets an uninterrupted look at black migration to and life in Chicago for more than 70 years.

These separate accounts, taken together, also suggest how "black migration made race a national issue in the second half of the century." Lemann writes:

In the South, the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction led to the creation of an all-encompassing new political and social system to deal with race a tragic order, as it turned out. The migration from the South put Chicago in the same position of having to respond to the issue of race in a comprehensive way ... and again the result was tragic.

The "comprehensive way" in which Chicago responded was structural (or institutional). White ethnics controlled all dominant institutions and protected their privilege, while soothing their consciences with current shibboleths about blacks. Lemann barely delineates these institutional responses; Grossman mentions them but evades their implications:

Although discrimination circumscribed black life in Chicago and interacted with the material circumstances of most migrants to relegate them to the worst housing and least desirable employment in the city, the color line was not ubiquitous.

Carole Marks, in Farewell We're Good and Gone, insists rightly that we examine "migration from the perspective of underlying structural rather than simply individual factors." Such analysis show that black industrial workers were assigned the same place on the economic ladder black agricultural workers had been bottom rung. Although some indignities were mitigated, the same institutions that kept the African-American masses in their place allowed black individuals the illusion of moving up, thus anticipating the supreme illusion of potential upward mobility for all African Americans as a consequence of the civil rights movement.

I understand what Lemann means when he says migration made race a national issue: Increased contiguity and economic competition forced whites to confront to racism daily. But I also understand the historical record of racism, which is national. Although for Lemann "the very notion that an enormous racial problem existed in the North caused the whole consensual vision of American society to crumble," African Americans attuned to their own history have always known this.

The need for a black perspective in understanding black life and culture is pointed up by Grossman. He suggests that the alienation of white workers from black workers might be due to their different histories. The self-defeating racism of white workers reflected their failure to understand black workers' view of unions:

Unlike their white coworkers, they did not compare wages and hours in the stockyards in 1917 with conditions in 1914 and see stagnation in the face of employer prosperity. Instead, they compared their current situation with what they had recently know in the South and felt a sense of achievement. Unions had to prove that they were willing to grant African Americans entry and power. Instead, to most black workers, they seemed primarily concerned about white.

Even white liberal reformers were not immune to migrant guardedness:

Few white Chicagoans were able to look at Chicago from the perspective of black newcomers or even to recognize the importance of doing so.... Reform and charity controlled by whites and rooted in ... paternalism, sympathy, [and] racism ... stood distant from the needs and sensibilities of black men and women who had come to Chicago to seize control

24/October 1991/Illinois Issues

over their own lives.

If one adds political control and force which the migrants confronted in machine politics and police power to racism and economics, a convincing case exists for calling the result colonialism in the inner city, African Americans, pushed out of the South by structural factors, confronted the structural factors of colonialism in the North. According to Lerone Bennett Jr., those factors are economic exploitation, political control, pervasive racism, cultural repression and physical force.

Why, then, did black migrants leave the South? Most studies stress economic proscriptions and rampant terrorism as the main causes. Boll weevils, floods, employer machinations, mechanization and minimum wage laws added to racist statutes which sanctioned separate and unequal conditions for blacks and which were buttressed by extralegal white violence. Black migrants told of more equal opportunity in the North: Anti-black violence, at least, was punishable there.

Grossman discusses these factors, but also emphasizes African Americans' desire to seize control of their destinies. He describes the pluralism they sought:

There is little evidence that black southerners coming to Chicago were interested in integration .... They did not necessarily expect or wish to abandon their identity as black Americans. Indeed, they expected... an environment that would permit them to choose to interact with whites only in settings essential to economic and political citizenship .... It seemed possible to share in the American dream while grafting that dream onto a black consciousness.

Authentic pluralism assumes shared power and legitimacy of particularity. Black migrants looked to their own institutions for access to both. Those institutions were involved in every facet of movement and resettlement. According to Grossman, they not only represented information networks for the exodus, but also "contributed to the growing vitality and self-consciousness of the emerging black neighborhoods, making them attractive to blacks who preferred avoiding white people and their prejudices." In addition to providing comfort and familiarity, they were sources of information about jobs and of pressure on employers.

Black institutions also operated as a cog within the big machine of Chicago politics, galvanizing and directing the black vote, perhaps too predictably. For without its own power base or effective strategies to insure accountability, black politics paid minimal dividends to black voters.

And that most beleaguered institution the black family committed its children to the promise of education, again without significant reward. For although Grossman asserts that black attendance in Chicago public schools matched if not exceeded the rates for foreign- or native-born white children well into the 1930s, black students were rewarded with embarrassment, harassment and "a white-oriented curriculum, from white teachers who were frequently prejudiced and almost universally unattuned to black culture...."

Finally, housing was almost completely out of the purview of black institutions. In sum, they could not translate initial progress "into an ongoing process leading to full participation in the city's economic or political life."

Although some indignities were mitigated, the same institutions that kept the African-American masses in their place allowed black individuals the illusion of moving up ...

Black institutions were riven by internal division as well. Certainly the class conflict that strained those institutions represents one context for understanding both the fragile unity and subsequent deterioration of community within the "Black Metropolis." But that conflict is only one context, and not the most important one. Institutional racism contributed most heavily to intraracial discord. The definitions and deprivations which emanate from dominant institutions have been critical sources of internecine manifestations, including class divisions.

What is missing from the Lemann and Kotlowitz studies are important historical and social-psychological contexts. Consequently, the compelling life histories which they describe may generate or reinforce racial stereotypes, or at least mystify readers unware of those contexts. Lemann suggests that the black middle class blames the unspeakable conditions in the inner city on control by the white elite, while the current inhabitants do not see whites as culpable:

To the people living in the Robert Taylor Homes, its conditions were a miserable fact of life for which there was no good explanation .... With the exception of a dwindling number of white policemen, there were no longer any visible white exploiters. ....The lack of any evident reason for the horrifying state of the Robert Taylor Homes only made life there more horrifying; it encouraged people to turn on each other.

Kotlowitz, on the other hand, characterizes the ghettoes' occupants as full of despair and cynicism, but not oblivious to the roots of their problems. Earlier they had been "galvanized by what they considered the neglect and outright exploitation of their community," but that energy dissipated:

In the late 1960s, the nation's black ghettoes were filled with rage and fury, a stark contrast to the resignation and personal excesses of the late 1980s. ... People felt that they could do something, that they could find allies in the 'system' to help make it work for them. And when that began to fail them, so did their hope and sense of justice.

The walls of many municipal housing projects have been cinder blocks. The larger structures of black ghettoes have often been cinder boxes. And although the conflagrations there seem fratricidal if not suicidal, we are all implicated in the largest structure, urban colonialism. These texts represent a beginning attempt to understand and to change that system. If we add to Grossman's concept of the collapsed dream through continued racial oppression and capitalist inequity the intricate and deadly logic of interlocking economic exploitation, political control, pervasive racism, cultural repression and systematic force under internal colonialism, we take another step forward. There is pathos enough in the individual sagas chronicled in Lemann and Kotlowitz to re-commit us to the unfulfilled dream of American democracy.

Professor Fred L. Hard is director of the Black Studies Program at Knox College.

October 1991/Illinois Issues/25

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