- Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of An Interracial Left by Erin Royston Battat
Erin Battat’s study is a comparative analysis of migration narratives showing how “black and white writers experimented with new literary forms that recast the relationship between African American and southern white workers and testified to the possibility of class-based interracial alliances.” (2) Ultimately, Battat is focused on “the aesthetic dimension” of migration art, looking at how struggles for social justice surfaced in the fiction of Sonora Babb, William Attaway, and Chester Himes and in the visual art of Elizabeth Catlett. (3) Battat also includes brief analyses of Tillie Olsen’s 1930s Yonnondio, a white migration narrative written and set in the 1930s but published in 1974; Richard Wright’s 1941 photo-essay 12 Million Black Voices; the 1945 nonfictional migration narrative, They Seek A City, co-written by Black writer Arna Bontemps and white leftist Jack Conroy; and Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954). Precisely because interracial alliances and relationships were so rare, Battat contends that writers in her study “turned to the migration narrative to articulate their reform visions.” (4)
That radical writers and artists, Black and white, used literature and other cultural forms to push for social change is well documented by scholars of the 1930s and the Left. But Battat’s underlying quest is to show that these artists produced an interracial migration narrative canon, which, she says, emerged from shared contexts, and which should “replace the traditional view of black and white migration as separate streams feeding different political and aesthetic pools.” (13) This poses a number of questions, not fully addressed in this study, chief among them are these: how does she define “interracial migration narrative,” and is the evidence presented here extensive enough to make a convincing argument that this interracial canon exists?
Clearly, the social issues of the 1930s and 1940s – the Depression, migration, and the prominence of the Left – did produce a new cultural map, and the migration narrative was at the centre of these cultural shifts. Battat focuses on the migration narratives of Attaway, Babb, and Himes because they “more explicitly engage with the intersections of class and race in the migration experience.” (11) She begins to make her case for the interracial character of their narratives with the recovery of Sonora Babb’s neglected 1930s dust bowl novel Whose [End Page 254] Names Are Unknown, which was finally published in 2004 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Because Babb was a communist, she was invested in exposing the way capitalism’s demands produced the shocking conditions of migrant labour communities, and, presumably, a greater investment in representing interracial solidarity. The most clearly articulated example of interracial unity Battat offers from Whose Names Are Unknown is the scene of Black, white, and Filipino workers gaining a collective voice as they join with one another “across boundaries of race, ethnicity and gender.” (65) Yet, as Battat herself notes, this collective unity is undercut in the novel’s own practice of marginalizing and stereotyping its characters of colour. The one Black male character in the novel is introduced as “The Negro” Garrison, along with his wife Phoebe, who never speaks, and the “short, stocky Filipino” named Pedro. These stock characters do not enter the novel until Chapter 37, nearly the end, when they meet together at an organizing meeting, but Battat pushes this as the essential scene of interracial unity, concluding that, “This tableau [of Black, white, and Filipino workers] attests to the central role of migration in bringing about interracial working-class solidarity.” (66) Battat seems determined to produce this solidarity even as she critiques Babb for her thin portrayals of people of colour. The argument for an interracial vision is further eroded by the way Babb describes these white migrant camps as normative. White migrants drive around towns undisturbed; their children go to school or expect to; they go to the movies undisturbed; they eat...