- Out of Africa
In early 2011, a New York Times reporter posed several crucial questions concerning the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution, currently under construction in Washington D.C. "What story will it tell?" she asked of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America's history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black 'firsts' in fields like music, art, science and sports?"1 Important questions indeed. But the challenges confronting curators—with their multiple audiences of Capital Hill legislators, donors, scholars, and the broader public—are not usually ones that weigh too heavily on the minds of academics, at least not explicitly. Because academics operate largely out of the limelight (save for brief reviews in specialized journals), few external constituencies weigh in to constrain their scope of operation. And yet, when it comes to race in America, the tension between competing impulses to highlight racial oppression, resistance, or examples of transcendence is often all-too-visible in scholarly analyses.
Over the past century, these impulses have defined the literature on black migration in the United States. The first studies, carried out by government officials as the first Great Migration of the World War I era unfolded, were sober and unromantic attempts to make sense of the unprecedented movement of black people from the agricultural South to the industrial North. Focusing on black objections to Southern conditions and on new opportunities created by the reduction in European immigration, these writers showcased the mechanics of migration, the life conditions of migrants in their new homes, and black motivations for moving; they were, after all, trying to explain to white America just why the migration was happening.2 Decades later, in the 1960s and 1970s, migration figured prominently in the "making of a ghetto" genre which, while acknowledging the achievements and institution-building of black [End Page 270] professionals, stressed persistent discrimination in housing and employment, high disease and death rates, social disorganization, and human suffering. At the conclusion of his study of Harlem, Gilbert Osofsky invoked Alain Locke's depressing reminder that the ghetto, by the 1930s, was a "nasty, sordid corner into which black folk are herded."3 From the 1980s onward, the impact of the new social history was evident in migration studies. Migrants—sharecroppers, domestic servants, and industrial workers, among others—came into much clearer focus, their aspirations no longer inaudible, their activities no longer invisible, their politics no longer reduced simply to following black elites' guidance.4 Occasionally a celebratory quality marked the new scholarship: black migrants didn't just get herded into nasty, sordid corners, the ubiquity of discrimination and oppression notwithstanding. Rather, they built effective institutions informed by the rich cultural traditions carried with them from the South and resisted oppression in ways large (politics) or small (infrapolitics).5 Ultimately, they forged lives of their own and established vibrant and sustaining communities.
In their geographically sweeping and thematically focused study, Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations, Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott continue this tradition. There is, by way of backdrop, attention to oppression. The authors certainly make clear the brutalities of slavery and the incomplete freedom of the post-Civil War years. They describe the conditions of life that prompted black migration and resulted in disappointment in their new homes—poverty and the denial of economic mobility for sharecroppers, persistent employment and housing discrimination, lynching, police brutality, and other forms of racial violence. At the same time, they demonstrate that, no matter what white America threw at them, the descendants of slaves continued to strive, drew on a collective heritage, and forged new cultural, religious, and political institutions. They transformed not only the black communities they entered; they changed the nation as well.