By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said
Over the course of six decades, some six million black Southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban American and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally lay aside a feudal cast system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheet weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.
During this time, a good portion of all Black Americans alive picked up and left the tobacco farms of Virginia, the rice plantations of South Carolina, cotton fields in East Texas and Mississippi, and the villages and backwoods of the remaining Southern states–Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and, by some measures, Oklahoma. They set out for cities they had whispered about among themselves or had seen in a mail order catalogue. Some came straight from the fields with their King James Bibles and old twelve-string guitars. Still more were townspeople looking to be their fuller selves, tradesmen following their customers, pastors trailing their flocks.
— The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
I was trying to explain to a friend–a 40-year-old white guy–how I really want to travel with my nieces and nephews to Mississippi, so they can experience going “down South” in the summertime, something they have never done. He replied, “Yeah, my family used to head down to the beach in Florida all the time, when I was a kid.” And I had a hard time articulating that what I am speaking of is different. Here in Central Indiana, it seems every white family clears out of town to the Florida beaches come Spring Break or summertime. But what I’m talking about is different.
For Midwestern families of The Great Migrations–African American families–pointing the family car South wasn’t about seeking sand and sun and maybe a visit to Disney World. It was about returning, as my father would say, “down home.” It was, I imagine, for the adults, about reconnecting with cultural roots; showing off children to relatives rarely seen. It was about introducing offspring to roots that were foreign to them. For me, It was about coolers packed with fried chicken, potato salad and drinks for lunch at tired-looking rest stops. It was about palettes of blankets in the “way back” of the station wagon, crayons melting in the sun and jockeying with my brother and sister for seat space. It was about looking out of a hot car window with awe as the roads turned to red clay and the pines grew taller and taller–a world away from my Northern Rust Belt city. It was about the dark; it gets so dark in the country that the stars seem to multiply a thousandfold.
It was about “supper,” a meal that didn’t exist for me north of the Mason Dixon line, served around 4 p.m. with fresh greens, black-eyed peas and homemade corn bread and other good stuff; and melon that I actually liked–honeydew and watermelon from some nearby field. It was about the sound of rain on a tin roof and squeaky screen doors surrounded by chickens and farm cats and “dirt dobber” nests. It was about front porch swings and being regaled with stories of country life–mules and picking cotton. It was about aunts with warm arms and sweet, Southern accents. It was about thinking you were going to be bored–out in the middle of nowhere with a sketchy TV signal–but always finding something exciting to explore. (My maternal grandfather, who immigrated from Alabama, once traveled with us to visit my paternal grandparents in rural Mississippi. He taught me how to keep a grasshopper on a “leash.”) It was about trips “to town,” which turned out not to have a mall or anything like it, just a Ben Franklin 5 and Dime and a theater showing last year’s movies. That was my experience. And millions of Northern black kids had some variation of that. My husband has Southern relatives in the country and town, so his stories differ a bit, but at heart they are the same.
I was speaking of this to a girlfriend of mine — a black woman of my age — as if she would understand. And she reminded me that she grew up in the South. My experience is uniquely African American, but it is also uniquely Northern–maybe uniquely Northeastern. I don’t know whether the people who migrated West could as easily pack their kids in the car and drive home to, say, Louisiana. I don’t know about the culture the migrations created in places like California.
At any rate, my father came north on the tail end of the second migration, in the 60s. (My maternal grandparents came north in the 20s and 30s.) By the time I was born in the final days of 1969, the migration trend had reversed. And so, mine truly is the last generation, I think, to experience this raised in the New World/tied to the Old World thing. (One of the things I like about Suns is the way Wilkerson compares the migrations to other immigrant experiences and highlights their commonalities.)
I think I wrote here last year about losing a connection to some Southern black foodways. Not just the collards and sweet potato pies, but the neck bones, souse meat and pig’s feet that were occasional treats in my home growing up. It doesn’t occur to me to make those things now. And there is no chance I could whip up souse from scratch like my Great Aunt Lee used to, even if I wanted to. My nieces and nephews may never eat this food. And they have never set foot in Kentucky or Mississippi or Alabama, where their grandfather and great-grandparents came from. They needn’t head “down South” to visit extended family. Their parents’ roots are Northern. All of us first- and second-generation Northerners have this shorthand to describe our unique cultural experiences, but that is slipping away. I suppose this is so for all immigrants and their children and grandchildren. As the generations move on, descendants become unmoored from “the old country.” Still makes me melancholy, though.
Maybe the new experience will be that of the reverse migration. As more and more blacks return South to cities like Houston and Atlanta, perhaps their children will share stories of traveling north to visit family in chilly, old industrial centers along the Great Lakes. They’ll be amazed at the mounds of snow and speak fondly about eating Italian Beef, Maxwell Street polishes and Chicago deep dish pizza.
Image courtesy of Chicago Man