Movement and Rootedness | The Nation


Movement and Rootedness

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In The Making of African America, Berlin proposes realigning black history around four distinct episodes of population transfer. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some 400,000 Africans were transported to what is now the United States in the appalling confines of the slave ship. The middle passage threw together black people who spoke different languages and had few common ties or experiences, and cast them into the increasingly vicious slave economies of British America. But in Berlin's telling, this was only the first—and, in fact, the smallest—of a series of mass population movements that defined the African-American experience. After Congress banned the foreign slave trade in 1808, prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, a vast internal trade funneled black people from the upper South toward the booming cotton fields of the Southern interior. Between 1800 and 1860 around a million men and women were transported from the Atlantic states to the "black belt" stretching from Georgia to Texas. Although these slaves remained within the boundaries of the United States, they were wrenched from the familiarity and certainties of their homes in the East as their ancestors had been from Africa decades earlier.

The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations
By Ira Berlin
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The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom
By Steven Hahn
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About the Author

Nicholas Guyatt
Nicholas Guyatt, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, teaches American history at the University of York in...

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Alongside these sweeping forced transfers of enslaved people, Berlin chronicles two further "great migrations": the movement of black people from the rural South to the urban North in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and the arrival of those millions of black immigrants after 1965. His third episode is the largest of all the examples. Between 1900 and 1970 around 6 million blacks moved from the South to the North, overwhelmingly from rural areas to big cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit. Unlike its predecessors, this was a voluntary migration. Blacks may have felt the push of Jim Crow and the iniquities of the sharecropping system in the South, but they also recognized new economic opportunities in the North and moved quickly to seize them. These opportunities depended, ironically, on war and xenophobia: the American entry into World War I stemmed the flow of white immigrants from Europe, while conscription emptied factory floors and created an urgent need for labor. After the war, the clamor for restrictive immigration legislation choked off the torrent of foreign arrivals. Again, it was Southern blacks who stood ready to benefit. World War II presents a similar story. In the year after Pearl Harbor, the number of blacks employed in manufacturing spiked from 500,000 to 1.2 million. The war allowed African-American workers to benefit in various degrees from the long industrial boom of the postwar decades, even as whites deserted the inner cities and hastened the process of residential segregation.

A focus on mobility allows Berlin to present black history as a contrapuntal narrative of "movement" and "place": he is fascinated by the ways black people, during and after slavery, nurtured a deep sense of rootedness even as circumstances compelled them to remake their world on repeated occasions. This dynamic of movement and place is evident in black musical forms, to which Berlin pays close attention; but he wonders if this way of viewing black history will allow us to marry the "traditional" black story with the experience of recent black immigrants and with American history more generally. "The history of the United States rests upon movement," Berlin argues, "and then the embrace of place."

Blacks haven't featured in the traditional celebration of immigrant success in America, perhaps because the middle passage seems fundamentally at odds with the happy myth of a nation of self-made outsiders. But Berlin's desire to broaden the focus of black migration, and to consider the voluntary movements of the twentieth century alongside the upheavals of slavery, suggests some common ground. He wonders if the "rhythm of movement and rootedness" could offer "a powerful reminder of what Americans share."

There's something tantalizing about this approach, which promises to internationalize and diversify the traditional version of the black past while linking it to a familiar American refrain. But it doesn't quite come off. Some readers will find it hard to accept Berlin's bold juxtaposition of forced and unforced migrations, and will insist that the experience of being bought and sold during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be grouped with the voluntary journeys of the twentieth century. Berlin is alive to this objection, and he sensitively concedes that slavery was sui generis even as he urges us to imagine a common theme for black history.

The theme of migration throws up other difficulties. Since the late eighteenth century, when many of the founders proposed that black people should be relocated to Africa as a condition of their emancipation, there has been a considerable suspicion among black Americans about the racist uses to which migration and population transfer might be put. Oddly, Berlin has little to say about the colonization mania among white people in the North and the upper South during the antebellum period: during the six decades before the Civil War, most white people came to believe that the deportation of blacks was a prerequisite for abolition.

Then there's the problem of linking nonblack immigration with these black population movements. Berlin concedes that the age-old story of (white) immigrant success aligns poorly with the unspeakable journeys of the middle passage and the crowded flatboats and steamships that brought slaves to the Southern interior from the Atlantic states after 1800. (His suggestion that many white immigrants were, like black slaves, victims of international capitalism doesn't quite convince.) He also acknowledges, at various points, that the struggle of blacks and immigrants for economic and social progress was a zero-sum game. In the decades before the Civil War, white immigrants embraced a virulent antiblack racism as a badge of belonging. After World War I the opportunity for blacks to move north and establish a strong presence in the cities was supplied by the ugly xenophobia among white politicians that closed down further immigration from Europe and Asia. Perhaps historians can sketch common experiences here and suggest that blacks and nonwhite immigrants ought to recognize what they shared. But the history of competition and tension between blacks and other migrants complicates the effort to present their struggles in a single frame.

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