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American Movements

Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America,” Oscar Handlin reflected in 1952 in The Uprooted, his landmark history of new arrivals in the New World, which initiated the field of immigrant history. "Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." 

That sentiment, now a truism, was never in the modern era less true than when it was written. Not since the 1830s, when the United States remained a fairly fragile and agrarian nation, had the foreign-born composed such a small proportion of the country. And that proportion was falling in the postwar years—from nearly 7 percent in 1950 to just over 5 percent in 1960—even as the nation itself grew, from 150 million to 180 million. This was not accident but design—the result of strict Prohibition-era legislation passed in the spirit of racial hygiene. The amalgamist culture of the United States may have been forged by immigrant entrepreneurship and the labor of multitudes, but the nation reached its greatest heights at precisely its nativist peak, powered by a "greatest generation" that had come of age in a culture of closed borders, cheered by invocations of a common national heritage and a shared national future.

Of course, midcentury America was home to one sizable minority—transient, ostracized, semi-assimilated and semi-forsaken—and, at the time, as Ira Berlin reminds us in his new book, American blacks were just completing a great migration of their own. Six million blacks fled the oppressive rural south for the industrial cities of the north between 1900 and 1970, in a great rush that reached its peak velocity in the years immediately after the World War II. The black flight of the Great Migration is often described as an interwar phenomenon, but in 1940 only one-quarter of black Americans lived outside the South. By 1970, more than half did. Three million left between 1940 and 1960, including 1.5 million in the 1940s alone.

The great beneficiaries were the cities of the North. Only six thousand blacks lived in Detroit in 1910; by 1930, there were 120,000, and by 1950 over 300,000. The black population of Chicago was 40,000 in 1910, 250,000 in 1930, and 500,000 by 1960. By that year, three-quarters of black Americans lived in cities, and fully two-thirds of them lived in just seven urban areas. “No group of Americans was more identified with urban life,” Berlin notes.

This pioneer generation, in which families and communities transplanted themselves wholesale from the farmland of their forebears to the cityscapes of their children, was hardly unique, despite its exceptional stature in our memory. Black Americans have always been on the move, Berlin observes, their history largely a tale of turbulence and upheaval. To prove it, Berlin sets out to survey and celebrate the four largest migrations—the “Middle Passage,” which introduced blacks to the New World and its peculiar variety of perpetual slavery; the forced antebellum exodus from the tobacco- and rice-producing coast to the cotton and sugar plantations of the Southern interior; the “Great Migration” north in the beginning and middle of the twentieth century; and the recent influx from Africa and the Caribbean following the loosening of immigration law in 1965.

The Making of African America is macrobiotic history—high-minded, unsynthetic, and unrefined—and a noble effort to place this migratory experience alongside the stories of white immigrants in our broad narrative of national assimilation. With it, Berlin would like to re-fashion for a new generation the leftover, linear history captured by the title of John Hope Franklin’s supervisory survey From Slavery to Freedom, which presented four complex centuries of black American life as though it were a single odyssey in pursuit of dignity and liberty. That master narrative, which Berlin carefully praises, “integrates [black] history into an American story of seemingly inevitable progress,” and implies a “teleological trajectory,” and inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of history as an “arc of justice.” But it is also, he says, inadequate. In its place, Berlin offers a more haphazard history, fashioned from stories of upheaval and turmoil rather than captivity and constraint, that reflects the centrality of movement in black American life.

The scale of that movement is truly staggering. Roughly ten million Africans, and maybe more, were delivered into American bondage before the closing of the Atlantic trade, and Berlin reminds us that, for the slaves as much as for their captors, the voyage across the Atlantic was a “middle passage,” preceded by a brutal trip from the African interior to the Atlantic coast (and followed by a terrifying introduction to the slave trade in the New World). As many as one in four Africans captured by slave traders died before reaching port—the victims of a grueling, months-long “death march”: deprived of food and clothing, packed regularly into makeshift pens, and sold again and again from one brutal and indifferent middleman to another. Once aboard ship, of course, conditions did not much improve; one in seven died along the way, including many who, as a strategy of suicide, dove into the ocean to surrender to the sharks. “When the crew—determined to protect its valued cargo—blocked the way with nets and other barriers, slaves starved themselves,” Berlin notes, drawing liberally from existing literature. “The crew force-fed some, employing the speculum oris, a diabolical device design to hold the slave’s mouth open while some gruel was poured down his or her throat.” About one in ten slave ships encountered some kind of unrest, but captives invariably attempted mutinies only in the first days of the voyage. As those above deck soon learned, when the coast of Africa disappeared from view, those below lost hope.

The slave economy that entrapped them upon their arrival was, for all its paralyzing brutality, only as static as any profit-seeking mercantilist enterprise, and Berlin is at his most incisive tracing the transformation of black culture and plantation life between the end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 and emancipation in 1865. (Curiously, he attributes little importance to these dates, hardly mentioning the Civil War when discussing the second half of the nineteenth century.) Most importantly, the economy moved, and the slaves followed; tobacco was no longer king on the coast, and the new cereal crops could not compete with profits of cotton and sugar in the “black belt” of the Deep South. (The term referred originally to the dark, fertile soil of the region, but became quickly a reference to its racial composition.) In his earlier studies of slave culture, for which he is justly acclaimed, Berlin has described the great migration of this era, as a “Second Middle Passage,” nearly as brutal as the first, and the traumatic origin of the haunting memory so many slaves carried with them through emancipation, of being callously separated from children, siblings, parents, and spouses, and dispatched, alone, into unknown territory.

“This internal slave trade became the largest enterprise in the South outside of the plantation itself,” Berlin writes, and “[i]ts seasonality—when best to move slaves and when to retain them—became part of the rhythm of Southern life, much like planting and harvest.” Without the young and able-bodied, the plantations of the coastal South became overwhelmingly female and remarkably domestic. “For some seaboard slaveowners, slave children were their most profitable ‘crop.’ ” Between the elections of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Berlin writes, more than one million blacks were forced from their homes and driven southwest—first to inland Georgia, then later to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.

The trade was indeed swift. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, slave traders and owners shipped 120,000 men and women into the black belt. In the 1830s, the figure was 300,000. Between 1860 and the outbreak of Civil War—hardly fifteen months—a quarter of a million slaves were moved off the seaboard and into the Deep South, by then the home of a majority of American blacks. Jefferson’s Virginia had held nearly half of the country’s slaves; Robert E. Lee’s Virginia contained only 12 percent.

That “passage to the interior” helped to forge a lasting if ambivalent attachment to the Deep South—as both a black homeland and the site of a full century of oppression—in a way that the Great Migration was unable to completely undo—but which, Berlin suggests, a new migration might just yet. In 1960, the proportion of foreign-born black Americans was “somewhere far to the right of the decimal point,” Berlin writes. By 2000, it was one in twenty, and one in ten were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. In some cities, the proportion was twice that. In New York, it was three times as high, and more than half of the city’s black residents were either immigrants or their children. Forty thousand men and women arrived from Africa annually in the 1990s, during which time the number of Africans living here grew from 400,000 to 700,000. Over the same period, we welcomed 900,000 black immigrants from the Caribbean.

The numbers can be dizzying, and unfortunately Berlin does little to make real sense of them. The Making of African America purports to be a cultural history, but what it traces instead are merely the broad strokes of demographic change. And neither does his labor chronicle deliver the focused local insights of the best social history. “Whether viewed from the reeking bottoms of seventeenth-century caravels or the antiseptic seats of twentieth-century jets, the great crossings cannot be understood apart from the ever-changing demands of global capitalism and its voracious appetite for labor,” Berlin writes, in an attempt at synthesis, citing the analogous experience of Chinese and Mexican immigrants, each offering cheap labor in a depopulated West, and each swept under the cruel wheel of American progress. But that appetite, and the demographic transformations it necessitates, offers at best a partial portrait of “African America,” and, ultimately, no more subtle a narrative than John Hope Franklin’s arc of justice.

The study of demography does not yield the history of culture, and in focusing so closely on population statistics Berlin overlooks several centuries of vital political, intellectual, and entrepreneurial history, and so he presents only the silhouette of black culture. Particularly glaring is his neglect of the vernacular tradition in black culture—its poetic speech, its music, sacred and profane, its folklore and folk art. That tradition, which emerged over the course of the journeys and migrations that Berlin traces so ably, demands special attention. It may now seem indistinguishable from the mongrel culture that has enveloped it, but represents in fact its invaluable essence—so deeply embedded in our national life that when, in 1970, Ralph Ellison asked “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” an essay published when racial harmony seemed far from assured, his sensible answer was, “Not America.” “Which is fortunate,” he continued,

“…for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, between our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has always threatened its existence from within.”

We are no longer living in Ellison’s America, thankfully, though the ascension of black vernacular culture can still seem the most complete triumph over racial prejudice American society will truly permit. Moral slobbism has certainly not disappeared from our midst, and the traditions of African American culture can still help us fight it.

David Wallace-Wells is an editor at the Paris Review.