Did you all see the article about the new census results in today’s Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/us/25south.html?_r=1&hp The results of the 2010 census are starting to come out, and one clear trend is that African Americans are moving back to the South, away from the rust belt cities. I found this trend, and how it was described, striking for two reasons. First, Marina has been reading, and loving Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, http://isabelwilkerson.com/ In case you don’t know, the book is the story of the Great Migration — the black migration out of the South in the 20th Century. Marina keeps saying that this book must be required reading for everyone — adults, teenagers, all of us. Because it makes vivid the fact that African Americans have been immigrants within America. As they fled the South seeking opportunity, safety, relief from feudal domination, they were very much like Southern Italians. We need to study African-American history as an immigration story within the US, as part of those same units that we teach on Ellis Island.
But that brings me to this latest census report. In fact people have been rushing down to the sunbelt for decades. Why don’t we see this latest result as of a piece with the growth of all of the sunbelt cities — as people who could no longer find good work in the Northeast went where the jobs, homes, and better-funded schools were? Yes there is a particular racial poignancy in a black family feeling it might do better in the South than the North — but it seems to me that moving to seek out new opportunity is the American story — whether that is the Jewish family moving in generational stages from the Lower East Side, to Riverside Drive, to Riverdale, to California, or the WASP family setting out from Dorchester to Rochester to Grand Rapids to Portland, or now the African-American families seeking out the best place to plant themselves and build their children’s future. Why view one set of people as mobile and another as static? The paradigm shift of Wilkerson’s book is the blend the African American story into the American immigrant saga — not in terms of arrival, but in the lives people choose in the 20th Century.
Now one last bit that perhaps needs to be woven into this is the growing acceptance of being multiracial throughout the country, especially in the Soutg. http://tinyurl.com/4f9rb4m and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/us/25race.html So we probably need to examine at least two trends — black families acting just like everyone else in seeking opportunity, and doors that might have been closed making it difficult for black families to do that beginning to open. All of this is interesting in terms of looking at our lives now, but for any of you who teach US History, or work in libraries where kids are doing US history research, the more we can weave African-American 20C history into the story of immigration — as part of that saga of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and Angel Island — the better.