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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Recasting The Story of African-Americans

Did you all see the article about the new census results in today’s Times: 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, 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. and 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.


  1. Marc,

    I’ve got a quibble with the essays/articles coming out that point to multiracial individuals—particularly those who say they are “part Indian” but don’t know much, if anything, about that Indian ancestor…

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Debbie: I’ll read your article. Though, as you know, what qualifies you as “Indian” depends on the rules of the rolls, and those vary greatly, and, as in the case of the Florida Seminoles, can be quite controversial. And that’s just talking about belonging to nation, as opposed to a family story or a name on a family tree.

  3. You and I know that tribes have the authority to decide who is on their census, and how that can be contentious, but I doubt that most Americans know about Native Nation sovereignty. They know “treaty” but not what it means in terms of the government-to-government relationship tribal nations have with the US govt.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    sure, but my point is that — while for you being a member of a nation is related to how you live (as you discuss in your blog) for others it may be a matter of name, memory, law, — a whole host of different factors and I would hesitate to lean too heavily on any one definition of identity and connection. As you may know there have been lengthy legal debates in Israel on What Is a Jew — which has legal consequences since any Jew can become a citizen of Israel. But those debates turn into charged power struggles — where, for example, orthodox groups do not recognize a woman who converted to Judaism with a reform rabbi as Jewish, and thus her children are not Jewish. Yet in America most Jews are reform Jews. Setting up a guardian of who gets to qualify quickly gets into difficult and fraught territory. For the purposes of a census it seems fine to me to say: you are X if you say so.