Black people also moved northward in huge numbers in the early 20th century. This was the Great Migration. Migration fever was rampant, and had a contagious, cumulative effect: the more people a person knew who were “prospering” in the North, the more they desired to leave the South, and the less reason they had to stay. Indeed, many people who were “left behind” felt isolated and lonely. Forced to work as sharecroppers after the Civil War, black people in the South were “enslaved by debts.” Life was defined by hard work and no promise of reward.
It is striking to compare the “migration fever” that enveloped black Southerners in the early 20th century to the feelings of Irish, Jewish, or Japanese immigrants who heard about life in the US and became desperate to go. Black Southerners may have been born in the US, but they, too, became migrants pursuing an “American Dream” of a better life in the North.
Meanwhile, during the First World War, European immigration to the US virtually stopped. As a result, desperate factory managers sent recruiters to the South. A black journalist in Chicago commented that economic necessity provided “a chance” for black people: “Prejudice vanishes when the almighty dollar is on the wrong side of the balance sheet.” Black people who had moved North wrote back to friends and family saying they wish they’d come sooner. Both the economic opportunities and social environment were a significant improvement from the South. Those who had been born after the end of slavery were less and less likely to tolerate the miserable conditions of the South.
The comment by the black journalist in Chicago is one of the most important ideas in the book. While Takaki demonstrates the enduring and staggering power of prejudice, he also illustrates repeated moments in history when the desire for profit seemed to erase that prejudice. Of course, in reality prejudice does not actually “vanish” in times of economic necessity. Rather, it is suppressed, and is always in danger of resurfacing.
Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, and police brutality were also significant factors driving black people northward. Young black people dreamed of residing in places where “a man is a man.” The writer Richard Wright was one of the huge flock of black Southerners who migrated North in the 1920s. Arriving in Chicago, he felt exhilarated. Black migrants framed their actions in biblical terms; for them, the North was “the Promised Land.” Yet as Wright recalled, they did not know what to expect there. Most of those coming from the South first went to Chicago. The black population of the city tripled between the years 1900 and 1920, and this provoked a furious backlash from white residents.
Because conditions for black people in the South were so hellish, any reprieve might have seemed like heaven. In reality, though, just because the North was not stricken by the same kind of violence as the South did not mean it was a hospitable or easy place for black people to live. It must have been terrifying to arrive in a place that was unknown—not dissimilar to the experience of immigrants coming from around the world to a country they had only heard rumors about.
Much of the conflict centered on housing. White residents were desperate to keep their neighborhoods free of black people, and schools were likewise sites of intense racial antagonism. The same was also true of workplaces. Many black Southerners were dismayed to learn that they have been brought up as scabs (strikebreakers), and that they would not be offered full-time employment after the strikes were over. At the same time, the First World War stimulated a need for workers, which helped black people find jobs in a discriminatory environment. For many women, the war provided an opportunity to finally escape the domestic work they hated so much. For the first time, industry jobs with good wages were available.
This passage illustrates a dilemma facing black migrant workers during this time. For the first time, reasonably well-paid employment opportunities were available to them, which is what had drawn them North. Yet at the same time, housing discrimination and social unrest made their new home difficult to actually inhabit. This dilemma reflects similar issues faced by immigrants coming to the US from all around the world.
At the same time, managers were still using black workers to obstruct the labor struggles of white people. Meanwhile, white organizers who tried to recruit black people to join their efforts sometimes had difficulty doing so. Racist violence was a major cause of distrust; in the 1910s, white people bombed black neighborhoods several times. During the race riot of July 4, 1919, white mobs brutally attacked black people and homes, while black people retaliated by attacking white people, too. In response to this hostility, black people in Chicago decided that they needed to band together and spend their money within the black community in order to build security.
Here, Takaki notes that although interracial solidarity in labor struggles is highly important, it is not necessarily easy to achieve. Distrust, suspicion, and prejudice might deter people of different ethnic groups from working together. In the case of the black workers who were resistant to collaborating with white people, this could hardly be surprising, considering the vicious extent of white people’s anti-black racism.
In New York City, meanwhile, the burst of the housing bubble at the end of the 19th century meant that Harlem went from being a wealthy white neighborhood to a vibrant black community. White Harlem residents were furious about this, claiming that the neighborhood had been ruined. But their anger did not stop the community from flourishing and becoming “the largest colony of colored people, in similar limits, in the world.” Indeed, Harlem actually became too crowded, leading to cramped living conditions. Nonetheless, its residents felt that it was “the land of hope,” a place where black people could be happy and free.
It may be surprising to learn that before it turned into a vital home for the black community, Harlem was once a wealthy white neighborhood. This information is pertinent considering that in the present day, Harlem is being re-gentrified by wealthy residents of many different races. The fact that it was once an affluent white neighborhood highlights the way in which the demographics of cities are always in flux.
Harlem resident Marcus Garvey represented this new wave of freedom and aspiration. Born in Jamaica, he recalled an “innocent” childhood free of concerns about race. Once he discovered the painful reality of racism, he developed a theory of black nationalism, and in 1914 founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which aimed to give support to black people and found a black nation in Africa. Two years later, Garvey moved the organization to Harlem, and membership boomed. Garvey electrified the public with messages of black pride and power. However, his shipping company, the Black Star Line, which was supposed to help black people get to Africa, soon ran into trouble. In 1922, Garvey was charged with fraud, and deported back to Jamaica.
The question of black nationalism and the possibility of returning to Africa have always been important considerations for the African-American population. Even today, there remain divisions over whether black people will ever be able to flourish while having to deal the enduring racism of white Americans. In the early 20th century, Garvey capitalized on—and helped to stimulate—a feeling of exhilaration about the possibilities of black independence.
Yet Harlem remained a thriving hub of black life and culture. Many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance came from middle-class families. Dismayed by the ongoing lack of “social acceptance” in spite of black uplift and achievement, these were the class of people Alain Locke called the “New Negro,” an “increasingly articulate elite” who lived in urban areas and were proud of their blackness. Langston Hughes insisted that black people were held back by internalized racism and the habit of trying to become like white people. He argued that they must embrace the beauty of their blackness instead. Yet Hughes also wrote about the difficulty of establishing one’s identity as a black American, being neither quite African nor American, but both.
Again, this passage serves as a reminder that racial groups are far from monolithic. Some black people embraced their American identity, some wanted nothing to do with the US, and many found themselves caught somewhere in between. Meanwhile, the class of people Locke describes as the “New Negro” had unpresented intellectual and cultural capital—yet found that they were scarcely more accepted than those who were desperately poor and lacking in education.
While writers like Hughes sought community in Harlem, others, like Jean Toomer, went “searching for his roots” in the rural South. Toomer was fascinated by the black folk culture of the South, which he depicted in his modernist novel Cane. In the novel, Toomer describes the way that the South remains haunted by slavery. Toomer himself was haunted by his biracial heritage, which also left him feeling caught between two worlds. Meanwhile, Zora Neale Hurston was also determined to represent the black culture of the rural South, and particularly Florida, where she was from. Hurston also brought an important focus on the way race and gender operate in conjunction with one another, paying attention to the sexism that existed in the black community.
The wave of writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance played a vital role in documenting the rich diversity of black life in the US during this time. Whereas the mainstream cultural establishment remained deeply racist and dismissive of black people, it is thanks to members of the Harlem Renaissance that readers can gain insight into the complex and vivid reality of black communities during this era.
By the 1920s, Harlem was a “slum.” Things got worse during the Great Depression, which had a severe impact on black people all over the country. Employers prioritized hiring white people, and in 1932, over half of black people in Southern cities were unemployed. Facing desperate poverty and starvation, black people received little help from the New Deal. Disappointed by Roosevelt, many black political leaders began arguing for “voluntary segregation.” They reasoned that becoming economically independent was necessary for black survival. At the same time, however, black people were joining white labor struggles for the first time. Meanwhile, the Democratic party began courting black votes by offering more provisions as part of the New Deal. This appeal worked, and Roosevelt was hailed as the “second ‘Emancipator.’”
In this passage, Takaki describes one of the first times when politicians made an effort to deliberately court black voters, and in doing so actually took steps to improve the circumstances of black communities. Unfortunately, even today, the issue of politicians taking black voters for granted remains an issue. In fact, some would argue that this issue has worsened since earlier periods in the twentieth century.