Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Moving Movements

Ira Berlin offers a masterful distillation of black history with The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Ira Berlin is a national treasure. Scholars of American history are indebted  to him for his pivotal editorial role in the vast collective project Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, a multi-volume treasure-trove of primary source materials that capture the African American experience from slavery through freedom, which appeared through the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade, Berlin has moved from the hard and important work of excavating and arranging these sources to contextualizing and explaining them in a series of books that greatly enhance our understanding of the black experience in the United States from the colonial era to the present. To say that this is a story he could tell in his sleep is to make a statement not about his prose -- which is notable for its clarity -- but rather the depth of his saturation in American history and his ability to convey information with seeming effortlessness.

Berlin's latest book, The Making of African America, manages to distill this vast story from an intriguing angle. He makes the arresting assertion that black history can be seen as a set of four migrations. The first, and best-known, is the so-called "Middle Passage," the brutal experience of enslavement and transportation across the Atlantic Ocean. The numbers involved grew over the course of the seventeenth century and ebbed by the end of the eighteenth. The second great migration was the movement of slaves from the Atlantic seaboard to the nation's interior in the first half of the nineteenth century, where they were used to build the great cotton kingdoms of the plantation South. The third -- long actually called "The Great Migration" -- was the movement of emancipated slaves from the Southern countryside to Northern (and Southern) cities in the first half of the twentieth century. The final migration, now currently underway, is that of the peoples of African descent (including Latin America) into the United States, finally weaving black people into the fabric of traditional immigration history. This is the most novel chapter of the book, and brings this epic tale up to date.

Throughout the book, Berlin demonstrates a supple ability to make large generalizations while texturing them with counter-currents. He is attuned, for example, to the dialectical way an emphasis on movement alternates with a sense of place, a tension captured in Black Atlantic scholar Paul Gilroy's phrase "routes and roots." He notes the way black people had their identities imposed on them -- they only became "African," a designation without much meaning for tribal peoples until they arrived on American shores -- as well as the ways they resisted and reinvented themselves every step of the way. He also notes that even words like "black" and "African American" have become newly fraught, reflecting tensions between native and immigrant -- tensions comparable to those that also occurred in earlier migrations. Berlin is able to illustrate many of his examples with recourse to the great African-American musical tradition that courses from shouts to hip-hop, reflecting simultaneous continuity and change. He ends the book with a discussion of Barack Obama, who embodies many of the themes of traditional African American history as well as the more recent black immigrant experience.

An easy read that's notable for its brevity (240 pages), The Making of African America is a powerful teaching tool. That's because it's so neatly segmented, as well as so broad in its narrative trajectory. There's something wonderfully skillful about this book; it represents the finest aspects of the contemporary historical enterprise, and is likely to be a durable resource for some time to come.