We welcome a guest post today from Luther Adams, author of Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. In the wake of World War II, when roughly half the black population left the South seeking greater opportunity and freedom in the North and West, the same desire often anchored African Americans to the South. Adams offers a powerful reinterpretation of the modern civil rights movement and of the transformations in black urban life within the contexts of migration, work, and urban renewal. While acknowledging the destructive downside of emerging post-industrialism for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Adams concludes that persistent patterns of economic and racial inequality did not rob black people of their capacity to act in their own interests.
In the following post, Adams considers how African Americans have claimed the South as Home—on their own terms.
As I sat down to write about Louisville, Kentucky, I thought of Tennessee. Not the place, but the song. In 1992 Arrested Development recorded “Tennessee,” a prayer to the Lord for guidance. God said, “go back from whence you came.” Tennessee. Home.
Arrested Development’s song meditates on the power of returning to the place from “whence you came.” As home the South is a site of oppression and the place where African American people and culture was born. Through repetition “Tennessee” insists the South is home and that being rooted in history and the earth where your ancestors lived, worked, and died can heal black people suffering from life in urban ghettos. For African Americans, defining the South as home demands an acknowledgement of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial violence. It demands the value of black lives and families be recognized. Go home, the MC Speech implores, to “walk the roads my forefathers walked/ climb the trees where my forefathers hung from.” Home, the place of “my family tree, my family name.”
In “Tennessee,” Arrested Development left us a jam that added to a rich body of black political thought conceptualizing and acknowledging the South as Home. More than a hundred years before, in 1864, a black church leader from Port Royal, South Carolina, crystallized African Americans’ connection to the South, saying, “[T]his very land is rich with the sweat of we face and the blood of we back. We born here, we parents’ grave here; this here our home.” The phrasing “we face,” “we back,” “we born,” and “our home,” expresses a collective basis of identification among African Americans in Port Royal. Well aware of the wealth generated by their labor and blood, African Americans looked to the past, their shared experiences in slavery, and understanding of themselves as a people to shape their sense of the Home.
Similarly, in her incisive Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis points to the role of collective memory in African Americans’ view of the South as Home. The South was not only a place of oppression but for Davis, “Home is evocatively and metaphorically represented as the South, conceptualized as the territorial location of historical sites of resistance to white supremacy.”
Home is not just about the past but also the present and future. Continue reading ‘Luther Adams: Claiming the South as Home: African Americans and Southern Identity’ »