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. Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, and Medgar Evers are among the many blacks who recognized claiming the South as Home was also a call to action. When thousands of blacks fled the South after Reconstruction, Douglass maintained that migration conceded equality could not be won in the South; blacks should stay instead and demand equality. Du Bois’s 1946 speech “Behold the Land” urged black youth to forego greater opportunity in the North and “make up your minds to fight it out right here if it takes everyday of your lives and the lives of your children’s children.”
In a 1958 interview in Ebony, Evers revealed how his sense of the South as Home fueled his civil rights activism, saying of Mississippi, “This is home.” He continued, “Mississippi is part of the United States. And whether whites like it or not, I don’t plan to live here as a parasite. The things that I don’t like I will try to change,” later elaborating, “It may sound funny, but I love the South.” His love for the South combined with his choice to stay and demand equality cost Medgar Evers his life.
Claiming the South as Home was and still is a call to action and for reparations, but it is also an expression of black southern identity. Here I am reminded of the many black artists and thinkers who have considered the importance of black southern identity, such as Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon, which recounts Milkman Dead’s effort to retrace his family’s journey over generations from slavery to freedom, from Virginia to Pennsylvania. In “Southern Girl,” Erykah Badu testifies, “I’m a southern girl, home of burning church . . . home of the finger-wave that lasts all night long . . . countrified, everything I eat is fried.” bell hooks’s Belonging: A Culture of Place elaborates on the importance of black southern identity and self-identification. Responding to those who question whether Kentucky is even southern, she persuasively suggests:
I would tell people that growing up black in Kentucky we experienced our world as southern, as not very different from other southern places, like Alabama and Georgia. It may very well be that the culture of whiteness in Kentucky has characteristics that would not be seen as distinctly southern but certainly the subcultures black folk created and create were formed by an understanding of what it meant to be black people in the South. For all the talk of Kentucky as a border state, the culture of slavery, of racial apartheid had won the day. (22-23)
In both political and artistic expressions, African Americans’ sense of southernness has grown beyond the South. African Americans brought black southern food, language, music, and ways of being with them to the North and West during the Great Migrations, transforming the urban landscape in America. Today African Americans are united by their southern roots, roots that distinguish African American identity from other people of the African Diaspora in the United States. Summer visits, the rise of black family reunions, and the growing interest in genealogy combine with “return” migration to the South to maintain the link between black southern identity, the South, and Home.
Luther Adams is associate professor of history at the University of Washington Tacoma. Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970 is now available in paperback.