Moving On, But Not to Utopia
Reviewed by John R. Salter Jr.
Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 26-27
Farewell–We’re Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration by Carole Marks. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1989. 209 pp., photographs, charts and graphs, notes, bibliography. $37.50 cloth/$12.95 paper).
Well over a century ago, sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies gloomily predicted the demise of essentially rural folk societies in the context of burgeoning urban industrialism. He was certainly partly right though not completely: many tribes and rural communities survive globally. In this important work, sociologist Carole Marks examines in considerable detail the background, flow, and all-around impact of Southern black rural and small town migration into the urban North, primarily during the 1910-1930 era. Sketching the historical and theoretical framework of migration in the broad sense and skillfully analyzing the makeup of the South and the North–with an intricate discussion of feudalism, racism, and capitalism–Marks carries hundreds of thousands of blacks northward from blood-dimmed poverty into something considerably less than utopian. Mostly uneducated and unskilled (not completely), they survived in various ways: grubbing an economic handhold and sometimes a footing; building, inch by inch, a political base. Unable, because of racism, really to assimilate. Culturally American, they were forced into interaction with an oft-cruel and hostile “mainstream”; and, as they became even peripherally urbanized, unable to return South comfortably, their survival takes on the miraculous qualities exhibited by other groups in the Great Shift: e.g., American Indians, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and in some ways Appalachian whites.
Most of the blacks survived in the North (and most did in the South)–as have the “others”–and heavy has been the black impact in the Yankee cities: now frequently a predominant force and a beneficial one in American social consciousness.
Farewell is a welcome blend of a well-organized academic approach with clean, clear, and lucid writing. Although tagged a “neo-Marxist” work in its accompanying brochure, Marks has delineated a variety of forces which produced (and produces) substantial human shifts from “home” to somewhere else. “Labor migrations are not simply movements of individuals selling their labor,” she writes. “Migrants do not move, even for only part of a season, merely for higher wages. Conditions in sending areas must be in a sufficient state of flux to create uncertainty, intense competition, and eventual displacement.”
With academic expertise and sensitivity to the people
involved (with many illustrative vignettes sprinkled judiciously throughout), Marks gives us a first-rate study.
John Salter, Jr., chairman of the department of Indian studies at the University of North Dakota, is the author of Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism.