The Making Of African America: The Four Great Migrations, by Ira Berlin
There are occasions where more is less when it comes to a book and that is definitely the case here. Admittedly, the subject of African-American migrations is not a subject I am personally all that familiar with but there is nothing about the subject that is difficult to understand based on my general interest in migration and immigration studies as a whole. This book could have done a great job with that material and it would have been an easy book to appreciate. Unfortunately, on top of that worthy task the author also thought it was worthwhile to promote Obama and his political career, which made this book explicitly political and therefore less praiseworthy given its political bias. If the book does have interesting things to say about the tensions among blacks as far as who counts as black or as black enough, the author’s self-evident desire to connect herself with contemporary black political movements makes this book impossible to recommend and the author’s rhetoric throughout smacks of excessive whining and an inability to accept personal responsibility, though she does not shrewdly that African immigrants typically succeed because they have better work ethic and fewer mistaken assumptions about imaginary structural racism, so this book clearly has some things going for it, if only accidentally.
This book is about 240 pages or so long and it is divided into five generally large chapters. The book begins with a prologue and then an introductory chapter that discusses the author’s interest in the themes of movement and place in the African American past (1). After that the author discusses the trauma of the Transatlantic passage and what that meant to the hundreds of thousands of blacks (among ten million or so) who were shipped to the Atlantic coast of the United States (2). This is followed by a look at the internal slave trade from areas where declining soil productivity led to the desire to ship out the most productive workers to new land in the South and West (3) that had been opened up to plantation agriculture. After that the author talks about the passage to the North in the so-called “Great Migration” in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that brought rural Southern blacks into urban areas, especially in the North and West (4). Finally, the author talks about the global passages that have brought blacks from other countries into the United States and sought to redefine again what it meant to be black (5), after which the book ends with an epilogue about Obama, acknowledgements, notes, and an index.
What one gains from this book, when one strips away the excessive nature of the author’s anti-white rhetoric and her whiny identity politics, which is unfortunately all too heavy in this sort of work, is an understanding of the complexities of how black people see themselves as being shaped by various experiences of migration that combine a look at place and movement and the interaction between the two that led first to blacks being sold by their neighbors in Africa to whites across the Middle Passage, then shipped from failing plantations on the Atlantic seaboard to newer plantations in the Deep South, then voluntarily moved from rural poverty to urban poverty, and then often moved from the Caribbean and Africa to America in search of better opportunity, all the while wrestling with the question of what it means to be black, and how are blacks to be seen by white Americans, regardless of their personal histories. The author and I obviously are in very different positions as to how these questions are to be judged, but all the same it is certainly interesting to ponder how it is that identity is shaped by migration and how having a sense of place does not always mean wanting to be rooted to it without the ability to leave uncomfortable and unpleasant memories behind.