By Charles Lester
With his most recent book, Charles Blow offers an intriguing proposition for Black empowerment–a mass migration of African Americans to the South. He argues that the project of northern and western migration of previous generations has given way to racial prejudice, de facto segregation, failing schools, chronic underemployment, few economic opportunities or Black-owned businesses, heavy-handed police and carceral states, and a lack of truly representative political power. His prescription might at first glance appear novel, but it taps into a long tradition of African American agency. In The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, Blow writes, “as many Black descendants of the Great Migration as possible should return to the South from which their ancestors fled. They should do so with moral and political intentionality. And as many Black people not descendant of American slavery as possible should join in their resettlement.” With increased demographic density in southern states that already enjoy sizeable Black populations, Blow contends that migrants can collectively harness greater political, economic, and social power and dramatically transform American life in the process. Blow is not simply on the stump for migration; he already cast his lot by relocating from New York City to Atlanta.
It is a striking proposal. To dismiss the notion as fanciful or impractical would be short-sighted; it is important to note that similar endeavors were launched in the past to varying degrees of success. Blow is, no doubt, critical of the inheritance of the Great Migration that began roughly a century ago (particularly of the current state of Black power in “destination cities” like New York, Chicago, or Detroit). While it is certainly a fair critique, we would be remiss if we viewed previous efforts as outright failures. Indeed, Blow recognizes the potential of migration, just as so many others who fled Jim Crow for Black metropolises from the 1910s to the 1970s. Consequently, history offers a powerful guide for Blow’s vision. And if the “past is prologue,” as Blow asserts, the implications of migration are already manifest in the political, economic, and cultural landscape of one southern city.
Between 1915 and 1930 well over one million African Americans left the South for the urban North. The net effect of this Great Migration resulted in an explosion of African American political activism, cultural production, and business entrepreneurship concentrated in places like Chicago’s South Side and New York City’s Harlem. New York and Chicago were not alone, however. Black migrants also flocked to industrial cities throughout the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic Region, New England, and even the West Coast.
Migration dramatically altered Black life not only in these immediate locales, but the aftershock registered across the continent and globe. African American businessmen and women catered to the needs of their communities and expanded the bounds of the Black middle class. Madam C.J. Walker became the first self-made female millionaire by creating a line of beauty products for African American women. Jesse Binga built a banking and real estate empire accommodating black customers denied access to credit by white banks. Robert S. Abbott founded the most widely circulated Black newspaper in the country, the Chicago Defender. It is difficult to imagine some of the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s without the efforts of the National Urban League or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, both founded in the wake of the Great Migration. Two of the greatest intellectuals of the period, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, helped to spearhead the formation of the latter organization and were crucial to its success. Would the succinct articulation of Black power, as advocated by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, or Huey P. Newton, have found purchase in the 1960s, were it not for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s? Those who sought refuge in the urban North discovered it was no land of milk and honey; segregation and discrimination were not uniquely southern practices. However, migrants did have access to northern ballot boxes, a marked distinction from the South. The power of the Black vote soon reshaped the political landscape in northern cities. Capitalizing on increased political activism, South Side Chicagoans elected Oscar De Priest the first Black member of Congress from the North and the first sent to Capitol Hill since the collapse of Reconstruction. Every February, in honor of Black History Month, school children across the country are introduced to the writings of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance. No account of the period would be complete without jazz, that uniquely American art form, serving as the score. Among the first Black celebrities in American life were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. To be certain, white Northerners did not welcome migrants with open arms; there were immense barriers to Black success. Nevertheless, African Americans built new communities through sheer determination and collectivism (often despite divisions that sometimes hindered these efforts), and they took advantage of opportunities that simply were not possible in the South at the time. In short, wherever the destination, migrants made their mark–it was entirely transformational and extraordinary.
In terms of African American achievement during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the lion’s share of attention has been directed at the artists and literary figures of what is commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance. Recent scholarship has attempted to shift the conversation beyond 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, preferring the terminology “New Negro movement” or “New Negro Renaissance” to paint a broader picture of Black agency unleashed by the Great Migration. As Davarian L. Baldwin writes in the Introduction to Escape From New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, “It has certainly become axiomatic to state that the New Negro movement exceeded Harlem while finding expression in not only the arts and letters but also the popular cultures of sport, music, film, protest, public behavior, and so on. Yet, there have been few rigorous studies of this social and cultural movement in other physical locations.” While emerging scholarship fills in this gap, what is abundantly clear is migration fundamentally altered Black life in Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, and scores of other destinations. If migration bore fruit in the past, could such a plan be replicated in the future, as Blow envisions? If so, what might a New Black Southern Renaissance look like? Fortunately, we do not have to gaze far into the future for answers. As the activist and Black political leader, Stacey Abrams intones, “Georgia is just the place to be.”
Atlanta is the poster child for a re-imagined South of Black possibility, and the city is currently witnessing a political, entrepreneurial, and cultural flourishing that in every respect rivals the much-publicized Harlem Renaissance of a century ago. Once again, migration is a critical conduit to the vibrancy of “Hotlanta.” Atlanta is not alone in that regard; tens of thousands of African Americans have begun relocating to the South in recent decades, primarily from cities that were once prime destinations during the Great Migration. In what has been dubbed a “Great Migration in Reverse,” Black tech entrepreneurs have relocated from Silicon Valley to the “new Mecca” of Atlanta. Blow notes that the “top three metropolitan areas for Black-owned companies were Memphis, Montgomery, and Atlanta.” Just as Madam C.J. Walker used culture as a means of building her economic empire, Tyler Perry’s business interests are now housed under the Tyler Perry Studios mantle on the former site of Atlanta’s Fort McPherson army base. While Black businesses appear to fare better in Atlanta, the economic rewards have not been enjoyed equally by all its citizens (which was also the case a century ago in the urban North). Neighborhoods that long suffered from endemic poverty and underinvestment have not seen their fortunes lifted accordingly by the influx of big business, Black or otherwise. As Maurice J. Hobson explains, “The black nouveau riche, steeped in Atlanta’s black popular culture, shook the foundations of the existing elite; yet also became, in its own way, resistant to those who aspired to join.” Despite its reputation, stemming from the desegregation campaign of the 1960s, as “The City Too Busy to Hate,” Atlanta remains, “the second-most segregated city in the nation in terms of black-white housing patterns.” Notwithstanding these shortcomings, there are distinct possibilities in Atlanta for Black economic success that other cities look to replicate.
Just as jazz served as the soundtrack of previous migration, hip-hop is the reigning champion of the Atlanta scene. From the 1990s when “Dirty South” artists like OutKast, Ludacris, and Goodie Mob were derided and viewed with suspicion by East Coast and West Coast rappers, to the explosion in popularity of these very same artists in the 2000s, Atlanta has staked its claim as a hip-hop capital. It is not simply performing artists who are molding the “New Atlanta Renaissance.” Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, serves on the board of the High Museum of Art. He has used his position to advocate for the greater inclusion of Black artwork in the museum and in public mural projects. In addition, the relatively high number of African American artists and Black-run galleries has created an environment “where artists have the freedom to be unapologetically black.”
While the New Negro Renaissance birthed increased African American activism in the North, Atlanta has a decades-long history of Black political leadership in the South. From Maynard Jackson Jr.’s successful bid to serve as the first Black mayor of a sizeable Southern city in 1973, to Keisha Lance Bottoms’s current term, Atlanta’s governance is reflective of a majority Black city. The venerable activist and statesman, John Lewis, served the 5th district of Atlanta in Congress until his passing last year. Perhaps the most telling example of the community’s clout can be measured by its newfound role as political kingmaker on the national stage. Not only did Black activists, led by Stacey Abrams’ “New Georgia Project,” help deliver the White House to Joe Biden, they also proved invaluable in wresting the Majority Leader’s gavel from Mitch McConnell’s hands, following the twin Senate run-off victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Democrats are more than hopeful that this recent flexing of political might is a harbinger of things to come.
None of this is to suggest that there are not real obstacles moving forward or distinct divisions within the African American community–far from it. But it does give us a glimpse of the promise of migration. Black Atlanta’s day in the sun has arrived. It might be some time before dusk falls.
In the aftermath of the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, unrest swept across Atlanta. Mayor Lance Bottoms implored rappers T.I. and Killer Mike to speak to protestors in a televised statement, urging calm. Killer Mike passionately addressed the tense situation, “I have nothing positive to say in this moment, but I am responsible to be here because it wasn’t just Dr. King and people who dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities…I am duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house, so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.” He explained his thinking days later to Stephen Colbert: “Atlanta for the last fifty years…has managed to be a city that grows. We have Black leadership, a majority of Black citizens here…Now it’s not perfect…I just wanted to save the city, and not like everything is right. But just in a way that I didn’t want us to destroy or lose hope and destroy what we have, because hope exists here.” Killer Mike underscores the decades of African American activism that built political, entrepreneurial, and cultural equity, and, in the process, made Atlanta into a site of Black possibility. Despite many standing challenges and those ahead, it remains a place “where hope exists.”
If Blow’s vision is to come to pass, it will take more than hope. It will take the same grit and determination on display in Atlanta. Its citizens have sketched the roadmap for a New Black Southern Renaissance, and if past is prologue, one day school children might learn about the artists, activists, and intellectuals who made it possible. Historians are fond of the aphorism, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In Atlanta, history may very well rhyme, but it undoubtedly rhymes to the beat.
Charles Lester is a faculty member in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University. His scholarship examines the political activism of jazz musicians during the Great Migration and New Negro Renaissance. He is currently working with Temple University Press’s Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series on the project. He also created the companion website, jazzrenaissance.org. This digital humanities project contains a curated playlist featuring musicians that appear in the book, in addition to historic photographs and brief artist bios.
Featured image (at top): Dusk shot of the skyline of Atlanta, Georgia, Carol M. Highsmith, 2017, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.