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Leaving the South:
Transcript of Leaving the South:
Our third novel is Richard Wright’s Native Son, published in 1940 and set in the 1930s of the south side of Chicago. Native Son represents the broken promises of the Great Migration through the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man trapped in the squalor of poverty and racism.
Our first two novels were both published in the 1940s but take place during the early part of the first wave of the Great Migration, roughly the world war one era. William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge (1941) follows three sharecropping brothers who leave the south for the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy (1948) follows the main character from her southern home to the black bourgeois neighborhoods of Boston. These two novels complement and contrast, offering perspectives on male and female experiences of migration.
Leaving the South:
The Great Migration (1910-1930) in
Our final readings are dramatic works—August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The Piano Lesson was published and performed on stage in 1990. Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize with the play, which is set in Pittsburg in 1936. The story revolves around a brother who stayed in the south, a sister who moved to the north, and their fight over the family heirloom piano. The play was inspired by a Romare Bearden painting of the same name.
A Raisin in the Sun was published in 1959 and is set in the 1950s on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The family drama takes place in the Younger family’s apartment in south side Chicago. Lena Younger had migrated to the north with her husband in search of a better life, a better place to raise their children. Her children are now grown but still constricted by the poverty and defacto segregation of the north.
Push of the South
In order to codify and maintain white supremacy, southern states enacted Jim Crow laws after the Civil War. The laws established segregated schools, public facilities, restaurants, housing, and transportation. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws in Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) by invoking a "separate but equal" doctrine.
Push of the South
In addition to the discriminatory treatment, African Americans were also disenfranchised through violence and intimidation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of all African Americans lived in the South, and 80% of them lived in rural areas. By 1960, more than 6 million African Americans had moved out of the South to cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. The first great wave of the migration took place from 1910-1930 while a second wave took place from 1940-1970.
Pull of the North
The Great War in Europe (1914-1991) created an industrial boom in northern cities. European immigration (which had previously provided industrial labor) declined while the demand for war goods increased. When the United States joined the war in 1917, many young men left their factory jobs for the military. These forces combined to create an economic pull that brought African Americans from the south into northern cities such as Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago, and New York.
Pull of the North
Economic opportunity and greater social and political freedoms combined to create an image of the North as The Promised Land.
The Great Migration changed demographics across the United States. It was an event that had tremendous cultural resonance for African American writers and artists, and the literary and artistic response began almost immediately. Harlem Renaissance writer, Rudolph Fisher, published "City of Refuge" in 1925 telling the story of a newly arrived southern migrant to the black mecca of Harlem.
Jacob Lawrence documented the Great Migration through a series of paintings showing the migrants leaving the south...
traveling by train
and arriving in the north
The Promised Land
“The lazy laughing South with blood on its mouth, and I who am black would love her. But she spits in my face. So now I seek the North, the cold face of the North. She, they say, is a kinder mistress.”
The Promised Land aired on the Discovery Channel in February 1995 as part of its Black History Month programming. It includes numerous interviews with people who were part of the millions of African Americans who moved North, many of them leaving the cotton fields of Mississippi for a land of milk and honey known as Chicago. These first person accounts of life as sharecroppers reveal the motivations for entire families to leave as well as individuals.
The series is narrated by Morgan Freeman. The soundtrack is filled with the blues music and the title sequences are accompanied by animated versions of the artwork of Jacob Lawrence, who did an entire series of paintings documenting the migration.