The Harlem Renaissance Was Not A Socio-Economic Movement

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Great line from Syreeta McFadden:

I think my biggest problem with 'gentrification' is that it's not always bad. While many people bemoan the loss of black Harlem, I'm not sure what they think they lost. Harlem was never really a solid homeownership neighborhood, as much as say, Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Harlem or the 'idea' of Harlem as a bustling middle class community is fiction. There are certainly pockets: Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill, Strivers Row, Mount Morris, little enclaves of a middle class, holding on to property while harsher social and economic realities enveloped them. I heard all these stories.  Yet there were other blocks not lined with row houses, but with overcrowded tenements. And other buildings left in disrepair. I don't mean to belittle the historical and cultural significance of Harlem to African-Americans, it was a haven to many as they sought opportunities in the north, the only neighborhood they had heard of when word traveled south that there were jobs in New York City, and black owned businesses that didn't live in fear. However, the Harlem Renaissance was not a socio-economic movement, but a discreet collection of artists who lived in Harlem. We are grateful for their legacy, but they all were not homeowners...

This isn't to say there aren't some valid critiques regarding the policies that come into play when building or rebuilding communities. We're talking about a fifteen to twenty year cycle that brought about changes to a community living in semi-permanent disrepair. Yet if the native population left during a downturn for the sake of securing a higher quality of life, and those who stayed asked for investment to bring people back, who is displacing whom?

Exactly. Either you want a ghetto, or you don't.

Somewhat related, you've probably noticed a certain level of venom from me on these issues. It's there in my post on the Times' Harlem piece, and it's there in my discussion of that White Cities article from awhile back. Truthfully, I'd like it if I could moderate my response. But something about this kind of writing--the sort that treats African-Americans as a number to be plugged into a formula--just sets me off.

It's not merely being treated as an equation, it's the notion that African-Americans are a group who do not act, but are only acted upon. So the fact that there aren't many blacks in Seattle and Portland, must say something pernicious about Seattle and Portland, not something about about wanting be closer to Moms down in Alabama. The fact that Harlem is becoming an increasingly diverse must represent some kind of "loss" for African-Americans, not the desire to have a house with a lawn. The fact that same-sex marriage is on the move, means that black men will somehow find more excuses not to marry.  It's sociology as pornography. It pictures black America as a kind of machine programmed only to move when prompted by A.) racism B.) cultural pathology.

 

One of the best pieces of research I've seen on black demography came out back in 2004, and looked at the Reversal Great Migration. This a deeply complicated phenomenon involving millions of African-Americans leaving the Northern cities and heading back (in many cases) to the land of their ancestors. Is the expense of living in a city like New York part of the migration? Probably. But so what? White people have to make that same calculus all the time.

At any rate the report reached some really interesting conclusions:

  • The South scored net gains of black migrants from all three of the other regions of the U.S. during the late 1990s, reversing a 35-year trend. Of the 10 states that suffered the greatest net loss of blacks between 1965 and 1970, five ranked among the top 10 states for attracting blacks between 1995 and 2000.
  • Southern metropolitan areas, particularly Atlanta, led the way in attracting black migrants in the late 1990s. In contrast, the major metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco experienced the greatest out-migration of blacks during the same period.
  • Among migrants from the Northeast, Midwest, and West regions, blacks were more likely than whites to select destinations in the South. Atlanta and Washington, D.C. were the top destinations for black migrants from all three regions; white migrants moved to a broader set of areas including Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.
  • College-educated individuals lead the new migration into the South. The "brain gain" states of Georgia, Texas, and Maryland attracted the most black college graduates from 1995 to 2000, while New York suffered the largest net loss.

  • After several decades as a major black migrant "magnet," California lost more black migrants than it gained during the late 1990s. Southern states, along with western "spillover" states like Arizona and Nevada, received the largest numbers of black out-migrants from California.

This is fascinating stuff, but it's much more complicated than your standard "Oh how the Negroes are suffering" narrative. It also plays in to much of the handwringing we've seen over gentrification in the cities.

Look, I grew up in a city until I was 15, at which point my Dad moved us out to Woodlawn. I was upset, fearing some loss of my essential "street essence." But my Dad said, "Son, I've never had a big lawn in all my life." Our house in the county meant something to him. And I know a lot of other black people who came up in the cities who feel the same way.

Personally, I love Lennox Ave and don't much like the quiet of the county. But my brother loves Columbia. And my cousins love the suburbs of Atlanta. And that's part of the story too. And it's their right. It's the whole point of this thing. We decided, as a country, that black people would be Americans. It's past time that we start talking that way. It isn't tragic. This is what we wanted.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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