Reverse Migration

by Chris Jackson

There's an interesting piece in today's Wall Street Journal referencing some new data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey about the reverse migration of black folks to Dixie.  Metropolitan Atlanta, for instance, added an astonishing 500,000 black people from 2000 to 2009; my home metro area of New York, meanwhile, lost 55,000 black residents.  Part of this story falls under the category of "black folks do the same stuff that other folks do, and often for the same reasons": the movement of black people into the South mirrors the larger population shift away from the economically declining (and, let's face it, cold) industrial north to the Sun Belt that's been going on for a generation.  But the piece also raised some interesting questions for me about why we choose to live the places we do. 


I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the American South.  I grew up as the grandchild of Great Migrationers: my grandfather on my mother's side hailed from St. Augustine, Florida (famous as one of the most intransigently segregationist cities in America); my grandmother's clan occupied Weldon, North Carolina, a small town just off I-95, which was convenient for escapees.  When I was a kid, my mother would drive us down from Harlem to Weldon to visit my great-grandmother and the great-aunts and great-uncles who stayed behind while the migration flowed north all around them.  I was a generation removed from Weldon (and St. Augustine, which we never visited for mysterious reasons) but wasn't raised as a Southerner in exile--quite the opposite. I can admit this now, after denying it in the face of my Southern cousins's taunts and beatings but, yes, yes, it's true what they suspected and accused us of: we city kids thought we were better than our bama-assed cousins in the South. Unquestionably. I was from Grant Projects in Harlem and the trip to our 17th floor apartment involved an excruciating breath-holding exercise on pissy elevators (on the rare occasions when we didn't have to walk up dark, pissy stairwells), but I was nevertheless proud of our access to the technology of the electrical elevator.  Meanwhile, I knew Southerners who'd never been on an escalator. I'd read the Three Pigs: brick housing projects, pissy and dark as they were, would survive any threat (alas); I wasn't so sure about those wooden shacks dotted out in the wolf-haunted woods of North Carolina.  

So I had a skinny Northern kid's prejudice against the South from a young age, radically exacerbated during the era of the Jheri curl, where the North-South cousin divide became tactile and fragrant.  My Southern cousins--who, through marriage, now included actual residents of Alabama--loved not just Prince, who we all loved, but also, improbably, Jesse Johnson. They laughed at me (and then the punches and wrestling moves, always with the wrestling moves) when I played them Run DMC.  We're in the '80s now, but outhouses were not out of the question.  So I was pretty clear on the superiority of the North. But all around us, people were moving South. The demographic shift back to the south noted in the Wall Street Journal piece actually began in the early '70s, almost coincident with the last trickling waves of the Great Migration.

By the '80s, Atlanta had become a whispered about Shangri-La among any of my parents' friends who had any sort of professional skills.  I knew scores of kids my age who were sent South to get them away from New York's violence and drug gangs (which: ha!).  The other motivator was nostalgia: A favorite of mine among my parents's friends played country music in his minivan, ate hogshead cheese right out of the wrapper, and still talked like a black Roscoe P. Coltrane, even after decades in New York.  He hectored me for my clean fingernails and fancy tastes (e.g. I didn't like hogshead cheese, just on the gp that the name seemed to go out of its way to be disgusting).  He died before he could move back to South Carolina.  But it was that sense of nostalgia--the idea that we'd left behind our homeland to come to this cold, decaying, unfriendly place -- that eventually started to get to me.  

Several years ago I started to dream of moving South. It was one of those cold Decembers in New York, and the company I worked for was planning large layoffs, and I had strep throat, and was living on a block in Washington Heights that led the country in heroin sales. One night I looked out the window at a man running down the street and wondered who he was running from. Then I looked at the building across the street and saw a gun poking out of one of the windows, shooting wildly. The appeal of the electrical elevator was starting to fade. As I ducked for cover in my apartment, I started thinking about what I would do if I was laid off. And the answer was suddenly clear: I'd move to Mississippi.   

I'll explain this bizarre leap in logic in another post (yes, Mississippi, where no one ever points a gun in anger), which will round all of this back to my go-to subject, books (since this post is getting long and we're all at work, including your humble correspondent). But when the North started feeling hostile, for completely personal reasons, my surprising inclination was to go back to the place (broadly speaking) that had buried my ancestors (broadly speaking)-- but also a place that they'd transformed through heroic struggle and perseverance. The place that some people of my parents's generation died wanting to return to, like any immigrant dreaming of the old country. In other words, I wanted to go not in spite of history, but because of it.  Melissa Harris-Perry is quoted in the Journal article as saying that she moved to New Orleans (from Princeton) in part to give her child the "robust black cultural experiences" that she couldn't find, surprisingly, in Princeton, New Jersey.  

But then the article ends with this note: "Blacks in particular have sought out the South, due, in part, to fading memories of 1960s race clashes." Is this extremely-difficult-to-quantify assertion true?  Are our memories of 1960s race clashes really fading? And should they? And wouldn't memories of 1960s race clashes--which, you could argue, black people (and all people of good will) won--be a great reason to come back? My theory? What's really fading is memories of the great Jheri curl clashes of the 1980s (and the South's role in the regrettable rise of non-Prince Minneapolis funk).   
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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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