L. Adam Mekler
October 19, 2007
Two Views on the Great Migration
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of African Americans in the northern urban centers grew dramatically. The causes of this phenomenon are usually identified as including the desire to escape the harsh racist conditions of the south and the perceived abundance of employment opportunities in the northern cities. Understandably, many writers during the early twentieth centuries found themselves compelled to discuss the changing nature of life for the African Americans who headed northward. Two such authors, Alain Locke and Richard Wright, discuss this subject in their respective essays, “The New Negro” and “12 Million Black Voices.” Although both Locke and Wright recognize the positive potential of the move north, Locke’s essay provides a much more optimistic view of the possibility of fulfilling that potential.
Indeed, in his essay, Locke provides a very positive outlook on life in the north. He says, “The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle the several generations of experience at a leap, but more important, the same thing happens spiritually in the life-attitudes and self-expression of the Young Negro, in his poetry, his art, his education, and his new outlook” (162). In Locke’s mind, the move north allows African Americans to develop in a great number of ways, all of which contribute to a sense of optimism.
At the same time, Locke doesn’t naively believe that all the problems that confront African Americans are disappearing. “The tide of Negro migration,” he asserts, “is not to be fully explained as a blind flood” (163). The migrants recognize that life is not going to become ideal once they leave the south. “This is indeed a critical stage of race relationships,” Locke explains, “because of the likelihood, if the new temper is not understood, of engendering sharp group antagonism and a second crop of more calculated prejudice” (166). The New Negro, Locke suggests, has a newly developed sense of his own value as an individual, and realizes that the larger society may need to be convinced of that value.
It is this recognition of the problems that still confront the African American that connects Locke’s essay with Richard Wright’s. In fact, Wright reveals that, despite the optimism felt by so many northern migrants, “we have never been allowed to become an organic part of this civilization; we have yet to share its ultimate hopes and expectations” (109). Writing only fifteen years after Locke’s essay first appeared, Wright acknowledges the truth behind the fears Locke reveals in that text. In fact, Wright takes that acknowledgement further when he suggests, “Perhaps never in the history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city” (106). After enduring centuries of oppressive conditions in the south, rural African Americans did not have the strong sense of self that would allow them to survive the equally harsh—though different—conditions to be found in the northern cities. “And how were we to know,” Wright asks, “that, the moment we landless millions of the land . . . set our awkward feet upon the pavements of the city, life would begin to exact of us a heavy toll in death?” (107). Gone are the tightly-bound communities of the rural areas, replaced by a cold, industrial world where people labor all day in factories and return to their communities broken and worn.
Another area where the two essays coincide is in there portrayal of the importance of the arts to the urban African American community. Wright recalls: “On the plantations, our songs carried a strain of other-worldly yearning which people called ‘spiritual’; but now our blues, jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie are our ‘spirituals’ of the city pavements, our longing for freedom and opportunity, an expression of our bewilderment and despair in a world whose meaning eludes us” (110). These forms of musical expression allow African Americans to give voice to their frustrations, allowing them to articulate the confusion that arises from the life they have encountered. In Locke’s few, the arts can be significant in another way: as a vehicle for the improved understanding of African Americans by members of other groups. “In the intellectual realm,” Locke explains, “a renewed and keen curiosity is replacing the recent apathy; the Negro is being carefully studied, not just talked about and discussed. In art and letters, instead of being wholly caricatured, he is being seriously portrayed and painted” (166). Thus, although the conception of the African American as an object for study may appear to be degrading on some levels, the point is that he is being taken more seriously, examined for who he is, not simply what he represents in the minds of a racist population.
In the end, both Locke and Wright acknowledge that work remains to be done in the African American community. Locke’s views, though, is that the work can be done, while Wright suggests that maybe it can’t.