Turning History on Its Head
African Americans’ active role in 20th-century migration
The 20th-century history of African-American migration to the urban North is often told as a tale of declension. Leaving the repressive South, blacks soon found that life was little better in Northern cities, where discrimination, bitter poverty and unmitigated segregation continued to inform the African-American experience.
Acts of resistance are often noted in this narrative, and attention is paid to the legal and political gains that African-Americans made in the face of such severe oppression, including 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet the story almost always ends with African Americans falling victim to the city, the field of play for the modern condition. Deindustrialization, white flight and the rise of the black “underclass” all serve to underscore the high price that modernity has exacted on the black community. Within this narrative, African Americans are not portrayed as vital actors. Instead, they appear as acted upon, and they seem to have little say in the fate that has been assigned to them.
Green, in his timely and evocative Selling
the Race: Culture, Community, and Black
Green documents this process most skillfully in his treatment of Chicago-based Ebony magazine. Started in 1945 by publisher John Harold Johnson, Ebony has often been portrayed by critics, such as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, as a crass attempt to mimic white, mainstream publications. To Frazier, Ebony succeeded only in creating a “world of make-believe,” a place where status, celebrity and wealth took precedence over political engagement and social justice. In a provocative counter-reading, Green highlights how, in the process of establishing a philosophy of race celebrity, Ebony “shifted black cultural tastes in a modern direction, away from the idiosyncratic and toward the routine.” Perhaps more importantly, Ebony allowed African Americans to identify with the tenets of modern liberalism, tenets that the magazine wholeheartedly embraced and that included market criteria of action and value, the rule of law, consensual arrangements of social relations and a philosophy of possessive individualism.
Such a reading of this often-derided publication sheds new light on our collective understanding of the civil rights movement. African Americans may have come into the movement already engaged and committed to liberal American values, a reality that may cause us to rethink the origins and impetuses of this historical moment.
final chapter is a detailed examination of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. He