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Turning History on Its Head

African Americans’ active role in 20th-century migration

Apr. 14, 2008
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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.

Adam Green, in his timely and evocative Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955 (University of Chicago Press), turns this history on its head. Paying close attention to African-American culture, Green adroitly illustrates black engagement with the challenges of the modern city during the crucial decade following World War II—a strategy that may cause many to question their assumptions concerning 20th-century American history. By focusing on black musicians, journalists and other leaders, Green successfully shows that the story of postwar black Chicago “is a story of creative and strategic alignments as much as resistance.” By employing institutional, entrepreneurial and market-driven forms of black culture, such African-American cultural producers proved themselves as active participants in the rise of modern urban life.

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.

Green’s final chapter is a detailed examination of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. He was a Chicago native, a 14-year-old African American who was shot in the head in response to a perceived insult of a white woman in Mississippi. It highlights even further the role that Ebony (and its sister publication Jet) may have had in laying the foundation for the civil rights struggle. By running extensive commentary—as well as gruesome photographs of Till’s mangled corpse—Ebony was able to create what Green terms “A Moment of Simultaneity,” a feeling of national fellowship that connected Northern and Southern African Americans for the first time—and convinced them of the necessity to work toward change. These “feelings of collective expanse” that Green reads as “an indelibly modern structure of imagination—politically as well as culturally”—undoubtedly helped set the stage for the historic events that would soon follow.


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