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black migration is an underserved liberation narrative

March 8, 2019
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Black American history is framed and taught through the lens of involuntary migration that shaped their historical relationship with the United States. The laser focus on the involuntary form of migration experienced by Black Americans has left a gap in their migratory legacy through the US — a fact that has scholars now focusing on the 13 major migrations shaped Black America’s settling patterns, according to USA Today. The Great Migration of the 20th century was sparked when “Blacks who realized that Southern whites viewed them as basically units of labor … insisted that Negroes would have to leave the South,” according to historian Nell Irvin Painter in her 1976 book, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – a division of the New York Public Library – has studied the 13 migrations, the lesser-known of which include the Haitian immigration to the US (late 1700s and early 1800s); free Black Americans migration to the North (1840s); immigration from Africa and the Caribbean (1970 – present). While the involuntary migrations were driven by the dehumanization of Black people into forms of property and labor, voluntary migration depicted the collective effort to distance the African diaspora from that imposed narrative, in hopes of building the kind of agency and prosperity that was never possible, at that scale, during the Atlantic Slave Trade.

A group of seven hundred West Indian immigrants waiting in the Customs Hall at Southampton Docks after disembarkation, 27th May 1956. Original publication: Picture Post – 8405 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – pub. 1956. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Agency is often left out the Black narrative, especially when revisionist Black History comprises mainly of what was done to Black people by colonizers and slave owners. The lack of autonomy in these narratives serves the agenda of white paternalism that is steeped in racism. Autonomous movement is synonymous with freedom, human evolution and prosperity since the dawn of man and in the case of slavery, “The transatlantic slave trade laid the foundation for modern capitalism, generating immense wealth for business enterprises in America and Europe,” according to an exhibition on Black migration at the Schomburg. The immense wealth directly fed into the further destruction of the African continent as colonizers sought to subjugate Africans on the continent as a means of pillaging its abundant resources.

“A lot of people think about Africa as a country, (but) it’s a continent with diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The population that was enslaved was drawn from all of these,” said Howard Dodson, the director emeritus of the Schomburg. “In the context of the slave experience, they transform into a new people, creating new languages, new religions, new forms of cultural expression.” The diminution of the Black diaspora into a monolith is a considerable aspect of Black dehumanization. Even as we begin to unearth the erased and forgotten histories of the continent as well as embracing the new “forms of cultural expression,” we understand that there is more to us than what was imposed on us.

27th May 1956: Immigrants to Britain from the West Indies arrive at Southampton station, watched by a policeman. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8405 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images)

Any semblance of freedom promised to Black people after out sustained subjugation has resulted in broken promises that speak to a system that actively prevents Black people from standing at our full height. When land was promised to freed slaves, President Andrew Johnson — Lincoln’s predecessor — went back on his word and returned the land to plantation owners in 1865. When African countries were promised independence from colonizing powers, those same colonizers imposed taxes for the benefits of colonization.

It is this reality that has prompted Black people to move towards the West and within it, searching to self-actualize the empty promises meant to be a balm to our continued oppression. Movement is freedom and our oppressors understood that when they restricted the movement of Black people in Africa and the USA. Our power lies in never staying still even when the world seeks to block us at every turn — that is the real story of Black migration.