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Reflecting on “The Great Migration” and Making Home

By 651 ARTS on March 22, 2017

In March 2015, for the first time in 20 years, MoMA exhibited all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration. The exhibit recounted the long journey of Southern blacks to the industrial Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, who might have sought a promised land, a better life from the violent Jim Crow south. Their journey, in the early 20th Century, changed the American landscape; the fusion of Southern folkways with the packed density of the urban North created some of the most dynamic literary and artistic moments—the roots of Jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and so on—in our country’s history.

At the opening of the exhibit, art-critic and former 651 staff member Jessica Lynne sat down with writer DéLana R.A. Dameron—Southern sisters who made their own One-way journey north—and thought about the ways in which they bring their whole selves into a new environment. They reflected on the ways in which they try to make a home, creatively, wherever they are. For them, it was New York City (Harlem, Brooklyn) that changed their own artistic practice and ways of seeing the world, while highlighting the Southern blood and roots ever-present and running through their veins.

Below is an excerpt from their conversation. You can read the full conversation here.

Jessica Lynne (JL): I still smile when I think about the reactions of my family members when I told them I was going to NYU. School: my ticket north. I remember family friends asking my parents where I got that idea from, the idea to go away to college in New York. My parents would laugh and shrug some response because it really didn’t matter from where the idea originated. All of this commotion and fuss and I was the great niece of a woman who had spent her entire adult life in Brooklyn. Right in your hood, Bed-Stuy. I wasn’t close to Aunt Mildred (she died before I moved to the borough) but she did occupy this place of grandeur in my mind. This tall, no-nonsense Black woman from South Boston, Virginia—herself a Great Migrant—who had made the sojourn in the late 1950’s. It is Aunt Mildred I think about whenever I look at Lawrence’s panel No. 60 - “And the migrants kept coming.”

I was going to NYU but really, I was coming to Brooklyn. Flatbush Ave. Fort Greene Park. The 2 train. Coney Island. Authurine’s Kitchen (now closed but at one time the best place to get jerk chicken in Crown Heights). The brownstones. After almost 8 years, I am certain that I would not be the woman I am without Brooklyn. I wonder, is this how Aunt Mildred felt? I regret that I was unable to ask her for her migrant story before she passed, before I knew that I would yearn for it, before I started to think of my own journey across state lines.

My first summer in the borough was full of late night block parties, bad spoken word poetry, silly crushes and too many missed bus transfers. I loved every minute of it. Brooklyn is a magical place. This is a truth that I still proclaim. At some point,  even my friends who were Brooklyn natives forgot I was not from Brooklyn and would introduce me as a Brooklynite. I would blush at this mistake that was also supposed to be a compliment but after a while, these small mishaps, the “I always forget you’re from the South,” began to keep me up at night. This next statement might be dramatic but I felt as though I hadn’t centered my Black Southerness enough in my early New York years. I pushed it away. Now, I have forced myself (encouraged is probably an equally good word to use) to re-center some things. To re-center on my Black Southern Womaness in new ways. The more Brooklyn changes, the more I am running back to the intersection of those points.

I stare at Lawrence’s panels and I wonder how or even if those many great migrants kept a Southern center as they fled Jim Crow. What did it mean to let that center go? What was the story told when letters were sent Home, correspondences like the ones depicted in Panel no. 33? If the Southern center didn’t manifest itself explicitly in day-to-day activities did it live in the precious, private exchanges between family and friends still on the other side of the Red Sea? I wonder: Did Aunt Mildred introduce herself as Mildred from Brooklyn or Mildred from Virginia?

DéLana R.A. Dameron (DD): You know, as I was remembering Harlem with such fondness, I was thinking: it was because it felt like the South, where I was. Older women adding extra syllables to words, calling young men & women, “Hon-ey,” folks knowing each other in the neighborhood—and greeting you when you passed—older folks sitting on the stoop, or, there was this older gentleman, no younger than his 70’s who would drag a white plastic chair onto the sidewalk every morning and sit there and watch the day go by—-re-inhabiting, or, creating their urban porches. They came, as Lawrence said in Panel 35 “In large numbers”, so I can only imagine their “southern centers” as you call them, manifested in the homes, in the churches, in the gathering communal spaces. And that tradition stayed, and it became a haven for me, and I’m so sure, countless others.

[...]

But I hear you on learning, upon coming North, that as soon as I crossed the Mason Dixon Line (though, arguably, NOT in Harlem), I learned that there were different kinds, shall I say, different tiers of Blackness, and everyone tried hard to not associate me with being Black American, that is, someone whose lineage is as a descendant of American slaves. Right before I met you to go to MoMA and see Lawrence’s brilliant pieces, and celebrate with all those faces in the crowds, someone who is new to me, and just learning my name, learning to acknowledge the accent ague (é) over my name and say, “Day-Lah-nah”, and work a little harder, and acknowledge the French derivatives of both my first and last name asked me, up front:

“Where are your people from?”

And so, I do the deep inhale. And recite by rote: “My father’s family is from Virginia, but he grew up in Charleston, SC. My mother’s family is from Georgia, but she grew up in Columbia.”

I swear to you, here, here in New York City, there is always, what I call, “The Letdown.”

“Oh. I mean, like before that? Like, your name…”

And then I say, I’m “Black American. Dameron…was very common in Virginia and even Louisiana for white slave owners.”

And I think, building up the answer for that, over the past 8 years, has strengthened my Southern Center.[...]

What occasion Lawrence’s work and MoMA’s exhibit has granted us! Strengthening our Southern Centers, and growing more in our sisterhood. We left the South within months of each other in 2007, and found each other a few years later. Who would have thought? Surely this fact comforted all the strangers coming to Detroit, to Chicago, to Harlem & Bed Stuy: you will come here, and you will still find home, even if it’s only in the people.

[...]

JL:  Your acknowledgment of these New York Southern Centers reminds me that I live on a block in Brooklyn between the streets Hampton and Virginia Place. That can’t be a coincidence. I need to research the history of these street names because really, what are the odds that a daughter of Hampton, Virginia finds herself living on a block between those two streets?

There it is right? Finding home, finding one another.

I don’t know if it has been my Southern Center migrating away from me as much is it has been a center being revealed to me. In those moments when I am charged with defending my Black Southern sensibilities, what emerges is a resolute pride in what I call the extraordinary ordinariness of Black Southern identity. I have the luxury of living in a different era yes, but I am quite honored to share lineage with those radical men and women who didn’t know what would greet them on the other side of the Red Sea but sought freedom nonetheless. I am honored to share lineage with those radical men and women who didn’t leave because we know that to wake up day after day and simply live in the midst of jim crow, of white supremacy, is nothing short of radicalism. I am holding all of that in my Southern Center.

DD: I want to quote you here in this transition, how you say the “extraordinary ordinariness of Black Southern identity” because it’s so good, and because I think it sets up the simplicity of what I think the Migrants were seeking: a place to live, in the way that you said Black Southerners didn’t leave because “[they] know that to wake up day after day and simply live in the midst” and here I will say: violence. Racism. Unemployment. The urban centers others fled to, that we fled to, have changed, and today the cities—Baltimore especially—are in uproar about simple, ordinary things as you say, like: living. Freddie Gray wanted simply to live. Tamir Rice. Yvette Smith. Walter Scott. and so on and so forth. There will always be another name.

This terror pushed the Migrants across boundaries and borders to the North and Midwest, as we know. Lawrence depicted it in Panel 22: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” So are we destined to run from violence and fear to violence and fear and still from violence and fear? Lawrence answered that question in Panel 49—and still we came: “They also found discrimination in the North although it was much different from that which they had known in the South.” But these days, I feel it’s all the same.

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