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The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 1999
Format: Paperback
"The Promised Land" is a fascinating study of the effects, both on the "immigrants" themselves and on America, of the migration of Blacks from the Mississippi Delta to the industrial cities of the North, in this case, specifically Chicago. The book traces the experiences of a group of individuals who made the migration, telling their story through time, beginning with the immigrants and continuing on with the families they built in the North, with a rough time frame of the 1940's - 1970's.
The book comprises 2 basic strengths: the approach to the material and the resulting structure in which the story is told, and the sheer interest of the events themselves and the people who lived them.
The author approaches the story he wishes to tell in two ways: He relates the story of the people themselves, giving these sections of the book an oral history like content, but intermixes the chapters with those based on an analytic, scholarly approach, where the individual strories previously related are woven into the bigger historical picture. The approach works wonderfully, giving the book a structure both readable as a straightforward story of human beings relating their own very personal roles in historical events but also allowing the reader to put these events in a greater historical context, to understand for instance the sad downward slope experienced in the Black working class communities as the years passed. The early immigrants made their way to Black sections of Chicago which, while segregated and relatively poor compared to the White sections, also managed to provide at least the basis of a thriving community, in which work was available and there was a hope of moving up in the world. The comparison of these communities in the 1940's to the boarded up, drug infested no-man's land some of them were to become later is startling.
Some of the resulting questions raised are fascinating, especially in the current environment with the all-out effort to replace welfare with workfare. At it's most extreme is the question raised by Federal Welfare authorities as to whether it is perhaps better to just support people in the Mississippi Delta with welfare, given that the outlay is relatively minor, as opposed to encouraging people to move North. They might improve their lot with better jobs not available in the Delta but with the risk that they will perhaps end up on welfare forcing the authorities to pay out much more in benefits than would be necessary to pay in the Delta with it's significantly lower standard of living.
In the final analysis however, it is the stories of the immigrants which really take center stage and make reading this book such a satisfying experience. In a world of jet planes and instant electronic communications it is hard to imagine to almost biblical migration which took place all by virtue of a scheduled train line, people being transported to a profoundly different world by a day or so of travel, a world which at least initially offered a degree of prosperity and an improvement in ,living standards way beyond that of the Delta they left behind. The fragility of that life in the "promised land" however would become sadly apparent in the mixed experiences the future was to hold for the immigrants and their families and in the sad decline of their communities.
Driven by the disappearance of the Industries and Stockyards whose jobs fueled the great migration in the first place this movement eventually ground to a halt. Victims of both economic and racial segregation, the once dynamic Black working class communities of Chicago became more and more isolated and desolate as jobs became ever scarcer and drugs and welfare took a firmer hold. Those residents who had prospered and could afford to do so left for the suburbs open to them, while those who for whatever reason, whether their own failings or just an inability to keep up with a changing world were left to reside in the inner city in such stark monuments to failed policies as the Robert Taylor homes.
"The Promised Land" captures an episode in American history not likely to be repeated, and does so in a manner which combines the best of both analytic and anecdotal writing styles, driven by the heartfelt and exciting rembrances of the particpants themselves, those who comprised the great migration to the promised land.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is a well written interesting book presenting information vital to understanding contemporary America. At the same thime this is only indirectly a book about the Great Black Migration. Rather it is about policies at the federal level, especially the collage of programs called the "war on poverty" and how they relate to American society in the 1960s and 1970s with examples from several African Americans from the Clarksdale Mississippi area who migrated to Chicago, several of them returning to Clarksdale.

One of the most valuable parts of the book--and well-written-is the description of the changes that went on in the 1940s with mechanism of agriculture that led to the migration--cotton got picked and then weeded mechanically the army of cotton field hads who had been the most important segment of the African American population was no longer needed in the South. This is one of the best and most practical explanations of this, especially as he focuses on Clarksdale Mississippi and the surrounding area. He gives a good history of the evolution of the cotton crop in the area and the evolution of Black society, providing examples in the lives of several people.

To me this is quite useful because one of my chief focuses is the history of the Blues. Clarksdale --the big town near where Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Son House, Charlie Batton, and so many other Blues singers came from--is central to the history of the Delta Blues. Knowing the social and economic conditions that existed there is quite useful for music scholars who can profit from this part of the book.

Lemann is pretty good in descripting the way the plantation system broke up families and how the immigration to Chicago impacted several different Clarksdale folk who travelled up to Chicago. He charts their stories getting into Chicago in the 1940s and early 1950s fairly well.

Once he does this, there is an abrupt shift. He tries to chart the various conflicts in the Kennedy and Johnson administration about dealing with the Black urban problems, the rebellions, and poverty, which is really an aside from discussing Black migration. In this regard as he used Clarksdale as an example, he uses Chicago where all of his people from Clarksdale have migrated. I would imagine that the intimate detail that he goes into regarding the inside debates on forming the poverty programs and the infighting between Johnson and Kennedy factions of the Democratic party over it and the way the Daley machine in Chicago related to all of this is of interest to many people. It was told in such a way that even though I am not interested in it, it was interesting though not absorbing.

He presents the end result of the programs is that they never did anything but create a larger base for the Black middle and upper middle class among administrators of these programs and other public functionary jobs. In the 1960s, many of us who fought for a perspective for Black people independent of the Republicans and Democrats pointed out that this was the actual purpose of the programs, not to end poverty, but to encorporate political activists who might otherwise be drawn into the struggle for the interests of Black people into the apparatus of the government and into the feeding ground to become part of the Democratic and Republican parties and corporate America.

Lemann is good at showing the failure of these programs and the hell they produced for Black working folk like the subjects of his story, but he rarely steps back and examines the larger question of the way society as a whole functions.

If American capitalist society persistently creates a large army of poor African Americans, now supplemented by millions of equally poor or poorer workers without papers with even less rights, is this not something reqired by the system. Is this not a damper of the attempts of all working people for better working conditions, better wages, better social programs in education, health, and the environment. Is this not a feeding ground for the racist ideas that nourish acceptance of this society. Is this not a way of stopping social solidarity among working folks.

Again, I expected an overall history of the migration covering the whole of the nation in the 20th Century. This is not that book, but an extremely readable book giving very good case studies of how the Southern cotton plantation system worked, how it ended, and a history of the war on poverty in the 1960s and early 1970s. In passing, he provides some stories of African Americans women and men who lived through this history.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a brilliant book. Lemann tackles a very daunting subject and presents it in a style that's cogent, humane and easy to understand. Black inner city povery is a decidedly "unsexy" topic. We've all heard the bromides that the government "tried and failed" to solve urban poverty, the problem is just to too intractable to deal with, etc. Lemann, however, makes the issues and characters very clear and accessible. Best of all, his conclusion is a passionate and clear-minded prescription for change -- a great counterpoint to the cynicism of contemporary pundits and policymakers.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I read this book in conjunction with reading "the southern diasposa." If one were to only buy/read only one of these books, I would definitely recommend the latter; however, I'll go on to review the former, which is worth the read, as well.

"The Promised Land" starts out with its best. The first chapter is about Clarksdale, Mississippi, and how Blacks and whites interacted there in the first decades of the 20th century. The whites lived on one side of the tracks, the Blacks on the other. Blacks could not vote, and there was no guarantee their children would have an education. Blacks lived in plantation cabins with roofs that leaked and without electricity or insulation. The shareholder system was in place, as was segregation. The landholders needed Blacks to pick cotton and work the fields; the Blacks had nowhere else to go and no other way to make a living. In 1900, 90% of American Blacks lived in The South.

A really good cotton picker could make $4 per day, but in Chicago in the 40's, one could make 75 cents per hour. Plus, one could work overtime, and rent a place relatively cheap. It was a way out; it was an opportunity. The author introduces us to several cottonpickers and laborers in Clarksdale who decide that they have had enough. They move to Chicago to seek the promised land and opportunities. One is Ruby Hopkins.

The book then tells us about the Black experience in Chicago in the 40's, via Ruby and others, and it introduces us to the world of Mayor Daily. But, abruptly, in a new chapter, the book moves us to Washington, D.C., where we get excruciating details about the politics of Washington in the 60's and 70's and how it addressed Black poverty and inequality. It's as if another book has begun. There is juicy information about President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and President Johnson...and Sargent Shriver, the war on poverty, the Office of Economic Opportunity and more. But I yearned to get back to the actual Black experience. And just like that, the book turns back to Chicago in the 60's.

The theme now is about how the Blacks from Clarksdale have coped in the 20 years in Chicago, who they have married, the kids they've had, the jobs, the welfare, the housing, etc. Some have made it, some have not. There are property lines that Blacks are not to cross, but as their population grows, the lines must be crossed. New schools and new housing are built. It is still a better experience than Clarksdale could have been. But there is much more crime. Folks get hooked on cocaine. Public housing deteriorates. In short, there can be a price to pay, if one cannot move beyond the Black ghetto.

Back in Clarksdale, the shareholder system is essentially over, as mechanical cotton pickers have taken over the need for most manual labor, and insecticides have been introduced to take care of weeds. Blacks still cannot vote, defacto segregation is still in place, and life still can be very hard for Blacks. Up North, if one has found a career in meat-packing, steel, manufacturing, hotel services or such, one had done well and has probably moved out of the ghetto. Ruby is still there. So, she makes the decision to move back to Clarksdale.

In her mid-70's now, Ruby is back to where she started. Several of her children and their children are there as well. She is better off than she has ever been. But it's still The South, and it is far from perfect. It is what it is.

So, that's the gist of the book, with tons of details skipped. Again, I much prefer the book, "the southern dispora" on this general topic, because I think it provides much more general information and has a better flow. But "The Promised Land" is still a fascinating read, for the most part.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2009
Format: Paperback
Mr. Lemann does a commendable job of describing the large migration of Southern Blacks to the North. He focuses primarily on the movement between Clarksdale, located in the Mississippi Delta region, and Chicago. With a mixture of cultural dissections, personal stories as well as the political infighting in Washington, the reader will get a good understanding of why American slums are war zones of the truly destitute. An accurate portrayal of how racism and good intentions gone awry have maintained an environment where poverty fosters the next generation of victims. Mr. Lemann has written a highly informative and emotionally draining book. Well worth reading for anyone who cares about our country.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 1999
Format: Paperback
The Promised Land defies the myth of level playing fields in the so-called democracy called America. Slavery, the sharecropping system, Jim Crow, segregation, White violence toward Blacks, and continued social, economic, political and institutional racism display the very foundation upon which this society is built. Lemann challenges readers to deal with this truth and acknowledge privilege, racism, exploitation and victimhood. After reading The Promised Land one has to be mentally warped to continue blaming victims for their plights.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed this book a lot also. From slavery to migrating to Chicago, I learned a lot about the African-American experience.This book has shown me the many obstacles that my people have had to overcome and has taught me to be so thankful for those who fought for rights for African-Americans so I would have a better experience than they had growing up in America. It has also shown me why Blacks are still not seen on the same level playing field as Whites today.Even though this book is factual it reads more like a novelin that it includes excerpts about the lives of many Blacks growing up back then.The video series that goes along with this book also adds a personal feel to the novel. This video series is a must for every families video collection.
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18 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
In The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann tells several interwoven tales. One is about Mississippi sharecroppers who migrated to Chicago during the middle decades of the century. Another is about the bungled policies of President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty." Binding them together is Mr. Lemann's attempt to understand why the United States has a black underclass that probably lives in greater squalor and desperation than any other people on earth. The book's perspective is the by now standard one that pins most of the blame for black failure on white racism, and it leads to a call for an "ambitious wave of new programs" that will bring the underclass into the American mainstream. Nevertheless, The Promised Land is by no means a simple rehash of the liberal clichés of the 1960s. Mr. Lemann does not gloss over the failures that stemmed from the soft-headed zeal for uplift that characterized the period. At the same time, his accounts of the lives of underclass blacks do not leave an impression of helplessness and victimization so much as one of fecklessness and self-destruction. The author coats his facts with a layer of liberal indulgence, but he has gathered the facts and they are not pretty.
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on January 19, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is a Joycean journey and is perhaps the reason some people had trouble with its concept. It ends where it starts.

The work starts out in Mississippi, then segues to Chicago, Washington, Chicago and back to Mississippi. In the process we cover the technological origins of the Great Migration, the building to the second Chicago ghetto, the rise and fall of the Great Society and the remigration (albeit scant) back to Mississippi. All of this is seen through the eyes of several families that took part in the migration.

Thus this is not the format we are used to in dealing with historical works. I found the mixture of historical narrative and the reality of the families involved to be a charming mix, one that touched me on a human scale.

I read this work at the same time I read "The Building of the Second Ghetto" (a rather more opaque but valuable work). The two complimented each other.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If you are a lover of Black History you will really enjoy this book. The author takes us on a journey with several families that moved north in the 20th century. He writes about the hardships that they faced along with millions of African Americans who travel north in search of a better life and how are major cities handle and couldn't handle this migration. You will also learn which policy makers tried to address social programs and the war on poverty.
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