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Worthy but not about what the title says
on September 11, 2007
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.