The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America

The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America by James Gregory. University of North Carolina Press, 2005, paper. 

James Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora tells the story of southern black and white migration to the north and west in the twentieth century. Between the 1900s and 1970s, eighteen million people left the South, most of them permanently. They left because of the deteriorating economic conditions, particularly in agriculture. They also felt the call of better jobs in the North. By the end of the 1970s the flow of immigrants had reversed. Northerners were now heading south.


Gregory believes that there is an advantage in telling the two stories of white and black migration together. Even though there are important differences. Blacks tended to cluster in the northern and western cities, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg, and later Los Angeles. With less resistance from northerners, white destinations were more dispersed. Contrary to popular notions, white southerners moving north were far more numerous than black southerners.


Times were tough for this southern diaspora. Nevertheless both groups did well compared to those who remained in the South. True, blacks in the south earned only a percentage of southern white income, but by the 1950s black southern women had almost caught up with white females.


Gregory’s account is a celebration of what southerners-moved-north accomplished, particularly their contributions to the cultural life of northern cities. ‘Country’ musicians, as they were called, found audiences throughout the north and west, Chicago and L.A. particularly. Gregory points out that the careers of these mostly white southern entertainers were made possible by the recording industry, then mostly in New York’s Tin Pan Alley and the film industry in southern California.


Radio and film, later television, had a fascination with white southerners from Appalachia – hillbillies. Hence ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’,’ Petticoat Junction’, ‘Hew Haw’ are examples. They presented an often less than flattering image of white southerners.


Less commonly in network radio and television, black southerners have enriched American popular music. Dixieland jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, and hip-hop were musical genres pioneered by black southern musicians, many of them southerners living in the north.


Perhaps the most celebrated institution of the Southern diaspora was the black metropolis. Gregory talks about the black urban areas, like Harlem in New York, as welcoming and empowering. Today the big-city neighborhoods in which black southerners settled are viewed as creative and vibrant environments. At the time, however, social scientists and the press mostly recorded their social disorganization and poverty. Sound familiar?


Because they were less dispersed, African-Americans had the greater political impact on the North. Blacks could now vote and were good at leveraging their new voting power. They built alliances with such diverse groups as the national Republican Party, the radical left, Jews, the labor movement, and northern mainstream Protestants.


African-Americans were mostly ignored by the New Deal. Gregory recounts the Negro campaign in 1940 to open opportunities for employment in the expanding war industries, for example. When President Roosevelt resisted, black leaders threatened to march on Washington. In January 1941 a call went out and the Negro press and pulpit went into action.


Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, brokered an agreement. Roosevelt’s ‘Executive Order 8802’ banned discrimination in industries receiving war contracts and in government offices. True the armed forces remained segregated throughout the war and civil rights legislation remained stalled by southern Democrats. But the black southern diaspora had forged a major step toward rights for African-Americans.


The National Museum of African American History & Culture is opening this fall on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian magazine (Sept. 2016) has published a special issue to celebrate the occasion. “The Road to Freedom” by Isabel Wilkerson was one of several interesting articles on Black Migration out of the South with a graphic that illuminates the flow of some six million blacks from whence they came and to what part of the country they went.



The Economy of Prestige

The Economy of Prestige; Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James English. Harvard University Press, 2008, paper.

This is a fascinating look at prizes, awards, and festivals in the arts and letters. James English discusses mostly prizes in literature, music, and film.  He argues that the awards ‘economy’ is a system of non-monetary symbolic transactions, enabling the artist or author and the institutions that award and receive these prizes to engage in a collective project of value production.

English mostly defends the system. Prizes such as the Oscar, the Nobel, the Pulitzer, National Book Awards, and the Man Booker, uphold a long tradition valuing and honoring creative individuals.  But it is true that the award ceremonies are often farce, circus, embarrassment. All those fancy gowns worn by starlets hoping to be seen. The crass commercialism of the ceremony.

There are precedents from ancient Greece and eighteenth-century Europe, but the establishment of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 is the beginning of the contemporary economy of prestige. It remains the bench-mark of all cultural prizes. Alfred Nobel’s prize was duplicated by the Priz Concourt in France in 1903 and the Pulitzer Prize a few years later in the U.S. And so on. And on. Prizes, awards, festivals, biennales, halls of fame, etc. are now literally too numerous to count.

Yet this field of cultural prizes is not overgrown, English argues. In fact, opportunities or gaps for new prizes are continually being opened. For example, various minorities or new cultural movements have established prizes because they did not feel represented by the existing field of cultural awards.

English contends that this prize economy has been a mixed blessing to the arts and letters in the emerging, post-colonial countries. Generally their films and novels have received international prizes as a result of their popularity in the old imperial metropolises. But are these prize-winners the best representatives of the arts from the former colonies? The Nobel Prize given to Wole Soyinka in 1986 was controversial in his Nigeria. His Euro-modernism was one of several directions in which Nigerian literature was moving. True, Africa had long been neglected by the Swedish Academy. But why Soyinka, other than his popularity outside of Nigeria.

The administrative costs of most cultural prizes far exceed the cash prize itself. Administrators have an immense job. They must select a final few from the many, many nominations. English estimates that 98% of the selection process is done before the publicity acknowledged judges and juries commence their work. Professional readers, sometimes even the office staff, “prejudge,”- decide – who makes the final cut. Among other criteria, they must look at whether potential recipients are well enough known to give the prize credibility.

The economic capital generated by the awards depend upon the prestige of the judges as well. They have to be well-known and respected in their field.

Occasionally a recipient decides that it is beneath his or her cultural status or against his principles to accept a prize. English talks about a strategy of condescension that allows those who reject prizes nevertheless “to remain in play.” Julie Andrews, who refused a Tony Award in 1996, is said to have staged that refusal so as to publicize her then current Broadway show. Perhaps the judges were not worthy of judging her talent.

Andrews can afford to refuse a prize or two. She has many under her belt. Michael Jackson had won no fewer than 240 awards before he died.

Ironies abound. Most commonly the prize winners are already well known. They are acknowledged as having indisputable merit, hence in little need of this symbolic transaction. In fact the prize can gain cultural capital for the awarding organization, normally a non-profit, from the well-known recipient, rather than the other way around.

Tony Morrison is an avid collector of prizes. She thought she was going to collect a National Book Award in 1987 for her highly praised novel, Beloved. Instead the judges awarded it to Larry Heinemann, a relatively unknown author, for his novel, Paco’s Story, about a Vietnam veteran. A scandal ensued. Morrison’s friends took out ads in The New York Times demanding that she receive a compensatory Pulitzer Prize, which she did the next year. With some help from her friends.

Many thought that this quest for a prize on Morrison’s behalf was unseemly. The rules of the game are that you should appear to be indifferent to prizes, not really needing their validation.

English is taken by the ability of the metaphor of economic behavior to illuminate the prize economy and its consumers. He makes it work.