I’ve always felt pride in the wonderful mix that made up my family. On my paternal side, a grandfather who left sunny Montego Bay for New York City to better his station in life, and grandmother who said goodbye to Panama with her two sisters to do the same; on my maternal side, a grandfather from Alabama, and a grandmother from Georgia who felt that the north would suit them best. Like so many of us, I am a product of the great migration of our people. What a trip it has been, and continues to be. The Making of African America is historian Ira Berlin’s masterful retelling of the great journeys that brought us where we are today.
“The entire African American experience can be best read as a series of great migrations or passages, during which immigrants—at first forced and then free—transformed an alien place into a home, becoming deeply rooted in a land that once was foreign, unwanted, and even despised. In the process, they created new understandings of the meaning of the African-American experience and new definitions of blackness.”
Berlin begins at the beginning with the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World and the forced deportation of millions of people from the 17th through the early 19th centuries. Then he charts the course of the migration of those slaves from the Upper South and Atlantic coast into the western interior of the country. He continues with the voluntary migration of black Southerners to the urban North starting around the World War I era, and wraps up in the mid sixties after the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality act, during which millions of Africans and those of African descent made their way to the United States.
Berlin, a renowned professor and author of the award winning Many Thousand Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America, breaks down into great detail how each chapter brought with it a restructuring of black life where old cultural and societal ways were mixed with the new, constantly morphing into something unique. For each passage, he elaborates on the importance of music and its place in society, he looks at the evolution of black churches, talks about the our first forays into the political arena, the founding of a black middle class, and beyond, giving the reader a full 360 degree experience.
The author emphasizes how these periods of upheaval, with their alternating phases of both movement and stability are at the core of the constant evolution of how black culture was defined and redefined several times over. For the greater part of our history, Berlin argues, African-Americans have lived with the anticipation of huge catastrophic change, whether through the shock of slavery or the great northern migration, knowing always that our connections to the places and the people we’ve grown accustomed could be severed at some juncture. This disconnect forced us to constantly reconstruct our lives.
Berlin explores the psychological, socio-economic effects of our very particular history and gives us a chance to reflect on the courage and resilience of our people. They made this country their own; they set up homes and raised families in what was originally an unfamiliar and hostile land. And they thrived. Berlin’s last chapter discusses Barack Obama, who “embodies the collective experience of those who have journeyed, found new places, and constantly remade themselves—as well as African-American life and, with it, the nation.”
Berlin’s scholarly book manages to read as smoothly as a novel. It holds our attention at most every turn and helps us revisit the past and see where the future of the African-American narrative might be going.