The best books for understanding the Great Black Migration

David G. Nicholls Author Of Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America
By David G. Nicholls

Who am I?

I'm a lifelong reader and wanted to study literature from an early age. I grew up in Indianapolis, one of the cities reshaped by the Great Black Migration. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and found myself once again in the urban Midwest. My research for Conjuring the Folk led me to discover a trove of short stories by George Wylie Henderson, a Black writer from Alabama who migrated to Harlem. I edited the stories and published them as Harlem Calling: The Collected Stories of George Wylie Henderson. I'm a contributor to African American Review, the Journal of Modern Literature, and the Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration


I wrote...

Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America

By David G. Nicholls,

Book cover of Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America

What is my book about?

Conjuring the Folk addresses the relation between metropolitan artistic culture and its popular referents during the Great Black Migration. From Jean Toomer's conclusion that "the Negro of the folk-song has all but passed away" to Zora Neale Hurston's discovery of "a rich field for folk-lore" in a Florida lumber camp, writers of the period made competing claims about the vitality of the African American "folk”—claims that form a discordant conversation on the question of modernity in African America. The book interprets key literary works by Toomer, Hurston, Claude McKay, George Wylie Henderson, and Richard Wright. A provocative rereading of Black cultural politics in the mid-twentieth century, Conjuring the Folk offers an analytical framework for understanding representations of migration, modernization, and the concept of the "folk.

The books I picked & why

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Cane

By Jean Toomer,

Book cover of Cane

Why this book?

Cane is an experimental, modernist work combining poetry, fictional vignettes, and dramatic dialogue as it portrays Black life in the sugar cane fields of the South and in the urban neighborhoods of recent migrants. I first read Cane while I was living in an apartment on the south side of Chicago, a destination for hundreds of thousands of Black migrants in the mid-twentieth century; the tracks of the Illinois Central railroad, their main transit route from the South, were just steps away from my home. The book drew my attention to the forces shaping my neighborhood, while it also led me to begin thinking about the connections between art and migration. It is a very lyrical and powerful book—and the subject of the second chapter of my book.

Cane

By Jean Toomer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cane as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1923, Jean Toomer's Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer's impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American…

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

By Leah Dickerman (editor), Elsa Smithgall (editor),

Book cover of Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

Why this book?

Harlem painter Jacob Lawrence composed a series of sixty panels, applying tempera to composite board, to tell the story of the Great Black Migration; he numbered them sequentially and added captions to tie it all together. It opened to acclaim in 1941. You can see the entire work in the book Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Read it and you will discover the conditions African Americans faced in the South, the networks that migrants used to make the journey northward, and the lives they formed in the cities. Lawrence’s images are bold and geometric, using expressionistic brushstrokes and a consistent color palette from panel to panel. I saw the series exhibited in Chicago and was impressed by the intimate scale of the panels—they measure only 18 by 12 inches. 

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

By Leah Dickerman (editor), Elsa Smithgall (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jacob Lawrence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twenty-three years old, completed a series of sixty small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration. Within months of its making, Lawrence's Migration series was divided between The Museum of Modern Art (even numbered panels) and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (odd numbered panels). The work has since become a landmark in the history of African-American art, a monument in the collections of both institutions, and a crucial example of the way in which history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era. In 2015 and 2016, marking the centenary of the Great…

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

By Nicholas Lemann,

Book cover of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

Why this book?

The Promised Land is written in an engaging, eloquent style that makes it an excellent introduction to the history of the Great Black Migration. A noted journalist, Lemann interviewed dozens of migrants and their descendants to create a richly textured story of their experiences. Layered onto this story is description and analysis of the political contexts for the migration, including the civil rights movement and the Great Society programs. He follows a group of Black Americans from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and, in some cases, back. He shows how the migration affected not just the migrants themselves, but America as a whole, for it shifted race relations from a regional to a national problem. Chicagoans like me will enjoy its wealth of local detail.

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

By Nicholas Lemann,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Promised Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, the groundbreaking authoritative history of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A definitive book on American history, The Promised Land is also essential reading for educators and policymakers at both national and local levels.

12 Million Black Voices

By Richard Wright,

Book cover of 12 Million Black Voices

Why this book?

Richard Wright is perhaps best known for his acclaimed 1940 novel, Native Son. Following its publication, he was at work on a very different project: a photo-documentary history of the African American folk. Wright wrote the prose narrative, which describes in broad strokes the history of Black Americans from slavery to emancipation to the Jim Crow era and the Great Black Migration. The black and white photographs accompanying the narrative were selected by Edwin Rosskam from the archives of the Farm Security Administration. Taken during the Great Depression by such notable photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the photos provide visual documentation of the harsh conditions Blacks faced both south and north. My interpretation of 12 Million Black Voices is given in chapter six of my book

12 Million Black Voices

By Richard Wright,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked 12 Million Black Voices as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

12 Million Black Voices, first published in 1941, combines Wright's prose with startling photographs selected by Edwin Rosskam from the Security Farm Administration files compiled during the Great Depression. The photographs include works by such giants as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. From crowded, rundown farm shacks to Harlem storefront churches, the photos depict the lives of black people in 1930s America--their misery and weariness under rural poverty, their spiritual strength, and their lives in northern ghettos. Wright's accompanying text eloquently narrates the story of these 90 pictures and delivers a powerful commentary on the origins and history…

Jazz

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Jazz

Why this book?

This 1993 novel focuses on a Black couple, Joe and Violet, who move from Virginia to Harlem during the Great Black Migration; after Joe murders his teenage lover. Violet goes to the girl’s funeral intending to deface the corpse. Morrison delves into the family history of the two main characters, showing how the trauma of their ancestors’ enslavement shapes them psychologically. She also illustrates the challenges faced by Black women in both rural and urban settings. I recommend Jazz because it helps us rethink how stories of that time can be told. Morrison created an omniscient, unreliable, and sometimes inscrutable narrator who seems to improvise in different voices, like the music the novel is named for. Listen to the voices and you will understand how they were formed through migration.

Jazz

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Jazz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the acclaimed Nobel Prize winner, a passionate, profound story of love and obsession that brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of Black urban life. With a foreword by the author.

“As rich in themes and poetic images as her Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved.... Morrison conjures up the hand of slavery on Harlem’s jazz generation. The more you listen, the more you crave to hear.” —Glamour

In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra…

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