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May - August,  2005

'In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience'

"Many rivers to cross
And it's only my will that keeps me alive
I've been kicked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride."
 

- Jimmy Cliff "Many Rivers to Cross" from 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' (1970)  

By Martin P. Felix - 3/30/05 martinpfelix@hotmail.com  

While there is on-going discussions in congress to expand the USA Patriot Act in a direction that will specifically targets immigrants and there are growing concerns about an immigrant incarceration industry, a more appreciative reflection of America's immigration tradition and the contributions of immigrants to all aspects of American life is radiating from the heart of Harlem.  

"In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," a groundbreaking exhibition of the population movements that have created the African American people, opened at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, February 2, 2005 to usher in Black History Month.  The multimedia event, places center stage the seminal role migration has played in shaping the African-American experience.  

Through thousands of images, manuscripts, maps, and music, "In Motion" traces the 13 major voluntary and involuntary migrations of African Americans that continue to define the African American people and the American nation. Integral to the $2.4 million project is the Schomburg exhibition, a web site (www.schomburgcenter.org), a coffee table book, and education kits that can be used for lectures and discussion groups. "In Motion" gives the public access to a wealth of resources that illustrate the diversity and complexity of the African American community.  

'A nation of immigrants'  

Like other countries of the Americas , the United States of America is "a nation of (voluntary and involuntary) immigrants." African Americans, the Americans most affected by and shaped by migration, have largely been obscured from America 's great migration and immigration tradition.  

Of the 6.5 million people who migrated to the Americas between 1492 and 1776, five out of six were Africans.  Over the centuries, the African-American experience continued to be shaped by further migrations.  

Slavery and African Americans as transported commodities is one part of a complex picture. According to Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center and project curator, "'In Motion' offers a new interpretation of African-American history focusing on the self-motivated activities of people of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds."  

Repression and resistance  

One key thread throughout the exhibition is the interplay of repression and resistance < http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Schomburg/text/resistance.html and African Americans' unquenching drive towards self-determination.  

Africans resisted oppression from first contact with enslavers, middle passage, and on plantations of the Americas . Resistance took a variety of forms. In one narrative, an enslaved African gives us an example of a planned revolt on a ship en route from Africa to the Grenada , http://www.inmotionaame.org/migrations/topic.cfm?migration=1&topic=5

: "a plan was concerted (to) burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames . . . It was the women and boys (who) were to burn the ship."  

Women and struggle  

Examples of the central role of women in resistance, in keeping the African-American family together and in molding new lives, abound throughout the exhibit. One caption pays tribute to Polly Jackson, a fugitive to Ohio , who allegedly fought off slave catchers with a kettle full of hot water and a butcher knife.  

Harriet Tubman, dubbed "the Moses of her people," escaped slavery and subsequently returned to lead her family and hundreds to freedom during 19 southern trips, establishing a freedom network that spread to 14 states by 1830. Tubman outmaneuvered the slaveholders and was never captured, though an amazing $40,000 bounty was offered for her capture. She subsequently served in the Union Army as a nurse, scout and spy. A suffragist, she founded the National Association of Colored Women.  

Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina , Chapel Hill , says that African-American heroines such as Tubman and Sojourner Truth are symbolic of the hundred of thousands of other African-American women, who over the decades struggled mightily against exploitation.  

According to Horne, such resistance was natural because of the role enslaved Africans were assigned in American capitalism. They "were the most important parts of capital," he says. "As a result of the degradation and the exploitation of the labor of enslaved Africans, they first came to play a leading role in the revolt against capitalism itself as evidenced by the Haitian Revolution whose bicentennial was marked in 2004."  

Radicalism  

A caption on a photo of Richard Benjamin Moore (1893-1978) alludes to the contribution of the Afro-Caribbean migration to U.S. radicalism. A civil rights advocate, bibliophile and champion of Caribbean, African-American and African self-determination, Moore was born in Barbados and migrated to the United States in 1909. He played an influential political role in Harlem for more than 50 years. A communist, one of Moore 's lasting legacies is that he spearheaded the campaign in the 1960s to replace the term Negro with Afro-American.   

Professor Horne points to the important roles played by migrants from various parts of the African diaspora in radical American politics. "The Marxist African Blood Brotherhood Association was led by Phil Graves from the island of Nevis . Hubert Henry Harrison, considered 'the father of Harlem radicalism,' was from St. Croix ." Trinidadian Claudia Jones was an active American Communist leader until she was deported, a victim of McCarthyism.  

Another great Caribbean immigrant highlighted at the exhibition is Stokley Carmichael, aka, Kwame Toure.  Carmichael left Trinidad for New York pre-teen in 1952.  Kwame Toure is quintessential of an evolving political personality.  His illustrious political activist journey saw him transcend student activism, civil rights, Black Nationalism, Marxism/revolutionary nationalism, and pan-Africanism.  A repatriate, Stokley (he changed his name to Kwame Toure in 1969) died in Guinea in 1998, where he made his home.   One of America 's greatest political agitators and most effective organizers, his legacy includes epochal contributions to voting rights, civil rights, a co-founder and Prime Minister of the Black Panther party, developing the concept and movement of Black Power, and physical repatriation to Africa  

Garvey: a complex figure  

Probably the most magnetic and controversial of the radicals and Black nationalists in the exhibit is Marcus Garvey. Garvey had a huge impact on the political landscape of the Black Diaspora. He established grandiose institutions to encourage trade among Black communities in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa and to promote emigration to the West Indies, Central America, and Africa . Garvey's emphasis on self-reliance, pride, and advocacy of the rights of Black people was attractive, especially to migrants from the South and the Caribbean .  

Garvey was a complex figure, who supported the Bolshevik revolution and expressed solidarity with the Irish struggles against colonialism and British imperialism. On the other hand, Horne says, "after [Garvey] came under pressure from the U.S. authorities, we see the very unfortunate comments about relationships with the KKK and the feud with Du Bois." Garvey, however, played a positive overall role in raising consciousness in the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, Horne says.  

Racism and migration  

A variety of factors served to simultaneously push further migration and radicalize African Americans. Foremost were acts of institutional racism: An outpouring of racist ideology disguised as science, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the horrific massacre in East St. Louis in 1917, lynchings, segregation and the systematic humiliation of Black people in their everyday life. These motivated many to seek systemic solutions. Horne says the crisis in southern agriculture and downturn of European immigration because of World War I (which created an unprecedented demand for migrant black labor from the South) was another factor that drove Black migration north.

Further research  

The exhibition left open many areas requiring further study.  One example is the lack of attention given to African American heroines of American history such as Louise Langston Norton Little (1897 - 1991).  While Louise is more popularly known as Malcolm X's mother, her own contribution is significant enough to stand by itself.   Born in rural Grenada in 1897, she is arguably one of the most significant voluntary immigrants to the USA .  Louise migrated to Canada in 1917 before moving to Omaha , Nabraska in 1919.  She was an important member of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association [U.N.I.A].  As division secretary, Louise Little is credited with writing reports documenting local U.N.I.A. activities and meetings for U.N.I.A's publications, such as The Negro World newspaper http://www.brothermalcolm.net/family/llarticle.html  

Louise Little gave birth to a son, Malcolm  http://www.brothermalcolm.net/family/mxbirth.html, on May 19, 1925, who would later be known as Malcolm X - one of the most effective leaders in American history. Malcolm and his brother credit their mother’s early introduction of T.A. Marrishow's West Indian newspaper  http://www.brothermalcolm.net/family/wfremembers.html regularly sent to her from Grenada , as well a solid foundation in the Garveyite philosophy, for their early political grounding.  Terrorized by the Klu Klux Klan for her militant activities, she was committed to Michigan State Hospital ( Kalamazoo ) in 1939, an action that many historians consider institutionalized political victimization.  Louise was released after 25 years of incarceration.  She died in 1991 - eight years after the US invaded Grenada.  

Another example of areas needing further exploration and development is the muted attention given at the exhibition to the Afro-Hispanic component of the overall African-American experience.  Although a bit more attention can be found on the website, the extraordinary impact successive waves of Afro-Hispanic immigration have on North America are not categorized or recognized as particular streams of the 13 migrations. This is rather ironic as the exhibition is being housed at the Schomburg Center.  Arturo Alfonso Schomburg http://www.africawithin.com/schomburg/schomburg_bio2.htm

, who migrated to New York in 1891, was a self-described "Afroborinqueño" (Black Puerto Rican). His lifelong collection of over 10,000 items formed the original nucleus of the Schomburg Center.  Arturo Schomburg challenged the myths of Black racial inferiority by documenting the contributions people of African descent (including in Latin America ) made to human civilization and by scientifically refuting racism.    

Other questions such as why the African American immigration experience should only be concerned with sub-Saharan streams of continental African immigration to the virtual exclusion of the great mass of people from North Africa that have been settling in the USA for centuries, is surely an interesting subject for debate and possible deconstruction.   

Professor Horne sees categorical distinctions within this context a very complicated issue.  While he recognizes a sort of Anglo-centric bias in African American studies (which has a tendency to exclude those who do not have English as their primary tongue), the issue is further complicated by the fact that many immigrants, for justifiable, legitimate reasons tend to identify with their countries of national origins and not necessarily to an abstract pan-Africanist category.  

The exhibition, however, does not seek to be conclusive. According to Sylviane Diouf, Schomburg researcher and author of Servant of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, "This is an invitation to every person of African descent in the U.S. to revisit their migration histories to determine their roles in the making of African American and American history."   

A caption at the exhibition exit gives the visitor ‘one for the road’: “Today’s 35 million African Americas are heirs to all the migrations that have formed, modeled, and transformed their communities, the country, and the African Diaspora… and include in their makeup Europeans, Native Americans, and Asians... the most diverse population in the nation.”  

The exhibit will close April 30.

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