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The Four Great Migrations

by Ira Berlin

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-670-02137-6
Publisher: Viking

A succinct study of how the migrations of African Americans, from the slavery era to the present, affected the development of black culture in America.

Berlin (History/Univ. of Maryland; Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, 2003, etc.) analyzes what he calls the four great migrations: the transatlantic slave trade from Africa; the transcontinental slave trade within the United States; the movement of former slaves from the South to the North and West after the Civil War; and the wave of black immigration from the Caribbean, Africa, South America and elsewhere. He makes the case that all this movement—the cycle of being uprooted again and again—is what distinguishes the African-American experience from those of other immigrant American cultures. The repeated migrations, he argues, helped solidify the creation of African-American culture. The bond between people, created by common experience, became as important as the bond to specific places. Along with migration, Berlin also discusses the importance of rootedness in African-American life. For example, after blacks became a key part of urban society, the stability of staying in one place allowed distinct aspects of modern American black culture to emerge—including arts such as gospel and jazz and political movements such as black nationalism. In the most engaging section, the author addresses the massive post-1965 influx of black immigrants and how they and American blacks have adjusted to each others’ ways. The differences in language, and prejudices on both sides, have often made that adjustment difficult. Despite the culture clash, however, black immigrants have also made crucial contributions to African-American culture. For example, Berlin notes, many early hip-hop artists were of Caribbean descent.

An insightful meditation on the physical and cultural journeys of African-Americans in the United States.