February Is Black History Month USA: "Whites' Accounts of the Origins of Sharecropping Never Mention the Never-Realised Idea of Giving the Ex-Slaves 40 Acres and a Mule for Each Family." Now It's the South of USA That Is Attracting Young Black Professionals and College Students

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"You can't have your cake and eat it, too." I've never understood that saying. It's peculiar. You've probably gone and bought your fancy cake, paid good money; or even baked it yourself: laborious, hard labour, no easy, instant mixes. The least you can do is jolly well enjoy it yourself. It's a silly saying that I'm probably too blind or stupid to comprehend. But perhaps the best cakes, the most glorious cakes, have to be cut up and dished out.

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You know what, that's exactly how I feel about marvellous information contained in marvellous books. Marvellous books are like fabulous cakes: crying to be sliced up and handed out.

The other week I read a newspaper article in which a demographer called William H. Frey, at the University of Michigan in the United States, revealed that since 1990 the southern states of America had added 807,442 black people to their populations. These newcomer African-Americans had migrated from other parts of America, particularly from northern cities, looking for better jobs and better living conditions in "the new South".

According to Dr Frey's research, northern cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago were no longer on a 25-city list of the fastest growing metropolitan areas for African-Americans. It's the south that is now attracting young black professionals and college students.

Well, I thought, I've certainly got a cake I fancy gobbling up again. So for February Black History Month in the United States, I'm sharing some scene-setting slices from Nicholas Lemann's delicious The Promised Land--The Great Black Migration And How It Changed America [1991, MacMillan London Limited]. Get a fork, if not, use your hand.

"Three or four miles south of the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is a shambling little hog farm on the side of the highway ... Behind the fence, by the bank of a creek, under a droopy cottonwood tree, is an old rusted-out machine that appears to have found its final resting place. The old machine, now part of a hoary Southern set-piece, is actually important. It is the last tangible remnant of a great event in Clarksdale: the day of the first public demonstration of a working production-ready model of the mechanical cotton picker, October 2, 1944.

"The pickers, painted bright red, drove down the white rows of cotton. Each one had mounted in front a row of spindles, looking like a wide mouth, full of metal teeth, that had been turned vertically. The spindles, about the size of human fingers, rotated in a way that stripped the cotton from the plants; then a vacuum pulled it up a tube and into the big wire basket that was mounted on top of the picker. In an hour, a good field hand could pick twenty pounds of cotton; each mechanical picker, in an hour, picked as much as a thousand pounds--two bales.

"The issue of the labour supply in cotton planting may not sound like one of the grand themes in American history, but it is, because it is really the issue of race. Now, suddenly, cotton planters no longer needed large numbers of black people to pick their cotton, and inevitably the nature of black society and of race relations was going to have to change.

"In 1940, 77% of black Americans still lived in the South--49% in the rural South. The invention of the cotton picker was crucial to the great migration by blacks from the Southern countryside to the cities of the South, the West, and the North.

"Between 1910 and 1970, six and a half million black Americans moved from the South to the North; five million of them moved after 1940, during the time of the mechanisation of cotton farming.

"The black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history--perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation. In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic group--Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles--to this country. …