Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative

By Farah Jasmine Griffin | Go to book overview

Introduction

From the SYSTEMation of Paul Laurence Dunbar Sport of the Gods in 1902 to Toni Morrison Jazz in 1992, the migration narrative emerges as one of the twentieth century's dominant forms of African-American cultural production. 1 Through migration narratives--musical, visual, and literary--African-American artists and intellectuals attempt to come to terms with the massive dislocation of black peoples following migration. Given the impact of migration and urbanization on African-Americans in particular and American society in general, it is not surprising that this century has witnessed the emergence of this new form.

Most often, migration narratives portray the movement of a major character or the text itself from a provincial (not necessarily rural) Southern or Midwestern site (home of the ancestor) to a more cosmopolitan, metropolitan area. Within the migration narrative the protagonist or a central figure who most influences the protagonist is a migrant. The representation of the migration experience depends on the genre and form of the narrative as well as the historical and political moment of production. Also, each artist's conception of power is directly related to the construction of his or her text.

The narrative is marked by four pivotal moments: (1) an event that propels the action northward, (2) a detailed representation of the initial confrontation with the urban landscape, (3) an illustration of the migrant's attempt to negotiate that landscape and his or her resistance to the negative effects of urbanization, and (4) a vision of the possibilities or limitations of the Northern, Western, or Midwestern city and the South. These moments may occur in any given order within the context of the narrative; in other words, it is not necessary that there be a straightforward linear progression from the South to a vision of the consequences of migration, although this is most often the case.

The migration narrative shares with the slave narrative notions of ascent from the South into a "freer" North. Like the slave narrative and the fiction it inspired, the migration narrative has its own set of narrative conventions. If the slave narrative revolves around the auction block, the whipping, the separation of families, and miscegenation, the migration narrative provides us with lynching scenes, meetings with ancestors, and urban spaces like kitchenettes, dance halls, and street corners. The migration narrative is marked by an exploration of urbanism, an explication of sophisticated modern power, and, in some instances, a

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