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

Reviewed by

Charles Scruggs University of Arizona

The quotation in the title of Griffin's book comes from "Seventh Street" in Jean Toomer's Cane and refers to the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities in the twentieth century, an epical phenomenon that would not only leave a lasting impact on the literature of African Americans, but also on their music and visual arts, especially photography and painting. Indeed, Griffin's interdisciplinary approach in tackling this enormously complex subject is her greatest strength, for it allows her to treat the literary narrative of the Great Migration (her main interest) from various non-literary perspectives.

In attempting to answer the question posed by Toomer, she has organized her material into four sections that deal with distinct kinds of flowing movement of African Americans to, within, and from the modern city. In her first section, Griffin focuses on the multiple motivations for leaving the South, showing how artists often present a more cogent explanation for the migration mentality than do sociologists. For example, she brilliantly analyzes a painting from Jacob Lawrence's Migration of the Negro Series (1940-41) in which a huddled figure stares at an empty noose hanging from a bare branch in a stark landscape. The absent corpse and absent tree are terrifying because the one speaks of an intolerable human condition, the other of a curse placed on the Southern landscape. Starting from this perspective, Griffin gives us perceptive analyses of the complex lynching motifs that appear in various works of art, especially in Toomer's "Portrait in Georgia," Richard Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." The anti-pastoral theme that links these works together also points to the fact that the motivation for leaving the South was different for women than for men. Although black women, too, were lynched, they also had to endure another kind of violence, the sexual threat of white men experienced by Florence in Go Tell It on the Mountain or the paternal abuse suffered by Mattie in The Women of Brewster Place.

Griffin's second section deals with the initial confrontation between migrant and cityscape, and, again, she begins brilliantly with a Jacob Lawrence painting from the Migration Series, this one cluttered with people mobbing a train station during World War I. The cities of refuge are listed above the gates - Chicago, New York, St. Louis - but the promise of the Promised Land is compromised by a visual sense of entrapment. Using Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," Toomer's "Seventh Street," Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy, and Richard Wright's American Hunger, Griffin describes how the migrants both shaped the new urban terrain and were shaped by it. In this section, she also begins to investigate a theme that will become increasingly important as her book progresses: Can a map be found in the remnants of a Southern folk culture to help one survive in an inhospitable urban environment?

Griffin's third section is appropriately called "Safe Places and Other Places: Navigating the Urban Landscape." These "safe places" are not only protective but nurturing. They represent a haven in the hostile city, and although they are essentially "feminine," they appear in the work of both male and female authors. Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and even Ralph Ellison recognize their presence, but Richard Wright denies their validity because the black women who create and sustain them arrest the development of black manhood. To rephrase Griffin's argument, Wright is so obsessed with the horror of the "kitchenette," which in his mind black women perversely perpetuate through a worship of domestic space, that he fails to recognize the value of the "kitchen tradition" which passes down communal wisdom from generation to generation.

In the book's fourth section Griffin presents a counterpart to her previous thesis that the presence of the ancestor and folk culture in the city creates the possibility of "safe places." In "To Where From Here? The Final Vision of the Migration Narrative," she notes that recent black artists, especially women, return to the South to explore that setting as the site of the ancestor and folk culture. Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and Amiri Bakara's The System of Dante's Hell follow Toomer's lead in "Kabnis" - all deal with the theme of migration in reverse, whereby various characters search for or stumble upon an ancestor. In the case of Quicksand, however, Helga Crane can find no redemption in the rural South because Nella Larsen refuses to acknowledge the value of folk culture.

While one of the strengths of Griffin's book is its attempt to provide an explanatory frame for the literature of the Great Migration, that attempt sometimes leads her to squeeze specific works into an interpretative mold that doesn't quite fit them. At these junctures, her effort to make everything agree with her general thesis seems to undercut the very strong arguments she has assembled. Thus Griffin's use of the folk/ancestor theme in Ann Petry's The Street and Dorothy West's The Living is Easy is quite misleading. She implies, for instance, that if, In The Street, Lutie had put trust in the memory of her grandmother instead of fantasizing about becoming a female Benjamin Franklin, then she would have been given the spiritual sustenance to survive in the city. Yet the novel's point is that neither Franklin's petty pragmatism nor the ancestor's folk wisdom is enough to protect her from the different levels of urban power that she's up against - Jones, Junto, Boots, and the lawyer who preys on her ignorance of New York's legal system. In a similar fashion, Griffin says of The Living Is Easy that "the South not only survives in the city but is necessary for the sustenance and survival of the migrant," and she points to the "Southern chapters" which describe Cleo's memories of her childhood as illustration. Yet these are the very memories that cause Cleo to destroy her sisters' happiness, to distort her memory of her father, and to help ruin her husband's fortune. Ignoring the sustaining elements of her culture is not the source of Cleo's tragedy; it is rather her inability to conceive of a South outside a personal, female-centered memory of a happy childhood. Her tragedy, like that of another Cleopatra, is that her strength of will brings about not only her downfall but the downfall of those around her.

A second problem with Griffin's book is that she doesn't allow for a valorized urban space outside of folk retentions. For example, she admires urban blues - indeed talks eloquently about them - but she conceives of their meaning in terms of an oppositional response to a hostile city. Her negative attitude toward the city is one reason that, in spite of an intelligent reading of Toni Morrison's Jazz, she cannot conceive of Joe Trace transcending his "self-pity" at the end of the novel. Yet Jazz does not end with Joe's pathetic defeat; it ends with something rogue becoming the source of his and Violet's renewal. That something is related both to their ability to remember a usable past and to the city's protean capacity to re-configure them. Indeed, the two are connected, for the city, as Walter Benjamin saw, leaves its "stigmata" upon memory.

A third problem with Who Set You a Flowin'? lies in Griffin's treatment of Cane. Throughout her book, she uses its poems, sketches, and stories to introduce or support a thesis, but she must remove them from their original context in order to do so. For instance, she sees "Song of the Son" as Toomer's unqualified celebration of the black artist's return to the "land of the ancestor" to "turn folk culture into art," but this interpretation separates "Song of the Son" from the two stories - "Carma" and "Fern" - that surround it and that question the confidence of the poet who wishes to use black folk culture to become "a singing tree, / Caroling softly souls of slavery." Both "Carma" and "Fern" have a bewildered first-person narrator who confesses that he can only reveal Carma's life through "the crudest melodrama," a "tale" that hints of a hidden anguish like the kind expressed by Fern in the forest when she becomes a conduit for all the suffering voices of the diaspora. There is no "caroling" in either story, certainly not in the word's implied meaning of joyful celebration. Griffin would have "the plum plucked by the poet... become the song of the race," but the "plum" that the "son" eats alludes to the apple plucked from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden; once eaten, the "son" enters history, and can only know good and evil, as Milton says, "as two twins cleaving together." Terror and beauty don't exist "side by side" in Cane, as Griffin insists. Rather, the "singing tree" and the lynching tree are the same tree; to experience the South's black folk culture is inseparable from hearing the story of Mame Lamkins. Understandably, Griffin wants Toomer to redeem time at the end of "Kabnis," with Kabnis emerging from the hole and with Toomer as poet greeting the "dawn of a new day." Yet the shadows of pines that the son/sun shakes from its eyes at the end of "Kabnis" continue to return in the text as the nightmares of history, as the moon does in "Blood-Burning Moon." In Cane Toomer subjects the redemption of the folk through song to a rigorous critique, reflected most clearly perhaps in Kabnis's ambiguous relationship to Father John, an "ancestor" from the past whom he can neither embrace or reject.

Other issues also raise questions, especially Griffin's treatment of Richard Wright. Griffin writes intelligently about Wright in other contexts, but when she approaches him from her Feminist point of view, she yields to the current trend of flagellating him for his portrayal of black women. According to her, "the stifling nature of black women ... appears in all of Wright's texts." Yet in Wright's short story "Long Black Song" - a rewritten version of Toomer's "Blood-Burning Moon" - the question of who stifles whom is crucial, and the answer is not exactly flattering to Silas. Moreover, the male protagonist of Wright's story "Man of All Work" who, disguised as a black maid, is hired as a domestic has this to say to his wife once his ordeal is over: "I was a woman for almost six hours and it almost killed me." Wright might not have shared current Feminist concerns, but he knew more about the lot of a black working-class woman than many middle-class academics have allowed themselves to imagine.

Griffin's biased treatment of Wright spills over into her provocative comparison between Georg Simmel's "stranger" and the ancestor. While she admits that the two figures are sometimes interchangeable, by emphasizing the importance of "safe" feminine places and by gradually reducing Simmel's stranger to one of masculine alienation (using Wright as the example), she denies herself an opportunity to investigate the complex kinds of black migration that occur within the city. As "the wanderer ... who comes today and stays tomorrow," the stranger is a paradoxical creation of the modern city whose segmented space he or she traverses while staying at "home." This theme is quite suggestive, especially for novels of the Harlem Renaissance like Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure Man Dies, Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry, Walter White's Fright, and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun. Yet the very fact that Griffin calls attention to Simmel's seminal essay on "The Stranger" is typical of the general excellence of her study. Despite its flaws, it is a splendid achievement.
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Author:Scruggs, Charles
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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