Printer Friendly

AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-45.

AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-45. By Kimberley L. Phillips (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1999. xv plus 334pp. $59.95/cloth $21.95/paperback).

Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. By John Hartigan, Jr. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. xii plus 354pp. $55.00/cloth $19.95/paperback).

Class and Community: Studies in Black and White

Both AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-45, by Kimberley L. Phillips and Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit, by John Hartigan, Jr. explore the reality of race and class in the twentieth century urban North, although they approach their subjects very differently. AlabamaNorth examines the role of working-class blacks in the formation of Cleveland's African-American community, whereas Racial Situations looks at the various sources of white racial identity and how it is shaped by class. By looking at two distinct racial communities and the role class plays in shaping a collective identity, these two works help further our understanding of the importance of class in the creation of American communities, both black and white.

AlabamaNorth, as the title suggests, examines the community created by African-American migrants who left the South to obtain better jobs in the urban North. What separates this study from others of its kind is the author's excellent use of a wide variety of primary and secondary sources that place her study in its larger context. Well researched, and thoroughly documented, Phillips' emphasis on the actions of working-class blacks in the creation of the African-American community makes this work an important contribution to the study of both African-American community building and American urban history.

Phillips begins her study by arguing that southern blacks migrated to Cleveland as part of a larger strategy of "movement between farm and nonagricultural labor" in search of "better work options" (p. 18). African Americans moved from rural to first southern, then northern urban centers for wage work to supplement family agricultural income. Although this is not a new argument, Phillips does a nice job placing the experience of Cleveland's migrants into the larger context of the Great Migration, citing a wide range of secondary sources. Phillips' real contribution lies in her use of primary sources, including a number of oral interviews, that give voice to the many men and women who left the South during this period. Phillips attempts to show how, in her words, "African-American men and women interpreted, decided, and managed moves between rural and urban living in the South prior to their move North" (p. 16). This perspective not only brings workers and women to the fore, but also helps establish Cleveland' s African-American migrants as actors making deliberate choices to better their own lives rather than as merely objects acted upon by the push-pull factors so often discussed in relation to migration.

Upon arriving in Cleveland southern migrants experienced uneven access to the jobs available, working in mostly unskilled industrial and service positions. Phillips not only describes this experience, but provides insight into blacks' involvement with unions as well as their efforts at self-organization. Blacks in Cleveland suffered the same union exclusion or segregation of black labor that is so well documented elsewhere. But, Phillips suggests, many of Cleveland's working-class blacks realized "that neither antilabor attitudes nor participation in antiblack unions served their needs" (p. 126). Understanding the limits of both union activity and of organizations promoting middle class antilabor attitudes, such as the NAACP or Urban League, Phillips argues that the only way working-class blacks could promote their own interests was through self-organization.

Cleveland's African Americans developed an associational life that "retained religious values and an expressive culture rooted in their experiences as migrants from the South" (p. 188) which provided the necessary foundation for self-organization. Drawing on their experiences in the South, Cleveland's African-American migrants started their own churches and fraternal organizations, and developed their own social clubs. As the number of migrants increased, southern ways permeated Cleveland's black culture and could be seen in the increase in storefront churches and ecstatic worship practices and in the popularization of gospel quartets. Cleveland's new migrants arrived in the city in search of better economic opportunity, but quickly set about creating a culture that was both familiar and supportive.

Believing that neither white-run unions nor middle-class black organizations were adequately concerned about black workers' problems during the Depression, a group of African-American men and women led by John Holly formed the Future Outlook League (FOL) to push for increased neighborhood employment. The FOL organized boycotts of neighborhood stores, picketing establishments under the banner of "don't shop where you can't work." The FOL boycotts were generally successful and quickly put blacks behind the counter in several neighborhood stores. Cleveland's middle-class blacks, however, found the confrontational tactics associated with direct action distasteful and did not support the FOL. The exigencies of the Great Depression and the failure of the NAACP or Urban League to deliver real results for black workers made the FOL the only viable agency for expressing the frustration of Cleveland's unemployed blacks. Since the traditional leadership of the black community was hostile toward the League, the FOL drew its leaders from the working class, which tended to reinforce its militancy.

In the end, despite the efforts of the FOL to open up service and industrial jobs for blacks, working-class African Americans in Cleveland gained only limited and temporary benefits. After wartime expansion ended, many blacks, particularly women, were forced out of recently won employment. For Phillips, though, the significance of the FOL was tied not only to its successes in winning increased employment for blacks through protest and boycott, but to the mere fact of its existence. The FOL was an organization dedicated to fundamentally changing the economic position of African Americans and successfully promoted the rights of black workers "to determine and shape that process" (p. 252). African-American migrants in Cleveland drew on their southern roots and collective identity as workers to create a community that allowed them to be the "caretakers of their own lives" (p. 259).

In Racial Situations, Hartigan also sees the importance of cultural traditions in helping shape a class-based racial identity for southern migrants. Hartigan examines the character of white racialness in three predominantly white neighborhoods in Detroit, a majority black city, and the ways in which class differences influence conceptions of whiteness. The residents of Hartigan's first neighborhood, Briggs, are largely southern migrants from Appalachia, derogatively called "hillbillies". Adjacent to Briggs is Corktown, an older neighborhood undergoing revitalization and Hartigan's second site. His third site is Warrendale, an older residential suburb within the city limits. Working in these neighborhoods, Hartigan shows how whites can be objectified, not just by "the black other," but by other whites. Racially charged terms--such as "hillbillies" in Briggs, or "gentrifier" in Corktown, or "racist" in Warrendale--are used by whites to objectify other whites, often on the basis of class. The defining character of white racialness is distinct in each of these three settings, and yet the class dimension of the objectification of whiteness remains constant. Lower class whites in Briggs cannot insulate themselves from objectification any more than the lower class whites of Warrendale can rise above being labeled racist.

The three areas Hartigan examines are distinctive in that they are majority white in a city that is majority black. The "hillbillies" of Briggs are the remnants of a much larger community that disappeared with the economic decline of the city and in many ways constitute a white urban underclass. Southern migrants, both black and white, arrived in great numbers in Detroit in the 1940s and shared a number of southern, rural cultural characteristics. These southern white migrants engaged in activities and exhibited traits not typically associated with whites. Their failure to assimilate into northern norms of behavior confounded the color line at a time when white northerners were busy making distinctions between themselves and others based on the superiority of whiteness. According to Hartigan, Detroit's "hillbillies" were guilty of disrupting "the naturalized racial order" (p. 20). By using the derogative term "hillbilly" to make intraracial distinctions, Hartigan suggests "white Detroiters policed the social status of whiteness, maintaining a sense of normative behavior that 'hillbillies' transgressed" (p. 20).

Hartigan further explores the notion of white racialness by looking at how whites and blacks interact in the city. Because of their class position, the residents of Briggs are not insulated from having to interact in frequent interracial situations. In examining these situations, Hartigan shows how influential class can be in shaping racial interactions and racial identity. By drawing distinctions between the actions and activities of the white residents of Briggs and the residents of Corktown and Warrendale, Hartigan makes clear the notion that white racial identity is a local construct. "Racial identities," Hartigan says, "are produced and experienced distinctly in different locations" (p. 14). The middleclass white residents of Corktown had qualitatively different, and much more limited, interaction with African Americans than did the lower-class residents of Briggs.

This more limited interaction does not, however, mitigate the racialness associated with being white. In some ways, the preoccupation with not being labeled a "gentrifier" in Corktown reflects both a reluctance to be objectified on the basis of class--having the money to renovate a historic house--and of being considered racist for renovating historic houses and driving poor blacks out of the neighborhood. The fact that few blacks lived in the neighborhood and so were not really being displaced did little to diminish the "gentrifier" label's power to stigmatize. And yet, as Hartigan shows, like "hillbilly," "gentrifier" is a term generally used by whites about other whites. It seems, as Hartigan suggests, intraracial distinctions are a primary medium through which whites think about race" (p. 17).

Hartigan's third neighborhood, Warrendale, is one of the few remaining predominantly white neighborhoods in the city. When the Detroit City School Board decided to open an all male academy emphasizing an Afrocentric curriculum in a recently closed neighborhood elementary school, many parents and neighborhood residents protested. Although opponents of the school board's decision and of the appropriateness of an Afrocentric curriculum were motivated by many complex factors, media coverage focused solely on behaviors and outbursts that could effectively be labeled "racist." The more emotional the encounter, and the less articulate the position stated, the more likely the residents involved would be susceptible to charges of racism. The challenge for the residents of Warrendale was to express opposition to the school or its curriculum and at the same time try to convince observers that their actions were not motivated by racism--an almost impossible task given the intense media scrutiny. Hartigan notes that Warre ndale's residents themselves used the label "racist" to differentiate the positions of other residents from their own. They also used the label to draw intraracial distinctions between themselves and their more privileged counterparts living in the more affluent, and much more racially segregated suburbs, such as Dearborn. Hartigan noted that when whites are racialized it was "always unevenly, always following the contours of class distinctions" (p. 14).

Hartigan's nuanced analysis of racial meaning and identity adds a great deal to our understanding of the nature of race and class in the shaping of community. Hartigan does not suggest that race can be reduced to class, but instead argues "racial categories and conflicts are consistently textured by class distinctions" (p. 15). As an ethnography rather than a history, Racial Situations lacks the larger context to provide a deep understanding of the role of white racial identity in the creation of white urban communities in other times and other places, but by uncovering how whites in Detroit construct their own identities and the identities of other whites, Hartigan takes an important first step in that direction.

Taken together, both AlabamaNorth and Racial Situations show how individuals, both black and white, necessarily operate within boundaries set by race and class, yet largely shape their own identities. In their own ways, by exploring the experience of being minority black in Cleveland or minority white in Detroit, both Phillips and Hartigan reveal how influential class is in shaping racial identity. Neither "blackness" nor "whiteness" are homogeneous constructs, and by bringing this awareness to the fore, both of these works challenge us to think about race and class in new and different ways.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hoffman, Steven J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Previous Article:France and Women 1789-1914.
Next Article:Rethinking Southern Violence: Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866- 1884.

Related Articles
Life for Us is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945.
African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives.
Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration.
"Asylum for Mankind": America 1607-1800.
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker.
Canaan Bound: The African-American Great Migration Novel.
Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles. (Reviews).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters