Despite the brutality of the South and the barbarity they began experiencing in the North, Southerners became very politically minded during the Great Migration. While Northerners, who’d received a wake-up call during the Red Summer of 1919, would link hands with their cousins from the South and start organizing. The NAACP dramatically expanded in 1919, creating a massive push for legislation to protect Black people against mob violence. Also, African American newspapers and media centered on our community and our issues started going into publication. The Red Summer of 1919 would eventually become known as the impetus for the early developments of the Civil Rights Movement. The events surrounding that summer also became the motivating factor behind the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned two decades of American history.
For Black people, the Harlem Renaissance would bring forth a wave of self-love and the idea of reconceptualizing Blackness for ourselves without narratives led by the majority. It was a period that created some of the greatest African American literature, music, theatre, and visual arts of all time. The marriage of Black Southern and Northern sensibilities would give us names like Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker, and this era would go on to impact the world over.
For all intents and purposes, the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to the New York that I love. The hip hop music and culture I championed for years, is the product of a mixed marriage and great-grandchild of a history fraught with extreme danger. In looking down on southern hip hop and culture, I summarily thumbed my nose at a heritage interwoven into my backbone. Any chants I yelled at a Black Lives Matter protest also came from the belly of ancestors who had the audacity to pick up their shit and organize when yelling wasn’t enough to curb oncoming violence. I am New York to the bone because they were South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and any other state south of the Mason Dixon.
For all the years I spent traveling to the South for family reunions, it never fully dawned on me why the elders in our family—despite geological location—would prioritize such a massive annual event. My family was never financially well off, but somehow the elders would make sure that reunions were never part of the budget that got cut when life’s expenses started to grow.
I suspect they always knew what took me four years at an HBCU, plus a few homecomings to figure out—the South always had something to say—and if we don’t take our “trips back home” to listen, then we will miss an integral part of our story.