on 1 January 1999
"The Promised Land" is a fascinating study of the effects, both on the "immigrants" themselves and on America, of the migration of Blacks from the Mississippi Delta to the industrial cities of the North, in this case, specifically Chicago. The book traces the experiences of a group of individuals who made the migration, telling their story through time, beginning with the immigrants and continuing on with the families they built in the North, with a rough time frame of the 1940's - 1970's.
The book comprises 2 basic strengths: the approach to the material and the resulting structure in which the story is told, and the sheer interest of the events themselves and the people who lived them.
The author approaches the story he wishes to tell in two ways: He relates the story of the people themselves, giving these sections of the book an oral history like content, but intermixes the chapters with those based on an analytic, scholarly approach, where the individual strories previously related are woven into the bigger historical picture. The approach works wonderfully, giving the book a structure both readable as a straightforward story of human beings relating their own very personal roles in historical events but also allowing the reader to put these events in a greater historical context, to understand for instance the sad downward slope experienced in the Black working class communities as the years passed. The early immigrants made their way to Black sections of Chicago which, while segregated and relatively poor compared to the White sections, also managed to provide at least the basis of a thriving community, in which work was available and there was a hope of moving up in the world. The comparison of these communities in the 1940's to the boarded up, drug infested no-man's land some of them were to become later is startling.
Some of the resulting questions raised are fascinating, especially in the current environment with the all-out effort to replace welfare with workfare. At it's most extreme is the question raised by Federal Welfare authorities as to whether it is perhaps better to just support people in the Mississippi Delta with welfare, given that the outlay is relatively minor, as opposed to encouraging people to move North. They might improve their lot with better jobs not available in the Delta but with the risk that they will perhaps end up on welfare forcing the authorities to pay out much more in benefits than would be necessary to pay in the Delta with it's significantly lower standard of living.
In the final analysis however, it is the stories of the immigrants which really take center stage and make reading this book such a satisfying experience. In a world of jet planes and instant electronic communications it is hard to imagine to almost biblical migration which took place all by virtue of a scheduled train line, people being transported to a profoundly different world by a day or so of travel, a world which at least initially offered a degree of prosperity and an improvement in ,living standards way beyond that of the Delta they left behind. The fragility of that life in the "promised land" however would become sadly apparent in the mixed experiences the future was to hold for the immigrants and their families and in the sad decline of their communities.
Driven by the disappearance of the Industries and Stockyards whose jobs fueled the great migration in the first place this movement eventually ground to a halt. Victims of both economic and racial segregation, the once dynamic Black working class communities of Chicago became more and more isolated and desolate as jobs became ever scarcer and drugs and welfare took a firmer hold. Those residents who had prospered and could afford to do so left for the suburbs open to them, while those who for whatever reason, whether their own failings or just an inability to keep up with a changing world were left to reside in the inner city in such stark monuments to failed policies as the Robert Taylor homes.
"The Promised Land" captures an episode in American history not likely to be repeated, and does so in a manner which combines the best of both analytic and anecdotal writing styles, driven by the heartfelt and exciting rembrances of the particpants themselves, those who comprised the great migration to the promised land.
on 28 April 1999
Lemann's stories of real people in Clarksdale and Chicago are very compelling, really draw the reader in. But his long section on Washington, which frames the nation's response to racism, black poverty, ghetto housing, community organizing and a number of other issues--and why those responses failed--is convoluted, confusing, and poorly written. Throughout the book Lemann uses far too many eight-dollar, academician words when simpler forms would do nicely, and would fit the subject matter better.