Yet another story about Blacks moving down South from The New York Times. Seems to happen at least once a year, sometimes twice, that we get such an article from the paper. But rather than talk about the fact that Blacks are getting priced out of the North, or in the case of the Midwest may not be able to find work at all, I often wonder what this means for Black culture up North. New York was an oasis for Black culture from the twenties all the way up until the late nineties.
It wasn’t just Harlem. Blacks from all of the suburbs enjoyed a second renaissance through hip-hop that not just affected Manhattan but spread throughout all of the boroughs. Even artists from New Jersey and Philadelphia were able to partake of this new wave, which was a great thing (even though Philadelphia had experienced a second wave of their own in the seventies through the Philadelphia Sound that was heard on a lot of R&B and soul records). So for my generation New York was an oasis of Black culture; times were good, the city had a Black mayor and it seemed as though the city was the place to be for an African-American during the nineties.
There are still a lot of African-Americans in New York and the Northeast. But a lot of them are moving to the South for cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, Durham, sometimes even cities in Florida. African-Americans never really changed anything up North. Discrimination persisted, animosity prevailed, Blacks found segregated living conditions and were told which neighborhoods they could live in (if they were applying for a loan), and in a lot of cases were welcomed by racial epithets and hate crimes when they finally did move into neighborhoods that used to be all White.
A lot of Blacks developed a thick skin and found ways to cope. The arts was one of those ways in which Blacks were able to cope, and it made life easier and a lot of Blacks found creative ways to express themselves over the years. Some were even able to make a good living as an artist or an entertainer. But most Black still worked hard, still went to school, and may have done the creative thing on the side but still had day jobs. That changed during the eighties and nineties as a new class of Blacks that were disenfranchised and discriminated against found that the choice was clear. They could pursue the art thing and ride this hip-hop/graffiti/punk train or they could sell drugs. A lot of Blacks were in gangs up North, a lot of them still are.
The entire point of Blacks going up North in the first place was to escape slavery, escape servitude, but they found the same thing up North, just in a different fashion with a different face. The North was quickly surpassed by cities like Washington DC and Atlanta in the South, and it was no longer the oasis that it suggested it could be to Blacks that fled the South before the Civil Rights era. Blacks found themselves slowing moving back to the South. There was a divide, a shift going on; those Northern Blacks that did well for themselves in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, did very well, while those Blacks that were not doing so well fared even worse over time.
Chances are you still had relatives down South somewhere. Do Blacks bring their culture with them or do they assimilate and become a part of the larger Black culture down South that had already existed for many decades before Northerners moved there? What happens to the Black culture of Northerners; when a lot of the intellectual and artistic capital moves down South who gets left behind, does the Black culture of the North truly resonate with Southern Blacks, or are we moving back to the days when Black culture is distinct and regional, even territorial, again?
For years hip-hop was a movement that had the effect of unifying Black culture across America, but the significance of hip-hop, if there is any left at all, suggests that those days are behind us. Northern artists may find their true calling in the South, working with Southern labels and related acts, with their work distributed through those channels, as opposed to doing everything in the North. When the buzz about Atlanta cooled down, things moved to Miami. I would expect to hear a lot about Charlotte over the next decade, but New York hasn’t seemed to be of cultural significance musically for at least ten years now. Your hottest artists still come from the South; J. Cole, Jay Electronica, or are associated with the South (but were initially from the North), such as Nicki Minaj. Southern artists even take on what used to be considered a Northern style of rap; when you heard Little Brother you never really thought of them as Southern artists.
The lines between the North and the South is now blurred, which is a good thing (something that needed to happen because we were divided among ourselves). At the same time, the North isn’t getting any cheaper, and yet again, Blacks there have some hard choices to make. You can develop a thick skin and learn how to survive that school of hard knocks, or move away from the North. Once you get to the South, you can expect to see your Northern counterparts, and you might find yourself struggling again if you aren’t careful. The South isn’t what it used to be 40 years ago, and if you find yourself relocating there, it would be good to have a plan to fall back on if it is not as easy as the media makes it seem …