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Ain’t Got No Home

Ain’t Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    Ain’t Got No Home
    Book Description:

    Most scholarship on the mass migrations of African Americans and southern whites during and after the Great Depression treats those migrations as separate phenomena, strictly divided along racial lines. In this engaging interdisciplinary work, Erin Royston Battat argues instead that we should understand these Depression-era migrations as interconnected responses to the capitalist collapse and political upheavals of the early twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, Battat shows, writers and artists of both races created migration stories specifically to bolster the black-white Left alliance. Defying rigid critical categories, Battat considers a wide variety of media, including literary classics by John Steinbeck and Ann Petry, "lost" novels by Sanora Babb and William Attaway, hobo novellas, images of migrant women by Dorothea Lange and Elizabeth Catlett, popular songs, and histories and ethnographies of migrant shipyard workers.This vibrant rereading and recovering of the period's literary and visual culture expands our understanding of the migration narrative by uniting the political and aesthetic goals of the black and white literary Left and illuminating the striking interrelationship between American populism and civil rights.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1404-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. 1-14)

    In May 1940, while on his honeymoon in Mexico, Richard Wright joined left-wing documentary filmmaker Herbert Kline and his screenwriter, the famous novelist John Steinbeck, in boozy planning sessions for the filmThe Forgotten Village. Both writers were basking in the glow of literary success. Steinbeck had recently won the Pulitzer Prize forThe Grapes of Wrath; Wright’sNative Sonhad just leaped ahead ofGrapesto reach the number one slot on theNew York Timesbest-seller list.¹ The poverty and injustice they witnessed during the Great Depression outraged Steinbeck and Wright. They wrote novels that put a human...

    (pp. 15-40)

    On 25 March 1931, a group of black boys got into a fight with some white boys on a Memphis-bound freight train. When the police rounded up the black youths near Scottsboro, Alabama, they found a couple of white girls hiding on the train and coerced them into filing rape charges. Although Alabama’s Governor Benjamin Meek Miller and the National Guard prevented a mass lynching, the outcome was just about the same: A white jury quickly convicted the boys, sentencing all but the youngest to death. The Communistled ILD quickly took charge of the boys’ appeals. The speed with which...

    (pp. 41-70)

    While the reactionary tendencies of the hobo made him a problematic icon for the Popular Front, the migrant family held more promise. In particular, government photographers produced images of dust bowl migrants in California that rallied support for New Deal programs. These unemployed workers had advantages over the Scottsboro boys in terms of public appeal: They were white, they traveled in family groups, and most of them would have little to do with the Communist Party. When vigilantes hired by the corporate growers beat white strikers during a lettuce strike in Salinas in 1936, the incident made national news.¹ Readers...

    (pp. 71-94)

    Like Sanora Babb, William Attaway was both insider and outsider to the Great Migration that he depicted in his novelBlood on the Forge. Attaway was six when his middle-class family migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in 1911. The Attaways could afford to leave the South before labor-starved northern factories opened their gates to southern workers during World War I. A doctor and a teacher, Attaway’s parents provided him with a college education that they hoped would launch his medical career. Economic stability and education gave Attaway the freedom and skills to become a writer, while his rebellion against his...

    (pp. 95-126)

    As the preceding chapters suggest, Popular Front depictions of interracial alliance often focused on the male worker. Yet the iconography of migrant motherhood was also widespread in Popular Front culture. Maternal imagery was rhetorically versatile, appealing to middle-class audiences contemplating the efficacy of the New Deal as well as to radicals pushing for deeper change.¹ The photograph that came to be known as “Migrant Mother” is perhaps the most enduring icon of the Great Depression (see Figure 5).² Dorothea Lange took the picture of Florence Thompson and three of her children while on assignment at a pea pickers’ camp in...

    (pp. 127-162)

    Through stories of freedom-seeking hoboes and militant migrant workers, through images of failed births that give rise to a new collective consciousness, radical writers of the 1930s envisioned southern migrants as the harbingers of change. They insisted that shared class interests transcended differences of race and gender. The mobilization for World War II would dramatically alter economic and political conditions in the United States, as well as writers’ strategies for imagining social democracy. While the Roosevelt administration and its Popular Front allies issued an urgent call for unity against fascism, bloody racial conflicts embroiled the American home front. Impoverished dust...

    (pp. 163-174)

    In the poem “I Heard a Black Man Sing,” Earl Conrad pairs iconic images of white and black migrants to celebrate interracial unity:

    The peat bog soldier in the camp,

    The Joads out seeking food,

    The black man breaking from his chains:

    He sang in fighting mood!¹

    Conrad, a white Communist, originally wrote the poem in 1941 and dedicated it to Paul Robeson, the radical black singer famous for his anthem of cultural pluralism, “Ballad for Americans.” Republished in the Popular Front journalNegro Storyin 1944, Conrad’s poem serves as a counterpoint to Himes’s withering depiction of racist Okies...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 175-200)
    (pp. 201-224)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 225-233)