Photo from discoverblackheritage used under a Creative Commons license.
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land (Vintage, 1992).
An account of the “Great Black Migration” following World War II from the South to the North, with a focus on Ruby Haynes, who left Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, in search of better fortune in Chicago. The 1944 invention of the mechanical cotton picker displaced workers across the rural South, and Northern cities promised new opportunity. Lemann did his share of reporting for this book, and he obviously spent a lot of time in ghettos that few will visit. But he also serves up history, sociology and public policy. He pays attention to the culture of 1940s Mississippi sharecroppers, which changed as it moved north. Also, the government response to the migration and to urban poverty gets considerable attention, both at the local level — his explanation of the planning of the Robert Taylor homes alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway in south Chicago is illuminating, though the buildings have now been torn down — and at the federal level, where he chronicles the successes and failures of the 1960s’ war on poverty.
Here is Lemann’s bio at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he is a professor; there also are links to articles he has written recently. C. Vann Woodward reviewed the book for The New York Times. Matthew Cooper reviewed it for The Washington Monthly. Richard Lacayo reviewed it for Time. Entertainment Weekly gave the book an A-.
Watch Lemann’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s show in 1995 (skip ahead to the 41:00 mark). And here is a transcript of Lemann’s appearance on Booknotes in 1991. Playthell Benjamin and Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander both have their say. Robert Gregg is more critical of Lemann than most. Even so, the University of Chicago recommends the book (among others) to incoming freshmen.