Much of America was aghast when formerly celebrated neurosurgeon turned HUD Secretary Ben Carson suggested in a speech on his first day in that office that enslaved Blacks were actually immigrants. It’s an error often made by those who conflate the experiences of Black Americans with other immigrant groups.
Of course, Black American were first brought here as forcibly enslaved people. After the abolishment of slavery, the majority of them were no longer someone else’s property. However, left without education, without money, without property, broken family ties, their freedom severely curtailed, and no legal or civil rights, they suffered at the whims of southern whites. This included enduring generations of terror from the Ku Klux Klan. Ultimately, many left for northern cities in waves of migrations from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century in what has come to be known as The Great Migration.
According to Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) in a recent TED Talk, the Great Migration was, “Actually a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country. They were defecting a caste system known as Jim Crow.”
With their April 16 concert, “In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body,” Carnegie Hall, The Schomburg Center and the National Black Theatre have collaborated to create a work with an eye toward adding nuance and clarity to popularly held assumptions. It will take place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the research centers of the New York Public Library.
Under the auspices of the National Black Theatre, and using source material found in the Schomburg archives, award-winning sound designer and musician Justin Hicks, Drama Desk-award winning actor and vocalist Kenita R. Miller, television writer Keith Josef Adkins, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Hope Boykin used the works of James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey to create song, drama and dance. All the new works highlight different aspects of the movement of Black people to, in and from America throughout the nation’s history.
Carnegie Hall’s “Migrations: The Making of America,” is a five-week, 100 hundred event citywide festival about the people who have helped shaped American culture. “In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body” is just one. Other programs include “To Where From Here,” given in partnership with Columbia University. That event is a discussion featuring art historian Kellie B. Jones, novelist Ayana Mathis, and cultural critic Farah Jasmine Griffin exploring the past, present, and future impact of the Great Migration on forms of African-American artistic expression.
Founded in 1968 by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the National Black Theatre is New York City’s oldest continually run Black theater. It celebrates its 50th anniversary with a series of performances throughout the city, around the country and around the world. Sade Lythcott, National Black Theatre’s current CEO, speaks to the differences in Black migration and immigrants to America. “The root of our story as African-Americans isn’t an immigration story, this idea of migration really housed in a specific time period and around a specific people. The important thing for us is to re-contextualize and own our narrative around migration and perpetual flight.”
Doing it in partnership with the Schomburg brings more poignancy to the undertaking. “I’m really excited to team up with the Schomburg as a woman who was born in Harlem and raised about a block away from the Schomburg.” She says further, “This project that enlivens the Schomburg’s archives in order to create new work, it’s really important so that we don’t see it just as a holder of our history, but a catalyst for our future.”
Indeed, television writer Keith Josef Adkins (“The Good Fight”), who wrote the monologue for the production, reveals, “I referenced essays by James Baldwin about life in Harlem in the 1940s. I also read a lot of newspapers from that time and what stood out to me the most was the riots, particularly the race riots of 1919 in Chicago.”
The work has universal significance but also personal meaning for Adkins: “My grandparents migrated from Georgia to Ohio in the 1940s. I guess they were at the end of the migration from the south. I’ve grown up around the stories about why they moved.” Adkins reveals financial concerns encouraged his family’s moving but also something much more pressing. They simply feared for their very lives. “They also moved to get away from the Klan, particularly after two of my grandmother’s brothers were lynched by the Klan,” he explains soberly.
“I wanted to make sure I depicted a person who thought the beauty of Georgia was amazing, and the idea of moving out of it was significant. Then to land in a place where there was supposed to be equal opportunity, and they discover ‘Oh I have to continue this fight but now I don’t have to be silenced by racism.’”
Adkins’ monologue, titled “The Red Stone in Red Summer,” features a character set in the so-called Red Summer of 1919 when more than 20 race riots occurred. “So it was a story of people moving from a hostile southern space to a hostile northern space but still trying to keep their eyes on the larger prize of success and momentum.”
“In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body” promises to be a triumph of creativity and spirit that should not be missed. For more information, please visit http://www.nationalblacktheatre.org.