For New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, however, those suns have gone cold.
The Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow-era South to the North and West — 6 million people uprooting and remaking their lives over six decades, a mass movement spanning much of the 20th century — was one of the nation’s most defining social and cultural transformations. Yet in “The Devil You Know,” Blow wants a do-over. “The initial benefits of the Great Migration have given way, in many ways, to a stinging failure,” he writes, pointing to the “perpetual oppression” of brutal police tactics, housing discrimination, resurgent white nationalism and the political powerlessness African Americans endure in their new climes. “Black people fled the horrors of the racist South for so-called liberal cities of the North and West, trading the devil they knew for the devil they didn’t, only to come to the painful realization that the devil is the devil.”
His solution is yet one more migration, but in reverse. Blow, a Louisiana native who recently relocated from New York to Atlanta, wants more Black Americans to follow his path. The descendants of the Great Migration should return to the South, he argues, and they should do so in numbers so great that Black Americans become a racial majority in various states, “a contiguous band of Black power that would upend America’s political calculus and exponentially increase Black political influence.”
Blow describes his idea as “big” and “audacious” and “grand” and “revolutionary” and many additional adjectives making clear his pride and confidence. Yet this is not a fully developed proposal — more like a rough thought experiment stretched into book form. He says the reverse migration should be intentional and strategic, but the strategy is only partially laid out, reflecting a simplified interpretation of history, one in which counterfactuals are taken as given and sheer numbers are assumed to overpower politics, power and entrenched prejudice.
Just as with the Great Migration itself, Blow’s pitch involves both push and pull. He cites the “balkanized housing and education segregation” in supposedly “diverse” Northern cities, where racism is merely “once removed” and egalitarianism is a “flimsy disguise” for white supremacy. “White people in destination cities,” Blow writes, “are committed to the same control over the Black body to which the law has been dedicated in this country from the beginning, a strategy that the modern North has adapted from the historical South.”
And that historical South, in his estimation, is changing. Blow reports that of the roughly 1,200 majority-Black cities and towns in the United States, more than 1,000 are in the South, already constituting “a country within a country . . . a new Africa in America.” He points with excitement to the proliferation of young, innovative Black mayors and Black police chiefs in such Southern towns, as well as a thriving Black middle class in many cities. Blow contends that if majority-Black populations gain political power at the state level, efforts at criminal justice reform, education overhauls and even reparations all become more feasible.
He cites Georgia’s expanding African American population and the voter registration efforts led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as “proof of concept” for his proposal, showing “how Black people can potentially experience true power.” Yet Abrams’s 2020 book on the fight against voter suppression, “Our Time Is Now,” stresses that new voters struggle to have their rights upheld. “Turnout reached a higher level among voters of color in 2018 than in any previous midterm election in memory, including in Georgia,” Abrams writes. “But those numbers do not reflect the gauntlet of problems faced by voters, too many of whom were rejected or denied before having their ballots counted. . . . Higher participation means that more people are willing to try, not that they will succeed.”
A larger Black population, even a majority-Black population in select states, may not necessarily lead to the political dominance Blow foresees, especially given his distrust of political coalitions that cross racial lines. The so-called browning of America “could mean that white supremacy is simply replaced by a form of ‘lite’ supremacy,” he warns, a contrast to Abrams’s call for alliances with progressive and moderate Whites as well as non-Black minority voters. For Blow, numbers equal power, and at times he portrays the Great Migration as a missed opportunity to accumulate both in the South. “If the Great Migration hadn’t taken place, Black people could control or form the majority influence for as many as ninety Electoral College votes, more than California and New York State combined,” he writes. “And if they and other groups voted the same way that they do now, they could have ensured that almost every president in the last fifty years was a Democrat.”
Those are some big ifs, and history is rarely as straightforward as changing one variable and assuming everything else adjusts smoothly. His suggestion that the Republican Party, facing electoral peril in a Black-majority South, would “be forced to course-correct and become a desirable alternative for Black people” seems quite hopeful indeed. He acknowledges that Black political representation in the South might not grow quickly enough to offset losses in Northern cities following a reverse migration, “but, in the end the benefit and abundance of Black political power would be to the good.” His optimism is often more stated than argued.
As intriguing as the proposal itself is why Blow feels compelled to make it. He describes some of the recent protests surrounding racial justice as mere “cabin fever racial consciousness” flowing from exhaustion with the pandemic, a performative activism that will not yield lasting changes. He similarly dismisses much of contemporary Black intellectual life, lamenting that too many African American thinkers deliver “beautiful meditations” and “blistering orations” that accomplish little beyond ingratiating them to self-flagellating White audiences eager to be reminded how irredeemable they are. The result can be “an exercise in credentialing,” with plaintive Black thinkers longing “to be anointed by white liberals and the white academy.” His proposal, he suggests, is a more direct and necessary approach. “Central to Black liberation is the assumption of power,” Blow writes, and power can be reached via the “Black regionalism” that is already building in the South. He just wants to give it a boost.
Blow does not call out these opportunistic Black thinkers by name, leaving readers to take their own guesses. (I have a few.) The intellectuals he does identify are usually long dead: Booker T. Washington gets his comeuppance here, as does W.E.B. Du Bois, whose arguments surrounding the Talented Tenth of Black elites Blow finds “problematic.” I wish Blow had specified his contemporary disagreements, because it would have forced him to grapple with them more forcefully in a moment when battles over identity and racial redress are proliferating, whether on the streets, on social media or in publishing houses.
The author expects a pat on the back for traveling this reverse migration himself. “I could easily have spent the rest of my life filling my calendar with Park Avenue parties, exclusive salons, and destination vacations,” Blow boasts in the book’s cringiest passage. “How could a Black man, having risen to the height of New York’s white cultural inclusion, spurn it?” Reminding everyone how you spurned that world suggests you’re still conflicted about doing so; it’s another exercise in credentialism.
Blow does deserve some credit for voting with his feet, even if missing out on New York salons seems like a net plus. But more important, Blow is in fact making an argument, not just offering a lament of the sort that exhausts him. The Great Migration “cleaved the Black community culturally,” he writes, between the children of those who left and the children of those who stayed. It is time “to reunite and reconcile these two factions,” he argues, to create “a space to remember that our trauma history is not our total history.”
“The Devil You Know” reminds that America’s mobility has not always meant progress, that alongside the allure of movement are the tears and disappointments that keep us moving, always seeking a new place where we can and must belong.