Blacks retuning South: a poignant searching

April 21, 1996|By JEAN THOMPSON | JEAN THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

"Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South," by Carol Stack. Basic Books. 226 pages, $21.

Since about 1970, the historic tide of African-American migration from the rural South to the industrial North has been receding, notes anthropologist Carol Stack.

Her "Call to Home" is a piercing portrait of the end of the Great Migration that changed the economy and cultures of both North and South. It is a must-read, both inspiring and frightening as it tells of the next chapter in many African-Americans' search for a home place.

From about 1970 to 1990, she says, the South regained more than half a million black citizens it had lost to the North by the 1960s. The return wave will continue into the next century, census officials predict.

For her examination of this demographic shift, Ms. Stack followed an extended family of weary and hopeful travelers and a network of friends, (a family tree isn't included and would have been helpful).

For the Bishops and other families, the North is no longer "The Promised Land." Some of the South's prodigal daughters and sons have dragged home with deflated spirits. Others have come back emboldened, determined to reshape not only fallow land but communities lacking indoor plumbing, day care centers, good schools or office jobs.

The strength of Ms. Stack's work is her tireless search for the spirit that calls the Bishop kinfolk home from Baltimore and Philadelphia and Newark. Why would anyone leave good-paying jobs for utterly impoverished dells where overt racism still hampers progress? She allows her subjects to explain.

It is a migration led by children, she notes. The young were shipped South to grow up feeling dirt beneath their bare feet instead of sidewalks littered with hypodermic needles and broken glass.

Eventually, college-educated mothers followed babies back home. The jobs there aren't in gleaming high-rise offices: They are in pork processing plants and on the unforgiving, hardscrabble plots once farmed by parents who were sharecroppers.

"You can have too many things, and they can crowd your thinking," explains the woman dubbed Eula Bishop (real names are not used throughout). "Look at what brought us back: basic needs, to provide for our family, and a drive to make real changes in our own lifetime."

They are heeding the call that readers will recognize as the American Dream, Ms. Stack suggests. Her book becomes a forum for the voices of a populace often overlooked.

She also avoids stereotypes and political correctness, the two -- major wallows that could taint her book. She makes no apologies for the wanderers who give up `or give in to alcohol or self-pity. Nor does she forgive the blatant small-town racists who thwart returnees as they tackle social problems with progressive zeal.

Ms. Stack suggests that the interconnected futures of the South and North will be greatly influenced by the fortunes of these communities. She makes clear that there are stories as yet untold, and she has shown the way.

Jean Thompson writes about education for The Sun. She has worked as a journalist for 14 years. A collector of African-American memorabilia and genealogical papers, she also has written about black history.

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