Wilderness Produces Art
We were talking last week of the collective wilderness passage of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. But there’s another great collective passage closer to home.
I’m talking about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the industrial cites of the North between 1915 and 1970, as detailed spectacularly by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns (2010).
The children of Israel migrated as one collective mass. The Blacks of the Great Migration came one at a time or one family at a time. A father would make the trek to Chicago or Detroit, find work and send for his brother or uncle or cousin. The wives and children would follow. Or sometimes they went first and alone. In end, six million or more left Georgia and Alabama and the states of the old Confederacy, hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families.
But from their struggle, they made something else.
They made art.
Music first. Jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll. They made the Motown sound and their kids and grandkids made rap and hip-hop. They made literature. Richard Wright and Langston Hughes and a thousand others. They made dance, they made fashion. They created slang and idioms of speech that reinvented the English language. Food. Style. Sports. Movies. TV. They invented cool.
“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”
Richard Wright, from Black Boy (1945)
This explosion of art came out of the Great Migration’s pain and heartbreak … and their triumph. It had to. Art is an answer—maybe the answer—to the hell of a passage through the wilderness.
Are you on that passage now? Take heart, sister. Hang in, brother. The mud you and I are slogging through today becomes the fertile soil that yields up books and music, poetry and dance and movies and fashion, and forms of expression that nobody has even dreamed of.
Wilderness produces art.