The Promised Land (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 seemed to promise that the persistent economic disadvantage suffered by black Americans would at last be overcome. Although the legal push for equality created a broader, largely college-educated black middle class, many black Americans sank, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, into ever more desperate poverty and social chaos. By 1990, black urban ghettos were plagued by illegitimate births, single-parent families, widespread drug use, violent crime, and low levels of educational attainment. Nicholas Lemann attempts to resolve this seeming paradox of immiserization despite reform by examining the massive black migration from the South to the North that occurred between 1940 and 1970.
Lemann, a Louisiana-bred journalist, looks at two aspects of this story. He traces the fate of individual black migrants from the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago, Illinois, and he recounts the history of government responses to the northward migration in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. Thus the point of view shifts, throughout the book, from the level of high policy to the mundane level of ordinary lives; sometimes the shift occurs within the same chapter. The reader sees black urban poverty from the vantage point of the southern black migrant, Chicago Democratic Party machine politicians, black civil rights leaders, social scientists, and government officials of three successive presidential administrations....
(The entire section is 2382 words.)
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The Promised Land (Magill Book Reviews)
Praised as one of the most important books of its time, THE PROMISED LAND, like Jacob A. Riis’s classic HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES (1890), brings to life the struggles of formerly invisible members of America’s so-called underclass. Columnist George Will has compared the book favorably to Gunnar Myrdal’s AN AMERICAN DILEMMA (1944), calling it a definitive delineation of our nation’s most vexing problem. Coming a quarter-century after the publication of Claude Brown’s autobiographical MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND (1965), it is a measure of America’s subsequent neglect that Lemann’s book is considered such an eye-opener.
Both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses reflect the author’s journalistic background (Lemann is presently a national correspondent for THE ATLANTIC). The life stories are presented without many quotations in a dispassionate, nonjudgmental manner. Historical references are sometimes left dangling, such as whether Boss Richard J. Daley participated in the 1919 Chicago race riots or whether Bessie Smith bled to death as a result of being denied access to a white hospital. Lemann does not fully examine the second black migration of upwardly mobile black families from inner cities to suburban enclaves, which drastically weakened the social fabric of the neighborhoods they left behind. After offering a brilliant critique of 1960’s community action programs, the author calls for little more than more of the same. But while...
(The entire section is 441 words.)