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The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations
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The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations

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by Ira Berlin

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An award-winning historian's sweeping new interpretation of the African American experience.

In this masterful account, Ira Berlin, one of the nation's most distinguished historians, offers a revolutionary-and sure to be controversial-new view of African American history. In The Making of African America, Berlin challenges the traditional


An award-winning historian's sweeping new interpretation of the African American experience.

In this masterful account, Ira Berlin, one of the nation's most distinguished historians, offers a revolutionary-and sure to be controversial-new view of African American history. In The Making of African America, Berlin challenges the traditional presentation of a linear, progressive history from slavery to freedom. Instead, he puts forth the idea that four great migrations, between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, lie at the heart of black American culture and its development. With an engrossing, accessible narrative, Berlin traces the transit from Africa to America, Virginia to Alabama, Biloxi to Chicago, Lagos to the Bronx, and in the process finds the essence of black American life.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Boyle
…majestic…Over the course of his distinguished career teaching history at the University of Maryland, Berlin has redefined our understanding of American slavery. In this relatively thin book he goes a step further. It's time, he says, to reconceptualize the entire African-American experience from the 1600s to the present—to set aside the long dominant "slavery to freedom" narrative, the story of a people moving slowly but inexorably toward equality, and to put in its place what Berlin calls a "contrapuntal narrative" of "movement and place, fluidity and fixity," the story of a people uprooted and searching for home…The Making of African America is primarily a story of the resilience, creativity and courage African-Americans drew upon as they engaged in the difficult process of piecing together new lives in an unfamiliar land.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Berlin (Many Thousands Gone) offers a fresh reading of American history through the prism of the “great migrations that made and remade African and African American life.” The first was “the forcible deportation” of Africans to North America” in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by their “forced transfer” into the American interior during the 19th century. Then came the migration of the mid-20th century as African-Americans fled the South for the urban North, and the arrival of continental Africans and people of African descent from the Caribbean during the latter part of the 20th century. Berlin sees migration and the reshaping of communities to their new environments as central to the African-American experience. Movement is a matter of numbers, and Berlin provides them in detail kept fully readable by his attention to the cultural products of the shifts. In particular, he follows the church as it moves, the music as it takes on new themes, and kinship as it broadens. Berlin's careful scholarship is evidenced in his rich notes; the ordinary reader will be pleased by the fluidity and clarity of his prose. (Jan.)
Library Journal
The act of moving has added dimension to African American life, argues Berlin (history, Univ. of Maryland; Generations of Captivity). The experience began with the more than ten million shipped from Africa in the transatlantic slave trade. It continued with passage from Atlantic coastal communities to what became the Deep South. Next came the so-called Great Migration from South to North, which included movement from countryside to city. And now a global passage, explains Berlin, is reshaping a firmly entrenched urban African American population, with an influx of blacks from the Caribbean and Africa since the late 1960s. Migrations continue to remake black life, as they continue to remake American life; they create new histories and new realities, Berlin suggests. Others, notably historian Colin A. Palmer, have pursued similar themes of black passages but not so comprehensively in the broad sweep of place and space. VERDICT Berlin's neat synthesis offers the sharp insights and provocative commentary of one of the foremost historians of black America. Essential for library collections, general readers, and scholars of African American history. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/09.]—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
Kirkus Reviews
A succinct study of how the migrations of African Americans, from the slavery era to the present, affected the development of black culture in America. Berlin (History/Univ. of Maryland; Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, 2003, etc.) analyzes what he calls the four great migrations: the transatlantic slave trade from Africa; the transcontinental slave trade within the United States; the movement of former slaves from the South to the North and West after the Civil War; and the wave of black immigration from the Caribbean, Africa, South America and elsewhere. He makes the case that all this movement-the cycle of being uprooted again and again-is what distinguishes the African-American experience from those of other immigrant American cultures. The repeated migrations, he argues, helped solidify the creation of African-American culture. The bond between people, created by common experience, became as important as the bond to specific places. Along with migration, Berlin also discusses the importance of rootedness in African-American life. For example, after blacks became a key part of urban society, the stability of staying in one place allowed distinct aspects of modern American black culture to emerge-including arts such as gospel and jazz and political movements such as black nationalism. In the most engaging section, the author addresses the massive post-1965 influx of black immigrants and how they and American blacks have adjusted to each others' ways. The differences in language, and prejudices on both sides, have often made that adjustment difficult. Despite the culture clash, however, black immigrants have also made crucial contributions toAfrican-American culture. For example, Berlin notes, many early hip-hop artists were of Caribbean descent. An insightful meditation on the physical and cultural journeys of African-Americans in the United States.
From the Publisher
Praise for Many Thousands Gone

"Berlin...brings together in a magisterial synthesis much of what has now been learned about slave life during its first two centuries within the present United States."
-Edmund S. Morgan, New York Review of Books

"In this masterly work, Ira Berlin has demonstrated that earlier North American slavery had many different forms and meaning that varied over time and from place to place. Many Thousands Gone illuminates the first 200 years of African-American history more effectively than any previous study."
-George Frederickson, New York Times Book Review

"Many Thousands Gone is likely to remain for years to come the standard account of the first two centuries of slavery in the area that became the United States."
-Eric Foner, London Review of Books

"The result of Berlin's labours is a vital book, not simply in making sense of historical complexity, but in advancing a new and distinctive argument about the shaping of North America...the most original and most persuasive overall study of North American slavery for a very long time...It is, quite simply, a book of major importance for all historians of North America."
-James Walvin, Times Higher Education

"The result is the best general history we now have of the 'peculiar institution' during its first 200 years...Many Thousands Gone is a remarkable book, one that beautifully integrates two centuries of history over a wide geographical area. It is a benchmark study from which students will learn and with which scholars will grapple for many years to come."
-Peter Kolchin, Los Angeles Times Book

Recipient of the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University
Recipient of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize
Winner of the Elliott Rudwick Prize of the Organization of American Historians
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle for Nonfiction
Recipient of the Frank L. and Harriet C. Oswley Award of the Southern Historical Association

Praise for Generations of Captivity

"Ira Berlin has written what will undoubtedly become one of the indispensible books on North American slavery. Generations of Captivity traces the history of this dismal institution from its 17th-century origins to its 19th-century destruction in the maelstrom of civil war. He comes closer than any other contemporary historian to giving us an opportunity-in a single, readable volume-to come to grips with a subject very few of us wish to think about but which all of us surely need to consider: how millions of white Americans over the course of three centuries came to hold millions of black Americans in chattel bondage while managing to lose nary a moment's sleep over their complicity in this monstrous enterprise...Berlin has given us a moving, insightful account of slavery in the United States. Readers will not soon forget the story he has told, nor should they. We still live with the consequences of this institution, and we should understand what slavery meant to the generations of captivity who lived it."
-Charles B. Dew, New York Times Book Review

"Berlin focuses on changes over time as it affected patterns of African American demography, family and community life, religious beliefs and practices, and labor in the field and workshop. In the process, he illuminates the rich complexity of slavery as it is shaped by various colonial powers (Spanish, French, British) in port cities and in rural areas...This compact volume offers an impressive overview of historic transformations and regional variations in the institution."
-Jacqueline Jones, Washington Post

"Where Generations of Captivity differs from previous histories is in its emphatically bottom-up approach, looking at slavery almost exclusively from the point of view of the slaves themselves, and in its relentless emphasis on the institutions cruelty."
-Howard Temperley, Times Literary Supplement

"Over the years Ira Berlin has established himself as one of the foremost scholars of North American slavery. His last book, Many Thousands Gone (1998), was concerned with the first two centuries of slavery in the United States. Generations of Captivity covers a lot of the same territory, but in doing so takes the story up to the American Civil War (1861-5) and beyond. The result is an absorbing work that demonstrates convincingly that slavery was not a static or monolithic structure but an evolving institution that changed dramatically between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...As one might expect, Berlin pieces together this complex history with great skill and authority. He rarely falters and, just as important, contrives to make the vast literature on North American slavery vital and accessible. Generations of Captivity is more than a work of synthesis, however. By incorporating the nineteenth century slave experience, not the wider history of Atlantic slavery, Berlin has added immeasurably to our understanding of the "peculiar institution", as well as our understanding of antebellum America."
-J.R. Oldfield, History

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Ira Berlin teaches history at the University of Maryland, where he is a Distinguished University Professor. He has written broadly on the history of the larger Atlantic world, especially on Africa and African American slavery and freedom.

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