To have students understand themselves as participants in a historical phenomenon, modern migration.
Objectives—The student will be able to:
1. define migration.
2. identify migration routes African Americans have taken from the south to the north and the reasons for these moves.
3. create a migration route for their family to New Haven.
4. create a collage using family member stories.
The Great Migration: An American Story.
Li’l Sis and Uncle Willie
North America maps including Caribbean islands (world maps can be provided if necessary)
construction paper—especially black and red.
1. Students will use world maps and trace African American migration routes from Africa and the islands south. Then trace various southern routes north.
2. Students will gather family migration information.
3. Students will make a report with a map and collage of family member migration stories.
African American migration map
Written description of African American migration (homework writing prompt)
Student family collage
Timeline One to two weeks
Research of the topic shows
the first professional blues singers were men, but the first to get commercially recorded were women.(5) The wandering from town to town was done mostly by the men; it was much harder for women. A few women traveled with the minstrel shows, but it was easier for women to go to cities where blues was in demand as a form of entertainment. During the research phase I explored the roles of gender and color in the blues concept and expression as a point of personal interest. Musically females were allowed to tell the tales, particularly of woe:
Now when a woman get the blues,
Lord, she hangs her head and cries.
But when a man gets the blues,
Lord, he grabs a train and rides.
—“Easy Rider Blues” (6)
But were women writing these songs? Also, did these songstresses have to be of an acceptable color and stature? The answer to both questions is yes.
Women were active participants in the evolution of the blues as it moved from the countryside to the urban areas and back. These women transformed their personal feelings into artistic expression, which bonded them to other black women, by skillfully mixing the ingredients of heartbreak and joy to create the songs that caused people to flock to their shows and buy their recordings. Women’s blues worked it’s way through the interpreter’s personal experience; therefore, there was a divergence in style and depth of feeling from one singer to the next. For instance, Ma Rainey focused on topics familiar to southern rural folks floods, crop failure and mistreatment by lovers. She enhanced her live performances with her boisterous wit. Ida Cox, Bessie Smith and Clara Smith moved away from the country style and developed sophisticated flexible blues styles that adapted to the piano and slick city sounds. Their husky, throaty sounds complete with moans and groans had a cross appeal to urban and rural blues listeners.
To illuminate my point I will highlight Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey was described as a short, stubby woman with wide low lips, gold rimmed teeth and played with her audiences in a flirtatious manner. Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 27, 1886, the second of five children, in Columbus, Georgia. Columbus was an industrial port center that was a regular on the minstrel circuit. At the age of fourteen Ma began her career in a talent show. It was during one of these shows that she meet show manager William “Pa” Rainey. They married on February 2, 1904 and began to travel. Although the theater work was glitzy and Rainey was known for her flashy outfits and jewelry, she was reported to be a hard worker who spent much time outdoors. Many of her performances were in barns, schoolhouses and dance halls for hardworking people. Paramount talent scouts found her in 1924 taking her to New York and Chicago where she made about ninety records. In these cities her performances were a little out of place, but she continued to perform until 1935. Ma Rainey moved back to Columbus and lived in a house she built for her family. She bought several theaters and had stop performing by age fifty. Ma Rainey, “Mother of the Blues”, died December 22, 1939.
Bessie has been described as a big, handsome woman, two hundred pounds and nearly six feet, with a flair for flashy clothes. Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 (?) to a very poor family. Her father and two brothers died soon after she was born and her mother died when she was nine. Bessie and five siblings had to make do. She and one brother would sing on the streets. Another brother joined a minstrel show where he was able to get Bessie an audition. Ma and Pa Rainey were with this same show at the time and Bessie and Ma forged a relationship. Bessie struggled, singing with jazz musicians in Atlantic City in 1920; being turned down by record companies for being too loud and lowdown; returning south and touring but not enjoying it. Finally, Columbia Records sent a man to Philadelphia to bring her to New York. There she recorded “Downhearted Blues”, which sold three quarters of a million copies. In 1923 she married a Philadelphia policeman, Jackie Gee. Ms Smith’s life improved, her popularity increased, she was making and spending money. Then her drinking problem became her misery leading to marital and money problems. Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues”, died after a car accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sang women’s songs. Ma’s were often her own or her musicians and told of lonely women, violent and troubled women. Bessie sang more about love, sex and good and bad men. Her songs had more references to city things. The women had different feelings for the South. Ma had a home there and returned to live ,whereas Bessie lived in New Jersey and only went South to work on occasion. Bessie had no real roots to the South other than the pain of her childhood.
Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters and other women of the blues represented a collective expression of the blues. Their lives and lyrics can be used very effectively to examine the woe and joy of the blues. The lyrical abilities and appearances of these women can help students work through adolescent differences.
The blues writers often use personification to illustrate points, for example in Toni Morrison’s
‘The City’ becomes a character with a capital letter for a name and human qualities, “The City was speaking to them.” or “ ...when they and the City have grown up..” (7) as if they and the city were siblings or the same age. Often with middle school age students the neighborhood and/or the school become characters in their lives. Each place takes on an interesting persona that greatly affects the student’s life. The blues itself can become an active character with human traits. I would not teach
to this age level, but it has some sample passages that show how words can be used to imitate music and would be best read aloud.
Thomas Marvin in an article entitled “
Preachin the Blues”,
describes the blues as “a supernatural force that can take on human characteristics and possesses it victims.”(8) The blues conversation usually begins a new relationship between the individual and the world. In other words, to write about and discuss the struggles an individual is experiencing helps them move past it,—life is too short to moan unless the purpose to make you feel better! Students should feel better once they have expressed their feelings.
As a literary comparison, students will analyze Karintha from Jean Toomer’s
by Gwendolyn Brooks, to read how expressing blues made them feel better about themselves. These are two women who experienced inner struggles, one the result og her burdensome beauty and the other, her lack of beauty. Their stories are full of vivid colorful language that students can read and interpret the blues language. Also, Langston Hughes has several poems that will also illustrate the literary blues.