Review by Brian Tanguay
In Georgia in 2020 two US senate seats flipped from red to blue, and in the presidential contest the reliably Republican state chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump. These outcomes were achieved due to changing demographics and concerted efforts to mobilize black voters, in particular by Fair Fight, the voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams. The results in Georgia demonstrated that Democrats win when Black voters turn out, but helping Democrats win elections doesn’t translate into Black political power.
In The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, Charles M. Blow, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and frequent guest on CNN who now calls Atlanta home, argues that if Black people are ever to achieve political power and the relief from oppression that goes with it, they are better served by taking matters into their own hands than waiting for white people to share power. Black people, Blow believes, have waited patiently and too long for a white enlightenment that isn’t coming. “Black people,” he writes, “fled the horrors of the racist South for so-called liberal cities of the North and West, trading the devil they knew for the devil they didn’t, only to come to the painful realization that the devil is the devil.”
The exodus to which Blow refers saw millions of Black people depart the South in the early decades of the twentieth century for “destination” cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Oakland. One of the largest internal shifts of population in American history, this Great Migration saw Blacks escape the tyranny of the Jim Crow South in search of opportunities for work, education, and basic freedom. The migrants were not always welcomed in destination cities, but millions went anyway. Blow argues that if the Great Migration hadn’t happened, if Blacks had remained in the South, they might today exercise majority influence over more Electoral College votes than California and New York combined. Had Blacks stayed put and endured until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, they might today dominate the politics of the Deep South and directly influence or control electing nearly a dozen US senators. It’s not certain that America’s political calculus and Black political influence would be different if the Great Migration hadn’t happened, but the implications — from mass incarceration to the War on Drugs and the ideological composition of the US Supreme Court — are considerable.
Blow advances his case for a collective return to the South — the ancestral home of Black people in America — by pointing out the hostility many Blacks experienced in destination cities. Oppressive policing, inadequate public education and social services, discriminatory housing policies, and overt racism dogged Black people. Describing his clarion call as a “moonshot” ambition, Blow contrasts his own experience as a product of people who remained in the South with those who left. “Among America’s descendants of slavery, there isn’t one Black America, but two: the children of the Great Migration and the children of those who stayed behind in the South. I am a child of those who stayed, but I have had the great fortune to live half of my life in the South and the other half out of it.” Unlike many young Black men raised in the North, Blow, who grew up in a small, majority-Black town in Louisiana, never felt himself a target of state oppression; he wasn’t perceived as a threat and never feared that someone would call the police on him solely because of who he was. Not suffering the fear and anxiety of white people was itself a measure of freedom. Until he went North his body didn’t reflexively stiffen when he walked past police officers.
Will Black people hear and heed Blow’s call? And if they do, how will white Southerners react? Blow doesn’t address these questions, focusing instead on the political possibilities Black people might achieve if only half of all Blacks living outside the South were to return. He writes, “We need an exodus to the South in sufficient numbers and density that Black people can come to know what real, lasting power feels like.” Density is the key to achieving political power, particularly at the state level where legislation concerning criminal justice, education, and voting rights is made and implemented.
The Devil You Know is a bold attempt to ignite the radical imagination. Blow sees no other region of America where Black people can feel physically safe, economically secure, culturally celebrated or — most importantly — spiritually edified. The South is the place where the memory of Black ancestors is soaked into the very soil. “Not a tree grows that’s not watered in some way by Black folks’ tears and Black folks’ blood.” As the North once did, the South now beckons, calling its scattered children home.