Mobility is a keyword in African American studies, and was expressed through various forms, like dance and writing, in the post-World War II era, said Farah Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia University.
Griffin spoke on the migration and mobility of African American women through movement during the World War II era in Devlin 101 last Thursday. Her talk was the final lecture in the New Directions in African Diaspora Studies lecture series.
Griffin’s work focuses on the African diaspora. She has edited several anthologies and written many books, including Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II, which are about the mobility of African Americans.
Migration was often seen as an act of agency for those people who left an oppressive area for a presumably freer one, she said.
“The African Diaspora is usually associated with moments of migration, moments of mobility,” she said. “In part, this was created by the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was a forced migration of peoples from one continent to the Western Hemisphere. Scholars of African Diaspora studies have often focused on the notion of migration of mobility of movement as central to that experience.”
Each of the women Griffin wrote about in Harlem Nocturne migrated to New York City at different, crucial parts in their life. The women-Pearl Primus, Anne Petry and Mary Lou Williams-are all artists.
Primus was a dancer who was known for bringing African American-styled dance to the concert stage. She was born in Trinidad and migrated to New York with her parents when she was two years old, Griffin said.
“Prior to Pearl Primus, black dance was mostly thought of in its vernacular form-what people did to popular music,” she said.
Primus danced at the Second Annual Negro Freedom Rally in 1943. She was one of the few performers who the audience had never heard of.
In her dance to “Jim Crow Train” by Josh White, she leapt five feet in the air to symbolize an escape from segregation, Griffin said.
“It was this leap throughout her career for which she would be remembered,” she said. “She’s dancing the confining and stifling nature of segregation. When she leaps out of the bleachers, she’s leaping out of the imagined train and her leap is one of frustration anger and protest. In flying, she takes her audience with her. Through physical movement she sought to inspire social and political movement.”
Next, Griffin spoke about Petry, a novelist who immigrated to New York from Connecticut in her late 20s. Petry was a third- or fourth-generation New Englander, so of all the women, she was the most separated from the subjects of her work. Her characters are constantly mobile, yet they only move within the world of residential segregation, she said.
“In terms of her class position, she has the most distance between herself and the subjects about whom she writes,” Griffin said. “Even though her characters are constantly moving, always moving, they never seem to get anywhere.”
Williams, who moved to New York when she was 33 years old, was the final woman Griffin discussed.
Williams was a well-known pianist, composer, and arranger who worked with popular artists of the day like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
Her move to New York signified a settling down after many years of touring. Williams, who was a resident at Cafe Society, the first integrated club, believed that one must find stillness before movement is possible, Griffin said.
“For Mary Lou Williams, that sort of interiority, the sense of stillness, the sense of quietness that you seek within yourself, is necessary before you can have any sort of organized protest or organized movement,” she said.
Griffin tied these women together through the idea of movement. All of these women choose to move to New York. In addition, each of their art forms relies on movement: dance is pure movement, a writer moves text forward to create a novel, and music has movement in its momentum, she said.
“Movement was important when I was talking about these women because they all come to New York,” she said. “It’s useful to find some vocabulary that can allow you to talk about forms together, and for me movement let me do that because all of these art forms rely on the notion of movement.”
Griffin went on to say that as she continued to write and research, she found that one result of mobility is a complex kind of confinement. New York is a freer place than the Jim Crow South, but confinement still exists through residential segregation, incarceration, and surveillance, she said.
“Although each of them focus on movement they also call our attention to an ongoing sense of confinement even in places we consider to be free,” she said. “Mobility does not lead necessarily to freedom, and nor does it necessarily equal agency.”