The Great Migration
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

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The Great Migration: Journey to the North

by Eloise Greenfield; illus. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist

“Between 1915 and 1930, more than a million African Americans left their homes in the South, the southern part of the United States, and moved to the North. This movement was named ‘The Great Migration.’” That’s Eloise Greenfield’s factual description of this famous historical transition; she then moves quickly from the impersonal to the personal in a sequence of free-verse poems, and in the process she turns a huge demographic event into a keenly evoked, deeply individual experience for all those who underwent it.

Greenfield’s in a particularly good position to achieve this feat: not only is she an esteemed poet, but she herself was, at the ripe age of three months, one of the migrants, a piece of personalizing information that’s a quietly effective bridge to the voices in the poetry. In the poetic main text, conversational verse paragraphs follow a numbered sequence, beginning with the decision to leave (“The News”) and the farewells from many different perspectives (“Goodbyes”), moving on to the journey itself (“The Trip”), the uncertainty about the new life (“Question”), and the arrivals in the North (“Up North”), and concluding with a poem about Greenfield’s family experience (“My Family”). The voices of participants, identified only by general terms such as “Young Woman,” display an acrobatic balance between the individual view and the experience of the many. “I never want to see this town/ again,” says a woman who can’t wait to leave her bitter existence behind; “I’m a little scared./ I’m a lot scared,” says a young woman being sent North on her own by her loving mother. Other poems provide third-person views that sound like the observations of invisible spectators, who note “crowds of people, waiting,/ resting their old suitcases,/ cuddling their babies” and “carrying,/ in bags and shoe boxes,/ food they’ve packed for the trip”; Greenfield’s own journey is just that of “one family/ among the many thousands.” The style is plainspoken and accessible, with definite echoes of oral narrative, yet there are also touches of inventively phrased observation (“A baby tries/ to cry, but sleep catches him/ in the middle of his complaint”). The result is a thoughtful portrait of an experience both collective and personal, a historic event made human, accessible, and poetic.

It’s Gilchrist’s masterful and evocative mixed-media illustrations, however, that really lift this petite poetic tale into the monumental. Images deftly combine collage, mostly elements of historical photographs enhanced and adapted, with colorful painterly brushstrokes that wash the monochromatic figures with varying hues. The group shots in particular have a mute documentary feel that suggests newsreel footage paused at an indelibly memorable frame, as rows of travelers in the train car lead the eye back to a perspective point that’s merely a door to another car, or baggage-toting passengers waiting to board look out at the viewer with expressions of cautious optimism. Aside from the people themselves, locomotives, tracks, and stations are the predominant element, casting their literal imprint over the experience (one spread expands on the old cinematic device of using the map as symbolic train background by making it into the space between the rails) and providing the stage for the human drama. The result is haunting personalized portraiture that adds both emotional immediacy and the stature of historical significance.

A brief bibliography of adult materials is appended, but there are also plenty of materials for young people that could make eloquent counterparts to this account: Harrington’s autobiographical picture book Going North (BCCB 11/04), for instance, or Myers’ poetic accompaniment to Jacob Lawrence’s paintings in The Great Migration (BCCB 11/93). Its accessibility allows young people to read it on their own, yet it would also make for a compelling readaloud to kids old enough to have some historical context. However you use the work, it offers a vivid exploration of a key twentieth-century movement that poignantly raises it from abstract fact into intimate experience.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


The Great Migration

Cover image from The Great Migration ©2011 by Jan Spivey Gilchrist.  Used by permission of Amistad/HarperCollins.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2011.