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Returning to the south: what can ‘reverse migration’ do for Black Americans?

From 1915 to 1970, an estimated 6 million Black Americans left their homes in the south, fleeing Jim Crow laws and racial violence to seek out new beginnings in the north and the west.

Five decades later, New York Times columnist and author Charles Blow says it’s now time for these Black Americans and their descendants to return.

Related: ‘This film is needed now more than ever’: exploring the roots of US racism

In his 2021 book, The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, Blow argued that the way for Black Americans to truly overcome white supremacy and effect social change was to gain political power. They could do this, he said, by moving back to the south and concentrating their voting potential in key southern cities that already have large Black populations – and eventually take political control of certain states.

South to Black Power, a HBO documentary, picks up where Blow’s book left off by looking at some of the reverse migration that has already happened. The film follows Blow as he speaks to historians, activists and local politicos who have moved back to the south – some finding success in community organizing and others still fighting within a broken system.

“From the time that the first enslaved Africans touched down on the soil that would become the United States of America, the majority of Black people have existed in the southern region of the country, Even today, even though the majority is only a slight majority, it’s still where they exist,” Blow told the Guardian in an interview. “There is a lot of sweat and blood equity put into building the infrastructure that became the American south. I would love to see Black people engage in reclaiming the benefits of the work that their ancestors did.”

Blow, who himself moved to Atlanta after two decades in New York, makes clear throughout the documentary that he’s not seeking to create a Black utopia. “There are no Wakandas,” he said. The simple basis of his proposal is that Black people should have more say over how they are governed. While several large cities with a majority-Black population in the south have made progress in creating places where Black people can thrive and feel safe, they are hampered by the chokehold white conservatives have on the rest of the region. Take for example, the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, that left hundreds of thousands of people without clean drinking water – a crisis that came about after years of neglect from the majority white state legislature. “If Jackson had had a state government in Mississippi that was actually responsive to Black people rather than hostile to Black people, you never would have had a crisis of this magnitude,” Blow said in the documentary.

Blow’s proposal has precedent. In the 1970s, a group of students at Yale Law School came up with the idea of taking over a state. This spread further with a writer at Playboy suggesting Vermont, a conservative stronghold, as testing ground. By 1980, Vermont’s population increased by 65,000, the largest population increase since the days following the American revolutionary war – and with the population growth came a change in politics. “They changed one of the most conservative states into one of the most liberal states in America, the state where Barack Obama wins his highest percentage of the white vote in 2008,” Blow said.

Blow dismissed the northern bias that racism is worse in the south. Its history may be fraught when it comes to anti-Black discrimination, but Black people have experienced racial violence everywhere in the country, not just the south. He made the point that many of the cities where Black men were killed by people were destination cities for many Black individuals in the first great migration out of the south. “Racism is not regional,” Blow said.

And by returning to the south, Black Americans are given a chance to regain a sense of ancestral belonging that they had to leave behind when they fled all those years ago.

“The vast majority of Black people existed for so long in the American south that our culture is part of American southern culture,” Blow said. “Southern food is primarily Black and enslaved people’s food. The music is heavily influenced by Black people. When I am here, I pick up all of the sensory things that feel so familiar because it belongs to me. There is a sense of belonging that may not be tangible and articulated articulable, but that you feel because it’s you.”

Blow gets personal in the documentary, returning to his family home in rural Louisiana and meeting with his cousins, who had never moved out of the south. A conversation with his family highlighted one of the challenges of Blow’s proposal – the perceived notion of a opportunity. “If you work at the mill, then your son automatically works there,” one cousin said. “It’s hard to get out of those confines.” Blow himself acknowledged that he left the south for more. Later on, in a conversation with colleagues at the New York Times, Dean Baquet, his former boss, pointed out that he himself would never have become executive editor had he not left New Orleans.

But opportunity does exist in the south, particularly for Black people, Blow said. In 2018, Forbes compiled a list of cities where Black people are doing the best economically, and a number of southern cities make that list. Blow emphasized that he is not asking people to forego career growth or success that many find in larger cities in the north and west. “I always say to people if you’re thriving and your work is thriving and you feel safe, you feel like your family is safe … you may have already found your community,” Blow said.

“But there’s just a lot of people for whom that is not true,” Blow continued. “They cannot afford to buy, their schools are subpar. They feel under threat from the legal system and the policing system. They feel stuck in a cycle of hopelessness. There are a lot of people and I say to those people, you don’t have to do that.” He’s asking that people be deliberate when seeking out opportunities – that when weighing out where to settle down, to consider the opportunities.

“There are some things in life that are bigger than you,” Blow said “Sometimes when you’re deciding how you’re going to live your life and the choices that you’re going to make, it has to be about community success.”

  • South to Black Power will air on HBO on 28 November with a UK date to be announced