RD: What’s so special to me about Volume One is that in addition to scholars’ essays on the Great Migration, it also frames what was happening in the country within the Great Migration time period. We took it back from 1870 to 1970, so a whole century [looking at] what was actually going on. It allows you to really understand sociopolitical streams of America. It allows you to see these formations of social networks, community, and Black leisure, but also Black political thought. I look at the book sometimes and have two reactions: like, either PTSD or just full joy. We’re just so proud of what we were able to accomplish during the pretty truncated time period for the breadth of the book.
I took the critical reader, the little red one. I remember thinking it was such a lovely gesture to be giving out an educational publication for free. You both just brought up where we are in history. As we move further away from the time period of the Great Migration, and the people who made the era what it was, what does it mean to have an exhibition like this?
JBB: I’m very much reflecting on this because we’re so in it. But what I can say is that the Great Migration is arguably one of the most significant periods of American history that has profound and immediate resonance and impact and reverberations today. Although we are, what, 75-plus years out from the first wave, we still have not processed collectively, grappled with the motivations for that mass movement.
As Black folks, as Black people and Black families, it’s one of the most unifying collective phenomena that I think unite us in our experience. Although our experiences might be disparate, we all have family members who decided to leave or stay. How fundamentally our lives have been shaped by the Great Migration is something that we’re still unpacking. For this show to happen now is so significant because it reifies the necessity to continue to explore what motivated folks to make these kinds of decisions.
RD: I’m definitely still processing that question. In addition to processing, the show inspires how we can look at even our current living conditions socioeconomically, politically, and find ways to learn from the past to create new systems and structures that may be based off of land ownership and cooperative economics. What does it look like to build community in a new smaller rural place, like [what’s happening] in upstate New York? What do these strategies from the Great Migration—that were used for survival and for thriving and abundance, for new windows of opportunity—look like in 2022 for Black folks?
I think about it all the time, from towns like Blackham to Seneca Village in Central Park. These things were happening in Black Wall Street, all of these thriving moments for Black folks during a particular moment in time that were an attempt to be erased. But we have information, through shows like this, to expand and to think about agency and ancestry and land—and self-determination to create something new when the systems just are not working.
Place is really important to the Great Migration exhibit, and to each of the artists that you chose. What does it mean that the show opened in Mississippi? A lot of people migrated from Mississippi to other places. The show didn’t premiere in a place like Detroit or Flint, Michigan—places a lot of people migrated to. That’s where my family, which has roots in Mississippi, moved.
RD: I think being from this place and recognizing the histories of this place, and the movement of why people left or why people decided to stay, or why people move from one county to another county, is so important for a kind of agency around this Mississippi story—this very Southern story that has reverberated throughout this country like no other.
To premiere it here, at the Mississippi Museum of Art, is significant because we are in Jackson, and Jackson is 85 percent Black. People leave Chicago or Michigan to come back to Mississippi for these family reunions. It happens every summer, there are these big gatherings across the city. So to be able to come to the Mississippi Museum of Art and see an exhibition like this reflect a story that might be so familiar in some ways, but also has an ability to open up some newness for somebody—it’s just important, in my mind. And I’m not saying that just cause I’m the co-curator of the show. I think it’s the foundation, it’s the place to start.
JBB: There’s also a way in which major exhibitions often have a prescribed circuit of travel across the United States, and the South is often not included in that circuit. So it’s very important that an exhibition of this caliber is supported and is seen in the region that is integral to the artworks themselves and the artists themselves. I’m very proud to have worked on this project with you, Ryan, and that its earliest germination started with you guys down at MMA.
RD: I mean, same, you know, the love overflow, it’s absurd.
RD: Thank you. Absurd in the best way. I’m not saying it negatively ‘cause I love Jessica Bell Brown. You can quote me all over the place.