Moving on Up: A Mini Memoir on Leaving the South and the Legacy of Black Migration

Hi friends,

If you are engaging with this piece, consider it a warm welcome into the corridor of my mid-life evolution. Mid-life evolution? You sure you ain't just experiencing a regular ole mid-life crisis like everybody else Donney? Nope. Not in crisis mode. I’m in quite the opposite mode of crisis for a couple of reasons. Wanna know why? Here goes:

For starters I turn 40 in less than a week. I am also now a full-time staff member here at The North Star as Chief Content Editor (woop woop!). And, I just so happen to be in the process of relocating from the only city/state I have ever resided amid a pandemic.

When I change things up, I CHANGE things up!

For the better part of a year, my wife and I have been in discussion about moving to the DMV area. Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of being able to explore the D.C. area on account of frequent visits courtesy of a year-long fellowship with the Kennedy Center. My wife Leslie, who is a native of New Jersey, has been lobbying to get my country ass out of Louisiana, pretty much since we began dating 14 years ago. For a variety of reasons, the timing never seemed right to uproot, but now, in this unprecedented year of closure, an opportunity for a new beginning has opened.

By the time October 1st rolls around, I will be a resident of Hyattsville, Maryland. I have only heard/read positive things about this small-town community located in Prince George's (PG) County, one of the most economically prosperous areas for Black folks in the nation. My journey to this new environment will be an emotional departure from my hometown. I am leaving Baton Rouge without being able to physically bid farewell to a lifetime of people who have helped mold me into the person I am. For all of the social hardships of growing up Black in the Deep South, particularly in the state of Louisiana, there is so much I will miss culturally, but mostly the fact that so many of my loved ones will no longer be within arm’s reach.

I have been thinking a lot about the history of Black folks leaving the American Deep South in hopes of acquiring a new lease on life outside of it. During The Great Migration (1916-1970), more than 6 million Black Americans from the rural South relocated to cities in the North, West and Midwest to take advantage of labor opportunities and to flee the distinct cruelty of the segregated South. The “black code” laws of the Jim Crow South made it virtually impossible for Black Americans to provide for themselves and their families in the post-Reconstruction era. By the turn of the 20th century, American cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles began to see a surge of Black migrants yearning for a fresh start.

It was this migration that extended the family trees of Black Americans across the continental U.S. It is also the reason I have family in California that I never recall meeting.

There is a lot to reckon with when I think about leaving a state positioned at the bottom of quality of life measures. But even with everything that can make living in Louisiana difficult, there is still much beauty in the bayou and it is still the only place I have ever called home.

We took a lot of factors into consideration before deciding to relocate just outside of the nation’s capital. Quality of life metrics, such as earning potential (median household income in Hyattsville is $77,097 compared to $41,761 in Baton Rouge), the crime rate (Hyattsville has a violent crime rate of 4.39 per 1,000 residents compared to Baton Rouge’s rate of 9.44 per 1,000 residents) and employment rates (four percent unemployment in Hyattsville compared to seven percent in Baton Rouge), were of great significance when assessing the benefits of moving 17 hours north.

It is worth noting that Baton Rouge is a considerably larger city population-wise than Hyattsville and that size difference can account for some of the imbalance, but it is the comparison on the state level that really speaks to the discrepancy between where I am and where I’m going.

The state of Maryland is ranked 6th in overall quality of life metrics versus the state of Louisiana being ranked 50th. The metrics considered included health care (Maryland-8th; Louisiana-45th), education (Maryland-13th; Louisiana-48th), economy (Maryland-26th; Louisiana-49th) in addition to other factors such as infrastructure, opportunity, fiscal stability, crime & corrections and natural environment. Across the board, the gap was ridiculously wide between the states. Is the cost of living significantly higher in Maryland/Hyattsville than it is in Louisiana/Baton Rouge? Absolutely. But on paper at least it seems like we will be majorly upgrading essential aspects of our living environment.

With respect to Black prosperity, Prince George’s County has been ranked one of the wealthiest counties in the nation and has been referred to as “the heart of Black affluence” . In my beloved hometown/parish, Black folks make up roughly half the parish-wide population and the majority of the metro area population, but earn $40,000 less in median income than the average white family in the city. This is not to say that the quality of a city can solely be measured by the earning potential of its citizens, but when you factor in disadvantaged schools in segregated, lower income neighborhoods, you get a glimpse into the ways the economic vitality of an ethnic group impacts more than just that community’s purchasing power.

But even with the consideration of higher quality of life metrics, my forthcoming relocation from Louisiana to Maryland is still a move within the U.S. and there are certain benchmarks that are signifiers of American life regardless of the zip code you reside in. The fact that despite PG County being one of the wealthiest Black communities in the nation, it still leads the state of Maryland in coronavirus cases, a statistic that directly aligns with the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Black Americans. Or the fact that for several years, Washington, D.C. was at the top of the list ofmost intensely gentrified cities” and has only fallen from #1 to #13.

There’s also the pesky legacy of slavery that creates a chain-link between my home state of Louisiana and my future residence in Maryland. A subtle reminder that even though I’m relocating over a thousand miles away, I will still be a resident of a state that was an active participant in this nation’s original sin. My Blackness can never forget that American racism is omnipresent. It may present itself differently in different areas, but there is no move within the continental U.S. that affords the luxury of escaping it.

And as I sit in consideration of every aspect of change this transformation will bring about, it would be disingenuous to not reiterate how much I will miss my hometown. I have loved here. I have lost here. My mother’s headstone rests less than a mile from the house I grew up in. I got married in a church that is across the street from my current place of residence. I built community here. I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of poems at open mics here. I have taught young people here. I have cracked an innumerable amount of crawfish tails here. I have lifted my head in pride when my city/state proved itself more than the despair that so often categorizes it.

I was village-raised here, and for better or worse, the recipient of all the lessons that only 40 years of a deep South lived Black experience could provide me. I am excited about the prospect of new beginnings. My hope for a heightened standard of living is but another chapter in the longstanding narrative of Black folks who migrated from the bottom of the map with aspirations of something better.

I am ready to turn the page.