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New societies, new peoples, and new communities usually originate in acts of migration. Someone or ones decide to move from one place to another. They choose a new destination and sever their ties with their traditional community or society as they set out in search of new opportunities, new challenges, new lives, and new life worlds. Most societies in human history have a migration narrative in their stories of origin. All communities in American society trace their origins in the United States to one or more migration experiences. America, after all, is "a nation of immigrants."
But until recently, people of African descent have not been counted as part of America's migratory tradition. The transatlantic slave trade has created an enduring image of black men and women as transported commodities, and is usually considered the most defining element in the construction of the African Diaspora, but it is centuries of additional movements that have given shape to the nation we know today. This is the story that has not been told.
In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience presents a new interpretation of African-American history, one that focuses on the self-motivated activities of peoples of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds. Of the thirteen defining migrations that formed and transformed African America, only the transatlantic slave trade and the domestic slave trades were coerced, the eleven others were voluntary movements of resourceful and creative men and women, risk-takers in an exploitative and hostile environment. Their survival skills, efficient networks, and dynamic culture enabled them to thrive and spread, and to be at the very core of the settlement and development of the Americas. Their hopeful journeys changed not only their world and the fabric of the African Diaspora but also the Western Hemisphere.
These journeys did not originate in the east with the1619 arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, as is commonly believed, but almost a century earlier, further south. Indeed, African-American history starts in the 1500s with the first Africans coming from Mexico and the Caribbean to the Spanish territories of Florida, Texas, and other parts of the South. And as early as 1526, Africans rebelled and ran away in South Carolina.
These precursors were followed by successive generations of runaways who did not confine themselves to running North and to Canada on the Underground Railroad as traditional history teaches us. With pragmatism and efficiency, they also moved south to Mexico, or took their canoes to the Bahamas. They left the plantations and settled, secretly, in the urban centers of the South or found refuge in the swamps and among Native populations.
The new interpretation of African-American history that we present here also puts the Caribbean, Haitian, and contemporary African immigrations into the unfolding of the African-American migration experience. Peoples of the African Diaspora have contributed immensely to the fabric of African America and the nation. They too, with their specificities, are part of the African-American experience. Whether they came from Saint Domingue in 1791 and settled in Louisiana, left the Bahamas in the nineteenth century to develop Miami and Key West, Florida, or recently moved from Nigeria to Texas.
Migration has been central in the making of African-American history and culture and in the total American experience. The transatlantic slave trade was fundamental to the development of the colonial economy; and after the War of Independence, the domestic slave trade was the engine that enabled the expansion of the cotton economy not only within the United States but also, through trade, to the international scene. In the twentieth century, black migrations from the South were crucial to America's urban industrial development. They transformed a southern, rural population into a national, urban one, and the black presence throughout the country has influenced American legal systems as well as social and cultural policies and practices.
In addition, the cultures of black migrants from the South, the Caribbean, Haiti, and Africa have had an extraordinary impact on American arts and culture.
In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience underscores and explains the extraordinary diversity of African Americans living in the United States today. For the first time in history all the components of the African Diaspora are gathered together. The United States is the only place, the present time the only time. African Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Central Americans and South Americans of African descent, as well as Africans and Afro-Caribbeans born in Europe live side by side, each group bringing its specificities, culture, and sense of identity. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the black population has never been greater, and richer. And it is all part of the African-American migration experience. This site gives the opportunity to African descended peoples to trace their own histories and the histories of the other groups that form the African Diaspora. It is a resource for discovering their common and not-so-common histories and exploring future possibilities.
It is an invitation to every person of African descent in the United States to revisit their and their families' migrations histories, to determine their roles in the making of African-American and American history. This site does not enable users to trace their genealogy, but it provides context for fashioning family histories, and background for understanding the unique histories and contributions of immigrants from Africa, Haiti, and the Caribbean.
Today's 35 million African Americans are heirs to all the migrations that have formed and transformed African America, the United States, and the Western Hemisphere. They are the offspring of diverse African ethnicities who also include in their genetic makeup Europeans, Native Americans, and Asians. They represent the most diverse population in the United States, a population that has embraced its varied heritages created by millions of men and women constantly on the move, looking for better opportunities, starting over, paving the way, and making sacrifices for future generations.
The face of African America now looks like a New Yorker in Atlanta, a Mississippian in Chicago, a Nigerian in Houston, and a Haitian in Miami. From coast to coast, north to south, the interaction between peoples of varied backgrounds, cultures, languages, religions, and migratory experience has produced a unique population whose expression, music, food, institutions, styles, clothes, literature, arts, and sense of identity all reflect the fertile diversity brought about by centuries of African-American migrations.