Up From The Bottoms: A Documentary Review

The Great Migration is an event in American history that is studied, and even at times mythicized. The movement of 1.5 million African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century has been written about by countless scholars, and is a key happening in American history. Referred to by such writers as Richard Wright in his 1941 book 12 Million Black Voices, the exodus of African-Americans from the South to all points north and in some cases west is a fading memory. It is the story of our parents and grandparents, something to be studied and then stored away in the recesses of our cultural cache. While much of what was endured is canonized and lost in the ether, the Great Migration is something that has been studied, but not quite particularized.

Up From The Bottoms: A Search for the American Dream is a new documentary about the Great Migration. It focuses on the town of Muskegon, Michigan, a somewhat lesser known destination in those days than the major cities of Detroit, Chicago, or New York.   Narrated by Cicely Tyson, and guest starring Dick Gregory and Dr. Ben Wilson, the film chronicles the lives of Black Americans who migrated to the area in the 1940’s.In addition, there are residents of Muskegon in the documentary speaking on the history of migration to the town.

Covering the time frame of the 1940’s to roughly the late 1950’s, Up From The Bottoms begins talking about the forces driving The Great Migration. With World War II raging, the industrial sector needed to replace people in their factories who went off to the front. To fulfill the need for workers, labor recruiters would venture south to recruit men in the factories. In particular, the foundries of Western Michigan were then a pull to those in the rural areas of Arkansas and Louisiana. Some companies would go so far as to pay for bus tickets to get the needed labor to their factories. In those times, the men would obtain the job, send money back home, and finally bring the rest of their families into the town. This represented a shift in Black American life from being typified as rural and Southern to urban and northern. This shift however, was not without its downsides.

Even in light of all the available opportunities, there were still numerous hardships faced by Black migrants. Though now up north, the day to day realities of Jim Crow would confront these incoming residents. As noted by the residents in the documentary, segregated Muskegon was a small town that was not really prepared for such an influx of people. Arriving there was an issue, since there were no hotels to stay in and no public eateries to utilize. Many had to venture with food packed away for the entire journey, and could only take rest stops at the churches on the route. “The Bottoms”- otherwise known as downtown Muskegon where most of the migrants congregated, were overcrowded. There were not many places to buy property, so most had to deal with landlords who may not see indoor plumbing as a necessity. The rooming and boarding houses were often shoddily kept, and rarely accommodated well for the overflow of people coming north.

These sort of details of the everyday experience are often lost within the passing down of history through written records. This is why the documentary does such a great job of giving the viewer a vision of what it would have been like to be a Black migrant at that time.

The documentary also does an excellent job of balancing the difficulties of Black migrant life with some of the night life/ elements of Muskegon. There was much said about the nightlife, the clubs, the music, etc. Jazz and Blues music was discussed, and music from the era featured prominently in the documentary. A total picture was definitely provided of Muskegon, from the travails, to the triumphs of the residents. Instead of studying the Great Migration on the grand scale as was done beforehand, Up From The Bottoms allows us to home in on the particularities of this historical period. There is much to be learned by focusing in on specific areas of the country, because we can recognize a general trend in specific cases. This documentary is informative, and gives one a sense of progress that has been made over the course of a few generations.

This is a good documentary about the Great Migration, and adds to the scholarship about this period in African-American history. If you can catch it at one of the upcoming screenings, I recommend that you do.

It is important to understand the Great Migration not only from a historical standpoint, but in practical terms as well. In these challenging times, with rapid gentrification in major urban areas, we may very well be on the verge of another large exodus of Black migrants, this time whereabouts unknown.

For more information about the film, go to: Up From The Bottoms

To learn more about the Great Migration, go to: African American Migration Experience

Marc W. Polite

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