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Home, and the South, Is Where the Heart Is

Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South

By Carol Stack

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226 pp., $21

African-Americans are showing you can go home again. Or at least to the closest place many of them have to ancestral roots in the United States.

For more than a century, African-Americans headed north seeking opportunity - pushed by poverty, segregation, and discrimination back home. But in the last two decades, some half-million black Americans have reversed the trek, moving to the South. What brings them back is a complex web of yearnings and necessities, argues Carol Stack in "Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South."

"The resolve to return home is not primarily an economic decision but rather a powerful blend of motives," she says. "Bad times back home can pull as well as push. People feel an obligation to help their kin or even a sense of mission to redeem a lost community ... or simply [need] a breathing space, a refuge from the maelstrom" of big-city life.

Stack, a veteran ethnographer, spent years talking with hundreds of African-Americans who returned to poor, rural areas of North and South Carolina - mostly from big cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Through these stories we gain some understanding of what can drive families apart and what brings them together - and why, despite hardships, black Americans are returning in such numbers to their childhood homes in the rural South.

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Part of the answer lies in escaping the mean streets of urban life. Sometimes children are sent south to live with grandparents or other relatives while parents keep their city jobs, sending money and visiting when they can. Others move home to disappear into a familiar web of family and black community - even though they know that making a living on hardscrabble land won't be easy.

Yet some who return decide not to hide, but to use the skills, self-esteem, and resources they gained working in the North to try to make things better in their new/old home.

Land ownership can play a role, too. A Southern family farm or homestead can provide a sense of worth and continuity in families that may have found little stability in the North. "Without land, a person is at the mercy of the white community," explains "Nora" to the author. (Though the people and places are all real, for reasons of privacy Stack has used pseudonyms.)

Hard-won religious convictions make the difference for some. "Before I became Christ-conscious, I wanted to make my existence count, but I didn't know how," says Eula Grant, who returned South for family reasons and could find work only in a chicken-processing plant at $5.15 an hour.

"I used to want to kill for the hatred I felt for whites. You go crazy. Those feelings were pulling me down," she says.

Now she puts her energy into church and into trying to improve her workplace. "Some whites work with us," she says. "You begin thinking of them as individuals, as human beings. Those of us who want a change to take place, we have to let a change be visible in us, to be so much a part of us that others can see it. We have to take the initiative."

Stack, who is white, seems to connect most easily with the black women in the book. But among the most poignant characters we meet are two men, Donald Hardy and Earl Henry - both Vietnam veterans, both prominent and respected leaders in the black community, both invisible to white society.

Stack has a novelist's gift for evoking a time and place and for drawing her characters. She knows when to let them speak for themselves at length to tell their stories. She also doesn't succumb to the oversimplification that African-Americans, feeling the social-services system in the North has failed them, are returning home only to make use of a superior support system - the family.

"Family life is a resource, sometimes the only readily available resource that poor people can turn to in times of trouble," she acknowledges. But "if the cupboard is just flat-out bare, a dose of family values will not put bread on the table. Families can be battered into oblivion."

Most of the families she introduces us to, however, are making it one way or another - sometimes in quite unconventional ways - holding things together, however tenuously. In letting us hear their voices and tell their stories, Stack provides a moving, enlightening, and uplifting reading experience.

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