New York City’s Population Changes and Intimate Apparel

The great things about plays set in the past is that you get a bit of an idea of what that time was like. Luckily, Lynn Nottage stays far away from giving us a history lesson, but gives us enough information, that once you find out other information about the period, you discover a lot through the play’s lens.

The play does take place at a time when a lot of people were coming to New York City.  Both Esther and George come to New York City, so you would think they have that in common, and yet the period of nearly 20 years separating their migrations actually means a lot.

At a certain point, WHERE you were coming from became important, even within the African American community in New York City.

In her book, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I, Mary S. Sacks explains the shift:

The development of chain migrations had a tremendous impact on the nature of the black community in New York City. No longer complete strangers in an unfamiliar environment, later migrants might arrive in the city with a name and perhaps an address of someone who could possibly help the newcomer find a place to live and maybe even provide a lead on a job opening. In addition, as family connections stabilized with extended kin networks being transplanted to New York City, cultural forms could be replicated as well. Residents of particular villages, regions, or states congregated in New York’s tenements, established restaurants that could cater to specific culinary preferences, and prayed together in the profusion of black churches. Forming geographic enclaves in the congestion of New York City, the constant infusion of additional members allowed southerners to begin establishing a degree of cultural continuity in the North. At the same time, while the presence of family members or friends gave new arrivals a certain degree of security, the geographic distinctions being created within New York’s black population precluded the formation of a cohesive community able to collectively resist the poverty and racism affecting all black people in the city. The chain migrations thus offered only a mixed blessing, allowing for the preservation of specific identities, but at the same time making racial unity a greater challenge to achieve.

Guess who else gets someone’s address before coming to the city? George Armstrong!  In rehearsals, we talked about how George reached out to Esther in order to put down roots in New York before getting there.  Who else might he have contacted in this attempt?

But ultimately, despite coming together Esther and George do experience differences that cause them to clash. Here is Mary S. Sacks’ view on the differences between migrant groups.

The disparate experiences of the different groups of newcomers helped foster ethnic, class, and geographic distinctions within the burgeoning black population of New York City. The preservation of strong family and island connections among Afro-Caribbeans allowed them to maintain a separate identity from that of other black Americans. Hoping to avoid the mistreatment faced by native-born black people, many specifically chose to distance themselves from their U.S. brethren by refusing to become citizens. Southerners also tended to sustain their particular customs when opportunities allowed them to do so. And northern-born blacks, confronting an aggravation of race relations and a decline in job prospects, often placed the blame at the feet of the newcomers. As their proportion of the population shrank with each passing decade, this group struggled to privilege its heritage as native New Yorkers by staking a claim—without great success—to elite status.


There’s lots more to read! Click here to continue Reading Mary S. Sacks’ research on the period.

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