“If You Can Make It Here…”: On The Great Migration and the NY State of Mind

TroyDubois

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Around certain people, it’s more than just a phrase. It’s a lifestyle; an embodiment taken on by the residents of a cold, crowded, bustling place that is widely considered the greatest city in the world.

Ah, New York, USA. It’s the city of dreams, and big apples, and melting pots… that never sleeps. Or something like that. Over the years, it’s been a landing spot for immigrants and migrants alike, and now boasts a population bigger than that of LA, Chicago, and Detroit combined. It’s a land of opportunity, rivaled by no other place, and most who live (or have lived there) sing it’s praises.

And I suppose they have a point.

There are plenty of decent jobs, good food, hella sports teams, all four seasons, effective public transportation, and favorable proximity to plenty of other great U.S. cities all wrapped up in one epic swirl of diversity.

Everyone there has adopted the New York State of Mind as a survival tactic: the belief that anything can happen to anyone if you hustle hard enough, stay tough, and never, ever give up.

Legend has it that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

“It’s a lot just to make it here. And then to make it out? Makes you bred differently.”

Meet Jared. A New York native that wears his city on his sleeve. For real though. I’ve seen him wear Timbs when it’s nowhere near cold enough outside, predict Knicks championships when they’re nowhere near good enough to compete, and say stuff like “yo, y’all pizza is trash down here” all in the same breath.

He’s my little sister’s age, and so I’ve watched him grow from a young man to a slightly-less young man the way a big brother would. We pledged the same frat and went to the same college, but only briefly shared the campus. Still, I’ve always managed to keep an eye on him.

As you might expect, he’s a hustler. For as long as my eye’s been on him, he’s had something going on. A sort of lumbering physique with a hard accent and a soft smile, he’s the type of person that you name drop when you’re trying to finesse your way into a party, game, event, or whatever.

Today, he lives in NYC where he works in corporate business development by day and runs an aspiring entertainment brand at night. It should be no wonder, then, why you may catch him in the club wearing a suit. That’s just how he rolls.

He seems to have found success as both the early bird and the night owl, and though he wouldn’t claim he’s “made it” yet, he’s certainly on his way. Not long ago, we talked over the phone about his hometown that, like him, never sleeps.

“My Nana is actually from Tallahassee.”

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Jared, like the other folks in this series, comes from a family that came from the South. His grandma grew up in Savannah, GA and graduated from Johnson C. Smith University and his grandfather was a journeyman of sorts from Tallahassee, FL. Not long after they met, they got hitched and moved to the Bronx.

“Yep, she moved up here, got her Masters in Social Work at NYU, and he started working for UPS. From the moment they got to the city, they starting figuring out how to just… make it work.”

Their story was not any different than a lot of stories of this era. They spent a lifetime making the best of times, even when times were hard. Among other things, they knew that opportunity was the key ingredient in “making it” in America, and they saw NYC as a land full of it.

“Blacks were a bit more accepted up here. It just attracted the people that had dreams and ambition and they fit right in. Even to this day.”

It is true what they say: when it rains in America, it floods in Black America. We have historically seen the brunt end of almost every tragedy, misfortune, and tribulation this country has experienced, and it was that way for quite a while before the early/mid 1900s. But during the infant stages of the Great Migration in NYC, some of that started to change.

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The Harlem Renaissance dominated the early narrative of what it meant to arrive in New York and become whoever you wanted to be. Not only did we see the explosion of art, literature, music and more during this fertile period, we also witnessed major growth in Black businesses which afforded us baby steps toward a more stable cultural identity overall. And as goes New York, so goes the rest of the country, so it’s safe to say this newly found pride, creativity and lifestyle likely rubbed off on Black folks everywhere.

Sure, it wasn’t easy, but if you could make it here, well, let’s just say you were going to be alright. And because of people like Jared’s folks, we all could.

“I’m not from Harlem but I always wanted to know more about the Renaissance.”

If you know the layout of New York, you know that they have five boroughs: The Bronx (where the Yankees play), Queens (where the airports are), Brooklyn (where Jay-Z is from), Manhattan (where Times Square is), and Staten Island (the one you’ve probably never been to). Harlem is a neighborhood in uptown Manhattan and thus not on that list, but it’s present-day prominence is a direct reflection of the types of people that have lived there, both then and now. It’s evidence of what happens when you get the opportunity to “make it”.

“Before long, my people moved from the Bronx to a house they bought in Brooklyn which is where both me and my mom grew up.”

Once given the opportunity to lay some strong roots down, they were able to loosen up their belts a bit and get comfortable, and with that comfort came stability; a stability that worked just as well for his family as it did the city as a whole.

If the Renaissance taught us one thing about Black folks in New York City, it’s that it wasn’t just enough to show up, you had to show out as well. And starting with the Migration, that’s exactly what they did.

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A great example of this is the Harlem Globetrotters, who weren’t even from Harlem (or New York). The Chicago Globetrotters originally formed in the Midwest and saw early success. Within a couple years, though, they felt the need to relocate in order to grow. They knew that if they wanted to make it, they’d need to move to New York. So that’s what they did, and when they arrived in 1929, Harlem fit them like a glove.

In didn’t take long for New York City to become the basketball capital of the world and in 1946, the NBA was founded in Manhattan. Or course, the Knicks played in the league's first ever game.

Just one year later, the city played a huge role in the history of another major sport when the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first team to sign a Black player. Jackie Robinson, a Georgia native, All-American collegiate athlete, and war veteran, found opportunity, and became a legend in the city as well.

Over in Harlem, the now-legendary Apollo theater became a cornerstone of Black American culture when it first opened it’s doors to Black patrons in 1934. For many years during and after the Great Migration, it jump started the careers of young and gifted acts, lending further credence to the thought that if you could do it in New York, you could do it anywhere.

It wouldn’t be terribly long before the Bronx would get in on the action, inventing Hip-Hop itself just years after the Migration would officially end.

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What started with the Renaissance’s Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, continued with people like Jackie Robinson and aspiring performers on the stage of the Apollo. Even today, their impact still resonates with trailblazers like Spike Lee, Dapper Dan, P. Diddy, and others. The interesting thing is, you don’t have to be from there to make it there, and just because you are from there, doesn’t mean you’ll make it. You gotta go for yours — that’s the bottomline.

“Man, I always wanted to meet Diddy. I even tweeted about it a few times. I’ve just constantly looked up to him for the work he’s done in music, entertainment, and more.”

Jared won’t let you forget that he isn’t from Harlem, but he’s not shy about his affinity for Diddy. I can see some similarities. They both share the same bulldog attitude when it comes to making things happen, and the only thing that makes them happier than getting shit done is bringing people together.

So when I saw on Twitter that he met Diddy last October, I breathed a sigh of relief. I guess the only ironic part about it is that he did it in Tallahassee and not New York.

“I saw he was going to be at an Andrew Gillum rally. So I called off of work, bought a ticket and knew I’d meet him. I believe in the law of attraction and it was time. I got there, one open door led to another, and there we were.”

Funny how things work out sometimes.

It’s hard to truly asses someone’s legacy without digging into their history. Success is not a singular journey.

As we brought the talk back to his family Jared spoke more about Tallahassee. I discovered he’d moved down south at the age of 16 to stay with his grandfather. He had moved back to Florida after divorcing his wife, Jared’s Nana, the year Jared was born.

“Man I missed my family and friends like hell, but I had to learn that there is a lot of opportunity in the South, unlike how we thought.”

This is something his grandfather always knew. He’d had the chance to arrive and “make it” in New York, and then come back home where he kept on making it. Now, a junior in high school, it was Jared’s turn to do the same. Originally a fish out of water in the deep South, it wasn’t long before he made it work. After all, he was from New York, and if he could make it there, he could anywhere. Even in Tallahassee.

“Like a sore freaking thumb, bruh! Eventually it made me more confident in myself, though, honestly.”

And then it clicked for me. The Timbs, the suits, the Knicks and Diddy and everything. He has the insatiable desire to not only rep where he’s from, but also show what that means about him. It’s a badge of honor to have made it, to do it and do it well, in the greatest city on Earth.

Over the years, New Yorkers have morphed the ability to find comfort in their own skin, no matter where they are, into a life hack. And this, more than anything else, is both how they make it and why they want you to know they made it.

“It’s just different. Every industry, every vertical, every everything. It’s really dog eat dog up here and people know that.”

It is very easy to see the city as the sort of well-oiled, no-days-off pre-programmed machine of a place that has never not been the way it is today, but the truth is, it’s always changing, just like anywhere else. It’s still full of people trying to make it.

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“She actually still works for NYU today.”

His Nana still lives in the Brooklyn home she bought all those years ago, and has no plans of selling it. Why would she? They made it in the greatest city on Earth; where else would she want to go?

I think I get it now. Do you?

Before we left, I had to ask him what he said to Diddy when they met:

“I told him the truth: ‘You’ll see me around a lot very soon’.”

I wouldn’t be surprised.

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My thoughts from the worlds of Music, History, Poetry, and Culture. For lack of a wetter bird, I can show you better than I can tell you.

Atlanta, GA
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