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I read “The Devil You Know” in a day.  

The theme of the book is that African Americans should reverse migrate back to the South to consolidate Black political power. Commentator and New York Times opinion contributor Charles Blow sees the South as a nurturing ancestral homeland away from the homeland, consecrated in our blood, sweat and tears. He demonstrates his contention with demographic facts and anecdotal evidence detailing the worst African American experiences chronicled in our migration. From red-lined communities where White people entered into covenants to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods to deadly race-based riots throughout the 20th century to the killing of unarmed Black people by police today.

My situation as a Black man in prison imbued a sense of urgency to my reading of Blow’s book, allowing me a look over the wall to the horizon of possibility from a cage filled with Black and Brown bodies, including my own. 

Before I began reading, I shut out the world around me — the rap lyrics blaring from multiple radios and people screaming or yelling in anger or excitement. An array of smells and odors wafted into my cell, so I sprayed the air with frankincense and breathed deeply. I put a sheet over the bars of my cell as a tacit “do not disturb” sign. I inserted earplugs and put on my headphones over them and pressed play, so I could listen to my jazz music while I read. 

Blow’s prose informed my blackness — my existence, historically and contemporaneously. It reinforced what I already knew with provocative details and suggested socio-political ideas and concepts that have been passed on as the gospel in the Black community. My reading took me further on my journey to being “woke” and encouraged me to believe what my thoughts, feelings and experiences knew to be true. 

The first part of Blow’s six-part manifesto, “Past as Prologue,” lays out his thesis: America’s 20th century Great Migration to northern and western cities from the South’s Jim Crow oppression led Black people to a hypocritical, pernicious and systemic kind of racial oppression. His overarching argument is that we should leave those areas and return to lands where the African diaspora first landed, where there is strength in numbers and heritage. 

Previous to the Great Migration, Blacks represented large swaths of the Black South, often in greater numbers than White people. Had there not been the massive migration north and west, Blacks would have attained significant political power in southern state houses, shifting the balance of political power in the House and the Senate today, Blow asserts. He posits by moving north and west, the migrants incurred unforeseen losses because the South also lost its best and brightest young, educated Black men. They were doctors, artisans and business owners who formed the backbone of the Black economic sector. Black migrants found it impossible to replicate the successes of their former homogeneous communities in the south.

One of Blow’s insights that stood out conspicuously was the racism by proxy that exists in the north and west. Blow illustrated how racism in the north and west is unarticulated by the White general public, even today, and how some of the liberal class vocally advocate for Black suffrage even as they benefit from institutionalized White supremacy. Outside of the south, racism functions autonomously in the codification of laws that adversely affect communities of color in all aspects of civic existence, especially in criminal justice systems. The killing of unarmed Black people by the police today is the most stark example.

In my own thinking about racial stratification, I often use terms like, “people of color” or “Black and Brown.” But race and ethnicity are often mutually exclusive. Whiteness in America is monolithic, blackness is not. Blacks suffer from tribalistic fissures that speak to geography, class, and how dark or light one’s skin is. Also, there is serious political and social division between communities of color. Significant numbers of the Latinx community identify with White values, as has been highlighted in the double-digit numbers of the Latinx community who voted for Trump. Many Asians see the racism they suffer as separate and apart from Black struggles with racism.

Cultural identity is critical to healthy self-actualization, but the take away from Blow’s book and my own observation is that cultural identity serves as a caste. No other ethnic minority wants to be identified as Black no matter how dark their skin is even though all non-White groups are seen as other.

Blow makes a compelling argument, but it is not a new one. The African country Liberia exists as a result of Black Americans’ repatriation to the ancestral homeland, pushed by prominent Blacks and White abolitionists of the 19th century. Marcus Garvey proposed a similar exodus to the motherland in the early 20th century. The Great Migration took place over three quarters of a century under different circumstances and different motivations. 

There is also a sense of impracticality and questionable feasibility in Blow’s proposition. I’m incredulous given what I have been conditioned to believe is possible. 

But the book gave me much to think about. One of the issues central to current and future discussions about race and politics is the browning of America, which Blow points out, has everything to do with the immigration of Asians and Latinx people whose political and economic ascendency does not necessarily cross-pollinate with Black political and economic ambitions. As Black pundits have also bandied about, Black people may be left out — again — in societal gains that will come as racial and ethnic demographics shift.

The book’s presumption of Black people first juxtaposes uncomfortably against my own humanist beliefs, but I will encourage all my peers to read it if for no other reason than so I can discuss with them the unsettling questions it brought up in my brain. You should read it too.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.