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Migrants: The Story of Us All – review

Sam Miller’s book reveals migration to be neither aberrant nor harmful, but an ancient and fundamental aspect of humanity, says Madoc Cairns

5 to 6 minute read

A black and white late-19th century photo of large crowds of people on a boat

Title: Migrants: The Story of Us All

Author: Sam Miller

Publisher: Hachette

Year: 2023

It’s a powerful thing to have the earth for your mother. This was, Athenians told each other, their heritage and their unique gift. Alone of the peoples of the ancient Aegean, wrote Plato, the children of Athens could claim to be autochthonous, earth-born, living always in one place, ‘truly dwelling in the land’.

Also alone of the peoples of the Aegean, he added, they could claim to be free. The two judgements – the purity of their origin and the perfection of their politics – weren’t unrelated. ‘Other cities are composed of unequal men from all sorts of spaces,’ Plato explained in Menexia, ‘and therefore their political systems are unequal… But we are all brothers born from the one mother, and we do not think we should be slaves or masters of one another.’

In Migrants, Sam Miller writes that this was a lie. Metics – migrant workers, outlanders, living on the earth but not born of it – may have outnumbered citizens at several points in Athenian history. In a paradox later repeated across millennia, the burgeoning city-state found in them an economic buttress and an ideological foil. Even if their family had lived in Athens for generations, a metic would never be able to vote. Citizenship was heritage, a gift awarded only to the autochtons. To everyone else, the gates of the great assemblies were closed.

It’s hardly news that Athenian democracy was exclusionary, of course. Gender and property were grounds for disenfranchisement, as they so often are. Miller’s new history of migration proposes that another axis of obscurity and denial runs through our history: the animus of sedentary peoples against their nomadic rivals. Miller argues this animus was ignorant of their recent past, for most human life on this planet has been mobile, unsettled and/or shifting with the seasons. Once, Miller writes, we were all migrants.

Agricultural revolution

That all changed with the invention of agriculture. Fixed settlements created civilisations complex enough for written alphabets, culture and trade. Miller thinks sedentary life wasn’t always better than what came before but it gave people something they quickly began to value more than almost anything else. A home.

So we arrive at the earth-born Athenians and Plato’s autochtonous democracy, and also, intractably, the silent and unacknowledged masses of metics their system rested on. ‘Sedentiarism’, in Miller’s charming neologism, was a jealous god. The fruits of settled life seem to inspire – or maybe even demand – rhetorical antipathy towards those who don’t partake. To this day, migratory cultures figure in the stories of the civilised as savage creatures, only half-human, or as wild beasts and monsters, shadowy antagonists on the margins of our maps.

Briefs for the defence are thin on the ground. Nomads and seasonal migrants made up a majority of human beings over most of time, but literate society meant, nearly always, settled society.

‘History books have on the whole been written by the sedentary for the sedentary,’ Miller writes. Migrants have had a correspondingly poor press. Miller singles out the Vandals, a migrant people from central Europe who found themselves ruling a chunk of Africa as the Roman empire imploded. Farmers, artists and theologians; they’re now nothing more than a metonym for mindless wreckage.

History’s long shadow

This sets predictable limits on Miller’s work: after a certain passage of time, untold stories generally have to stay that way. Migrants, as a consequence, is uneven. We survey population movements in and out of Britain over the years: a resume of the case for the Viking invasions; a rundown of the Neolithic discovery of America; the horrors of the last slave ship to arrive in the United States. Mythic migrants – Aeneas of Troy, Brutus of Britain – have only walk-on parts.

The industrial revolution germinates new forms of migration – and new oppositions. As the 20th century began, migrants found themselves on the wrong side of every political calculation: economically essential yet socially despised. World War I brought in passports, militarised borders and a hysterical nationalism obsessed with their defence. The borders proved permeable, of course – they always do – but the hysteria stubbornly stuck around.

Migration is politically explosive because it goes far beyond simple movement. It touches the heart of who and what we are

Wide-lens history dominates Migrants but it’s in a close-focus portrait of the actor and dancer Josephine Baker that Miller excels. Baker migrated from the segregated US south: as a child she’d survived a race riot. She recalled, many years and thousands of miles later, how she ‘ran across a bridge to escape the rednecks, the white people killing and beating… I have been running ever since.’ She ran all the way to Paris, where, in the 1920s, she found a job as an actor and dancer, and a home. Freed from Jim Crow, Baker felt ‘liberated in Paris’.

Baker tried to bring her own experience of liberation to the world: adopting children from all races, from all over the world, and bringing them back to her home in the south of France. Miller is not entirely comfortable with Baker’s ‘rainbow tribe’ – her project reproduced too many of the values it nominally opposed – but he’s enraptured by what it represents. A practical utopia; an attempt to reimagine our roots, as the fluid, mobile things they truly are.

Identity and belonging

Miller himself knows identity’s appurtenances (genes, heritage, family and ethnic histories) are always contingent. None of that abates his desire for it. ‘I’ve never really felt at home in England, as if I didn’t belong there,’ he writes. He surmises ‘that I was born into the wrong nation’. He’s what George Steiner called a luftmensch, the common culprit-victim of modernity, resident everywhere, nowhere at home. His own travels – migrating, swallow-light, across the globe for work – provide solace but no solution.

Miller sets out with a clear purpose: to unpick harmful myths about migration. First among them is that migration is something unnatural, an injection of strife and confusion into settled body politics – in Plato’s Athens or Farage’s Britain. Migration, forced and unforced, out of need or avarice or plain curiosity, is above anything else ordinary. And everywhere.

But as Migrants goes on – and Miller retraces the migrations that made him – it becomes evident that the effort, if not wasted, is attachment to sedentary life.

Migration may not have changed much but we have. There’s a metic in every Athenian, now; an autochthonous nostalgic in every luftmensch. The most footloose traveller secretly longs for home. Yet despite unprecedented change, the truth remains: the future is what we make of it.

This article first appeared in issue #239, Spring 2023, Flight, Fight, Remain. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Madoc Cairns is a staff writer at The Tablet

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