Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson, whose own family was part of the "Great Migration" of African Americans from South to North in the 20th century, began her copious research for this book with the belief that people generally had a limited and erroneous view of this important movement, seeing it as a phenomenon of the World War I era. Through her analysis and the three detailed case studies she uses to anchor the story of the migration, Wilkerson clearly demonstrates that the Great Migration continued well into the 1970s and that many commonly held beliefs about the migrants are wrong.

The three case studies that Wilkerson presents are as engrossing as any novel. Ida Mae Gladney moved from Mississippi to Chicago with her family in the 1930s. Working as sharecroppers, she and her husband realized they were never going to be able to give their children a better life. When a cousin was badly beaten for the mere suspicion that he might have stolen a turkey, the Gladneys start planning their move north. Although the family remained working class and saw the neighborhood in which they had proudly bought a three-flat become crime-ridden, Ida Mae showed amazing resilience in her ability to find contentment.

George Starling had hoped to go to college, but his father cut off his tuition in his second year. George became a fruit-picker in the Florida groves and began to organize his fellow pickers to demand better wages --after all, labor was at a premium during World War II. When a friend heard growers plotting to lunch George, he took off for New York, sending for his wife once he was settled. George worked for years as a porter on the trains up and down the East Coast; while he built a life in New York, an unhappy marriage and the thoughts of what might have been had he been able to finish his degree, cast a shadow over his life.

Robert Foster was from a family of educators in Louisiana. He studied to become a doctor, but was frustrated by the Jim Crow laws that kept him from practicing in white hospitals or tending to white patients. Foster, who had a penchant for the glamorous,  headed for Los Angeles in the 1950s. After a grueling journey and difficult early days in California, both of which proved to him that informal Jim Crow practices extended beyond the South, Foster managed to forge a successful career. He and his wife were socially prominent. Despite his success, Foster never seemed able to feel truly respected.

Wilkerson provides details of the three stories, and the violence experienced in the South and the fear that permeated the lives of the migrants (even after they moved) are stunning. She interweaves the stories with a broader recounting of the migration of African Americans north and westward. She analyzes work from sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and economists to strike down many of the stereotypes perpetuated about the migrants--for example, the sources she cites indicate that the migrants were not notably less educated than native Northerners, nor were they unemployed welfare-users. Rather, they were more likely than native Northerners to be steadily employed. She also takes on the argument that mechanization of cotton processing caused the migration, pointing to the many migrants who did not hail from cotton-producing states or work in the cotton industry. Rather, she emphasizes the desire to escape from discrimination and violence and to assure a better, freer life for themselves and  their children. Whatever the pushes and pulls, she argues, migrating was also a difficult personal decision, made with courage by millions of African Americans. She provides insight into such topics as the role of the black press, the naming traditions of African Americans, and the similar experiences of those who were part of the Great Migration and immigrants from other countries.

For those interested in U.S. history, The Warmth of Other Suns is highly recommended as a source for learning much more about the Great Migration than is typically taught in history courses. For those who think history is a boring series of dates, The Warmth of Other Suns just might change your mind.

Favorite passages:
And so what started as a little-noticed march of the impatient became a flood of the discontented during World War II and by the tale end of the migration, a virtual rite of passage for young Southerners . . .  Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left, and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this Northern city or Western suburb. Or why they speak like melted butter and  their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the new world itself.

Above her was an entire economy she could not see but which ruled her days and determined the contours of her life. There were bankers, planters, merchants, warehouse clerks, fertilizer wholesalers, seed  sellers, plow makers, mule dealers, gin owners.

It occurred to me that no matter where I lived, geography could not save me.

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