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Friday, December 14, 2012

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

This book is a hard one to pitch: a 600+ page about the history of the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West. It sounds dry and very long. But don't let those details stop you -- it's fantastic. (Plus with all the appendices and indexes and bibliographies, the actual text ends on p. 538 which isn't nearly as daunting.)

Dr. Wilkerson approaches this long history (1915-1970) in a unique fashion: she chose three individuals who made the migration in three different decades, with different backgrounds and expectations and reasons for leaving, and she tells their personal stories, with the history, background, and sociology sprinkled in around the edges. This is my new favorite approach to history.

We start with Ida Mae Gladney who migrates from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s with her husband and three small children. They had been sharecroppers and the owner of the plantation where they worked was actually pretty nice, all things considered. But they still got to a point where they could no longer live with the daily fear of putting one foot wrong, even without knowing. (Their cousin was beaten nearly to death on the assumption that he had stolen some turkeys which reappeared a day or two later, having just wandered off.) Their children went on to have pretty happy lives and good families.

Next, George Starling migrated from Florida to New York City in the 1940s. He had gone to two years of college before his father stopped paying for it, and he seemed to resent this for the rest of his life. He worked as a porter on the overnight trains, going back to the South a couple of times a week for his whole life. That added risk, as did his knowledge that the job was beneath his abilities. He had left picking citrus in the groves of central Florida where he was tried to organize workers before he was basically run out of town (he lived in the same area where the Groveland murders took place.) He impulsively married Inez and they had two children who did not do well, one getting pregnant as a teen and the other succumbing to a life of drugs.

Finally, Robert Pershing Foster grew up in Louisiana, the son of a school teacher and principal. He followed his older brother to medical school, and married the daughter of the president of Atlanta University. She was used to a life of privilege, which Dr. Foster aspired to, moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s and establishing himself in medical practice. Luckily, the color barrier had already been somewhat broken for them by the previous generation so they were able to move into a prestigious part of town and a large house, and when Dr. Foster became Ray Charles's doctor, their upper-class life was solidified. They had three girls who also went on to college and good careers.

Along the way, we learn about the issues that drove the migration, how people from an area mostly migrated en masse to another (mostly due to the train or bus lines, but also because once a couple of people from your hometown had migrated to a particular city, you now had a place to stay and someone to help you get started in that city.) One thing I found fascinating was how this migration led to the Civil Rights movement, although probably not in the way you expect. When the majority of the workers in the South left, the South finally had to make concessions. They needed workers and no longer had many to choose from, so they had to treat them more decently and pay them better. But of course it took a long time to get there.

It was also interesting learning how generations of paying African-Americans a fraction of what whites were making for the same jobs, has led in a large way to the current high levels of poverty in the African-American community, as it's very difficult to build up wealth in a family in a single generation. It often takes many, as it takes people who make enough to let the kids keep going to school instead of dropping out to work, making enough to go to college, buy a house, and other trappings of the middle class. People in poverty tend to stay in poverty, and unfortunately for decades, paying African-Americans less and working them harder wasn't just accepted, it was the law.

While reading this book, I was periodically just amazed by what these people went through to secure a better life, what African-Americans in the South were suffering (not that the North was that much better, particularly as the riots in Chicago over keeping minorities out of certain neighborhoods were pretty harrowing, but you were less likely to be killed just for looking at a white woman.)

The stories Dr. Wilkerson included from dozens of people across the decades who went sometimes to great lengths to migrate were impressive. I particularly liked that she included the story of her own parents' migration as well. As the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, she was in a unique position to tell this fascinating story. We hear about the migrations that happened during the Gold Rush era, and the Dust Bowl, but those were small fractions of the population upheaval that happened during the Great Migration, which I think is a seminal point in American history and ought to be more known. Luckily, now there is this fantastic book to spread the word. Very well-written and thoroughly researched, it nevertheless reads with the pace and storytelling ability of a great novelist. Anyone remotely interested in history needs to read this book.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I've gone back and forth on this one even though it won a pulitzer. Your review has convinced me that this is likely a book I'll really enjoy! I also really enjoy that manner in discussing history.