Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns
From The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson:
Open quote 

From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make. ... Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: A-

Coincidentally, I happened to begin reading Isabel Wilkerson's enthralling narrative history just as Phil Robertson, the "Duck Dynasty" reality show star, was making news with his offensive remarks about gays and blacks. His anti-gay comments got most of the attention, but what struck me most was Robertson saying, "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ -- not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."

Apparently, the mythology that blacks were happy with racial discrimination persists to this day. In fact, blacks living in the Jim Crow South weren't free to share their true feelings with Phil Robertson or other whites (sometimes not even with other blacks). They had good reason to distrust *all* whites -- a single careless comment to the wrong person at the wrong time and their livelihoods, their homes, even their lives could be lost. Phil Robertson's comment, and more so, the widespread support he received, suggests to me that Isabel Wilkerson's history is sorely needed today. It's full of stories like this passage, which describes the moment, after the cotton harvest one year, that one black sharecropper decided to leave the South:

George could have left after settlement without saying a word. It was a risk to say too much. The planter could rescind the settlement, say he misfigured, turn a credit into a debit, take back the money, evict the family or whip the sharecropper on the spot, or worse. Some sharecroppers, knowing they might not get paid anyway, fled from the field, right in midhoe, on the first thing going north. The planters could not conceive of why their sharecroppers would want to leave. The dance of the compliant sharecropper conceding to the big planter year in and year out made it seem as if the ritual actually made sense, that the sharecropper, having been given no choice, actually saw the tilted scales as fair. The sharecropper's forced silence was part of the collusion that fed the mythology. And so it came as a shock to many planters when their trusted sharecroppers expressed a desire to leave.

Wilkerson follows sharecroppers George Gladney and his wife Ida Mae on their migration from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937. She follows George Swanson Starling, a student who drops out of college in Florida when he can no longer afford it and is forced to pick fruit, on his own migration to New York in 1945, one step ahead of a lynch party. Finally, she follows Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, an army surgeon who isn't allowed to practice in his hometown hospital in Louisiana, on his migration to Los Angeles in 1951.

All different people, all different circumstances, all different destinations, yet they shared something in common with six million other blacks in the Jim Crow South. "What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left."

Wilkerson doesn't drop their stories when they reach what they hoped would be the Promised Land. New York's Harlem, the South Side of Chicago, and South Central in Los Angeles were not welcoming places. Rents were high. Jobs were scarce. Discrimination, although not encoded in law, was just as real. Still, the migration continued, and only grew larger, from the earliest days of World War I (when the cut-off of immigration from Europe caused labor shortages in northern factories) to the 1970s (when the end of Jim Crow finally quit driving blacks from the South). Ida Mae, George, and Robert struggled but found jobs, raised families, lived long and productive lives.

Scholars debate the effect of the Great Migration on America, but Wilkerson contents herself with just telling the stories of three different people, from three different places, in three different decades, to represent millions of their peers in this mass relocation. Each of the stories would make a fine movie. Wilkerson's book would make a fine addition to any reading list -- high school, college, or adult. It's history; it's biography; but more than that, it's great story-telling.

The ebook in Kindle format is available for free from the Richardson Public Library.

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