Reading Isabel Wilkerson is like hearing the stories of my parents' friends and their parents, the handed-down (and often sanitized) tales of their exodus from the South. The exits occurred for various reasons: the desire to escape the near-starvation of tenant farmer existences; the need to leave because their own prospects were so restricted, and they wanted more for their children; the middle of the night departures because a son had not been deferential enough to an outraged white townsman; the vaporization of an entire family overnight, because their pretty eldest daughter had attracted the lingering glance of a white man she would not be allowed to refuse, with dire consequences to her entire family. They're all reflected in The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson's sweeping history of the Great Migration.
As Wilkerson notes, America's greatest domestic movement began around 1917 and ended in 1975, an epoch during which millions of black American citizens fled Southern towns and cities, with their elaborate and complicated tapestries of Jim Crow laws, for the relative freedoms of the north. Ironically, the early black migrants were converging on the interior Ellis Islands of the North and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, etc.), just as oppressed Europeans were converging on the same cities. Both were huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, with one critical difference: black migrants were already citizens. Theoretically, they possessed the freedoms their European brethren were seeking. Despite that, they were routinely pushed to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder where ABC — Anybody But Colored — was too often the rule.
Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, has taken what many would consider an indigestible chunk of history — long and sometimes famously written about by earlier historians and sociologists — and given us an extraordinarily palatable narrative. Much of it is seen through the eyes of three people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who left Mississippi for Chicago and exchanged a grinding servitude to become the matriarch of a large family; George Swanson Starling, who departed the Florida orange groves for Harlem and a life as a Pullman porter; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who escaped Monroe, La., and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he became a prominent surgeon.
How the three got to their respective Northern meccas, what they gave up to remain there and what they got in return is the most American of stories.
The Great Migration affected almost every black person with American roots: No matter where we were born and raised, almost all of us had our beginnings somewhere in the South. Before World War I, 90 percent of the country's blacks lived in the South.
This fact seems quaint to black children born in integrated circumstances after the major struggles of the civil rights movement had been decided, but people my age and older remember well the rituals Wilkerson describes when migrants returned to their hometowns to visit: The routes were carefully plotted so overnight stays could be made with relatives or close family friends, because hotels below the Mason-Dixon Line (and sometimes above) refused black visitors. Coolers were packed with lunches — sandwiches, cold fried chicken, delicate deviled eggs and buttery pound cake, accompanied by thermoses of iced tea and hot coffee (for the drivers) — which were eaten on the move as the travelers passed restaurant after roadside restaurant. No pecan rolls from Stuckey's. No ice cream from Howard Johnson's. (And no explanation of why for the children, who were protected from these insults by their elders: It was years before I realized the Virgina and North Carolina Howard Johnsons were bypassed not because they were dirty, but because they were segregated.)
Just as the election of a black president hasn't cured America's racial tensions, moving North didn't automatically guarantee a completely free life for Wilkerson's subjects. Robert Foster, for instance, drove nonstop from Louisiana for four days in an effort to reach his dream city, Los Angeles. There he imagined he'd be free to practice surgery, not restricted to the ramshackle colored hospital of his Louisiana youth. The feverish drive wasn't because he was in a rush to get there — he couldn't find overnight accommodations as he traveled. Apparently, there was still a lot of South in the Southwest.
George Starling recounted what routinely happened when he and other Pullman porters stopped for a beer after a long day serving others: Their drafts were drawn, their money accepted, but after the empties were returned, the bartender would smash them under the counter, so no white patron would encounter — even washed — a glass black lips had touched. "[They'd] do it right in front of us," Starling told Wilkerson, the memory still fresh decades later. "That's the way they let us know they didn't want us in there."
Wilkerson's personal histories both reflect and deftly illustrate an important part of American history that has only been discussed in clinical ways, sometimes quite famously. St. Clair Drake's Black Metropolis, a study of life in Chicago's South Side neighborhoods, is considered a definitive account of the transformation Southern migrants wrought on the Second City. The Warmth of Other Suns builds upon such purely academic works to make the migrant experience both accessible and emotionally compelling.
People who grew up hearing tales of the Great Migration from parents, aunts, neighbors and cousins will read Wilkerson's book and say, "That's right! That's how it was!" And people largely unacquainted with the types of experiences Mrs. Gladney, Mr. Swanson and the flamboyantly successful Dr. Foster encountered over their long lives will end this exhaustively researched book with a deeper sense of a part of American history they'd understood only superficially until now — valuable knowledge as this country continues to navigate the tricky shoals of race.