Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Vintage, 2010), 587 pages.
My guess is that many do not know to what America’s Great Migration refers. Reconstruction, the Great Depression, Progressive Era, Jim Crow, or the Early Republic are all recognizable eras and events, but the Great Migration is not as well known. This refers to a phenomena where “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 existence in nearly every other corner of America” (9). This lasted from First World War all the way through the 1960s. Quite simply it transformed the South, the North, the Midwest, the West, and any other region of the continental United States you can think of, particularly the urban areas. The way that urban areas are even set up in most cities today reflects the phenomena that Wilkerson talks about. This is nothing new, but the depth of detail and the connection to real stories is unforgettable.
This was easily one of the best books that I have ever read. Everything about it hit the mark. Its writing was clear and compelling, even gripping at times. Its topic and content was incredibly interesting and important. Its research is meticulous and undeniable. The author knows well the literature surrounding her subject and deals well when interacting with other historians. More than that, she conducted more than 1,200 interviews with those who were a part of the event she writes about. The most impressive part is how she weaves together the scholarly historical study with the massive narrative evidence. Altogether, it is a stunning piece of history.
This is a work of narrative non-fiction. This means that the author writes history, but gives it not just through a lecture manuscript filled with annotated footnotes showing her scholarship. Rather, this book tells the story of the Great Migration through the lens of three main characters. The broader scholarly historical explanations are brought in at numerous points to give context to each of the three individual narratives. And during these broader explanations, she uses the many interview details she collected to bolster her presentations. The payout is that you are presented with living history while you follow three highly compelling stories. I can think of no better example of narrative non-fiction writing.
Wilkerson follows her three main stories from their early lives in the south, detailing the intense daily struggle they experienced. The story is that in the South after the Civil War, life for black Americans was very difficult, primarily through Jim Crow laws and customs. Segregation, sharecropping, harassment, vandalism, and the racial terror used to enforce Jim Crow were ubiquitous. Black Americans had to live by these written and unwritten rules under the specter of terror. Even answering a greeting toward a white person without proper etiquette could result in death. “Across the America South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white person'” (39). Such a number should cause a shock, but it is almost certainly an under-representation. The individuals the author interviews all saw beatings, harassments, rapes, tortures, and lynchings that were not recorded. The reality of life for black Americans caused them to look North for other options (‘the warmth of other suns’) where they might build a new life. Many left the South with that hope.
The book then chronicles the various routes taken by Southern migrants to a variety of Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities as well as their struggle to establish themselves once there. The reality is that the “other suns” were not always terribly warm. The road to these new worlds were often difficult and dangerous. And even once the migrants arrived at a new city it was difficult to get a foothold. While segregation was not always lawful in these places, it was certainly present everywhere. The job options were limited for black migrants (despite the fact that many of them had more education/qualification than many of their white competitors), the education options were limited, and residential segregation limited even where they could live. City planners would determine which areas were to be white-only. Neighborhoods would have official and unofficial covenants disallowing black residents. And even when these options were not in place, harassments and vandalism could often overwhelm and ultimately drive away any would-be-tenant. Racial segregation permeated every aspect of life.
The end of the book recounts the drastically changed American scene one hundred years after the migration began and several decades after it ended. The three stories told show how, despite the difficulties of the new locations, the migrants were, by-and-large, quite happy with their choice to go. Their individual choices ultimately changed the landscape of American history. Indeed, the landscape is so changed that (much smaller) migrations are seeming to take place away from some of the urban areas of the North, Midwest, and West in a turnaround from what the three main characters lived through.
It can be very hard to read the details of this dark period of American history. But I would say that it is really important. The fact that so many Americans relocated has had an incalculable effect on life in America, both in the places they went and the places they left. It is pretty interesting to me that many history books seem to overlook this huge change of landscape. We might know that one hundred thousand people migrated to California during the gold rush or that three hundred thousand migrated out of the Midwest due to the Dust Bowl, but what about the over six million who relocated due to racial oppression of Jim Crow? But, as Wilkerson shows, this Migration had undeniable causes and effects. Such a massive moving of people and the cloud of racial prejudice that surrounded it on all sides has undeniably had many ripples that we continue to feel. How the South is now structured, how inner cities are shaped, how the suburbs came to be, where the urban manufacturing jobs are located, and the socio-economic situations of urban areas (along with other important realities of American life) cannot be explained apart from this story.
I cannot think of a better place to get acquainted with this era than this book. It is like having three walking tour guides through history. There are very few books that I have finished and felt I had read a masterpiece, but this was one. I would encourage anyone to pick this up and read it. It’s a compelling read, but it also has gut-wrenching moments. It is hard to read any story of torture and murder, but when it was racially based, and sometimes even geared toward minors, it will hit deep. But this is an hugely consequential part of the American story. Read the book. My guess is you will learn something new about the formation of America as we know it today.