Isabel Wilkerson - The Great Migration

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The Longest Road

Feb 20, 2011 (Updated Feb 20, 2011)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fascinating subject; interesting main characters.

Cons:Indifferently edited; should have been leaner.

The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line has been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.

First things first: the full title of this book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Ignorant American that I am (or, maybe, product of American public schools), I wasn’t aware that the post-Civil War expansion of African-Americans from the South to all over the United States even had a name, or that it was considered a movement. And, in some ways, it wasn’t, even by the working-class families and ambitious young professionals who uprooted their lives to start over in what might as well have been a foreign country; they fled to escape persecution, to protect their children from the societal cancer of Jim Crow, or simply to earn a fair wage for an honest day’s work. Over the course of decades, however, all these individuals and families added up to a mass migration of six million African-Americans, changing the course of our country’s history in ways that no one could have imagined.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson had a personal reason for telling this story: her mother came from rural Georgia, and her father from southern Virginia, to settle in Washington, DC. Thus, in a very real way, Wilkerson herself is a product of the Great Migration and uniquely qualified to explore its history. After many hours of interviews and research, Wilkerson chose three representative individuals, who migrated during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, whose stories reflect many of the circumstances, societal trends, and historical impacts on the millions of others in the Migration. Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, moves from Mississippi to Milwaukee in the 1930s with her husband George after a relative is beaten nearly to death over a white man’s false accusation of theft. In the 1940s, George Starling escapes from Florida to Harlem after his attempts at unionizing migrant citrus pickers makes him a target for lynching. And in the 1950s, young ex-military surgeon Robert Pershing Foster journeys from Louisiana to California, both to prove himself worthy of his high-society sweetheart and to spite a society that would deny his life-saving talents simply because of the color of his skin. The book follows these three people’s stories, alternating back and forth between decades to explore common themes in their lives. (Note: for some odd reason, the hardcover edition contains no photographs, but the Amazon product page for this book has a handful of pictures of the main “characters,” so I highly recommend referring to it when you start reading.)

Choosing three people to focus on is extremely helpful in processing the huge amount of information in this book; it helps the reader place historical and political events in the context of the characters’ lives and makes it feel more relevant and meaningful. (It’s the same reason the Museum of Tolerance, in D.C., assigns you a “passport” identity of one Jewish person, so you can make the journey through history in their shoes.) If you’re like me, you’ll recognize landmark events and court cases (such as the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, or Plessy v. Ferguson), but reading about them as they relate to real people’s lives gives a better understanding of how people, white and black, felt and reacted to them at the time. As much as three individuals and their families can stand in for millions of people, these stories have been carefully selected to cover a broad range of social class, educational background, family situations, and geographical locations similar to others in the Great Migration. I had no idea, for example, that the heavy distribution of African-Americans in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Oakland had everything to do with where the railroad lines from major cities in the South ran; black people, especially sharecroppers and laborers, often had to slip away in the middle of the night and flee to the nearest city with a train station headed north, so their choices were limited by personal safety.

Having said all that, do I think this is a must-read book? In all honesty, probably not. Clocking in at over 500 pages, this is a serious time commitment, and while I commend the author’s desire to write a comprehensive history of a movement spanning many decades, there is quite a bit of repetition. Some anecdotes are told several times, and others are simply repetitive and don’t cover new ground, or are larded out with throwaway quotes (e.g., “I had to get out of there”) that don’t add to the story. I got the feeling that Wilkerson, having undoubtedly spent countless hours interviewing people, wanted to pack in as many of them as she could, but this does the book a disservice in the end by clogging it up.

Wilkerson’s writing aims for a conversational, intimate tone, which unfortunately led to some odd editorial decisions, including many run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and misplaced punctuation that makes the narration harder to follow. And some words are just plain misused, as when the author repeatedly refers to the “enormity” of the Great Migration (surely not intending its actual meaning of “unimaginably great evil”). If this were cut down to a long essay format, I think it would preserve most of the flavor and context of the full book in a more digestible form that more people would want to read. Don’t get me wrong - I’m glad I read it, but it could definitely have been pared down by 100 pages without losing much of substance, so maybe this is more a reflection on the book’s editor.

However, if this is a topic that particularly interests you, or you’re a U.S. history buff, or you have a personal connection to the people involved in the Great Migration, you may well find each and every page utterly absorbing. Many of the anecdotes really are shocking and horrifying, or deeply moving, or both; it’s hard for us to imagine a world where a black man could be tortured and killed with no repercussions, simply because some white men thought he might have dared to look directly at a white woman, but these things happened.

What comes through clearly in every page is the courage, cleverness, and fortitude of the African-Americans who left everything they knew, often at risk of their lives, for a chance at the “American dream” - to do honest work and be paid fairly, to have a house and a car, to raise children safely and give them the best opportunities possible for future generations. That’s a story that everyone should hear, and despite its flaws, this book is an exhaustive labor of love to make sure that anyone who wants to know now can.

Recommend this product? Yes

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