You’d think I would have finished a couple of books by now, since I’ve been mostly alone in Utah for two weeks. But, there has been knitting, and that does take away from reading time. And the book I have been reading is over 600 pages. But, I finished The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration today! It’s the 2010 first book by Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote Caste, the book that has moved me so much.
Many people told me I just had to read this book, and I’m glad they did, since it provided a lot of context for my life, both in the American South and my 20 years in Illinois. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to Black friends, because it really does a great job making sense out of both the people who migrated northward from the 1930s to the 1960s, as well as to those who stayed and stuck it out through really awful times.
For sure, reading about the struggles of “colored” people, as Wilkerson correctly calls the folks living before the 1960s, makes it clear how hard the parents and grandparents of the current generations of Black Americans worked to get us to where we are now. Whenever I think there’s been no progress, I can think of the people in this book and realize that yes, things ARE better now for Black citizens. They just aren’t good enough (as the Caste book explains and anyone with eyeballs can see for themselves).
I was a white child in the Deep South, and I recall how separate the worlds of our races still were in the 1960s. What I didn’t see were some of the really, really awful things a child wouldn’t see, such as how hard it was to buy a house, get an education, or get a non-menial job for the colored folks where I lived. No wonder so many people left, hoping it would be better in the North.
But wow, I now know how things got the way they were in the big cities back then, how hard it was to live anywhere but crowded areas, how quickly a neighborhood would empty of White folks (and their businesses) once integration occurred. I remember it happening in the South, where my dad told me his brothers kept moving to get away from Blacks, only that’s not what they called them. I didn’t think it was like that up in the North, where people were free. Or so I thought. Now I know.
Wilkerson follows three different people and their families, who moved to Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles in this book. I like that she humanizes what could easily have been a dry, intellectual discourse, by sharing the lives of real people. The three are fallible, human, and above all, honest about their lives, and Wilkerson does an amazing job of interspersing their stories with historical background and generalizations about migrants to the North all over the US. The human element just keeps you drawn in and helps you get through the sad stories of beatings, lynchings, cruelty, and unfairness.
One thing is for sure, anyone who reads this book and learns the stories of the people in the Great Migration will not be able to figure out when the heck America was ever “great,” at least for large segments of the population. And that is why more of us should read this book, because it puts our history into perspective. We can be proud of the hard work our citizens have put in to make life better for others, but seeing what a battle it’s been clarifies WHY we still have to work so hard for all of us.
I now understand what was going on during the years I spent visiting Hyde Park in Chicago, whereas at the time I was just a frightened young woman wanting to safely get from that integrated oasis to downtown and transportation. I understand what was going on with the trains going through my hometown. I understand why it was so hard to integrate the schools there: people were scared of each other. People are still scared, perhaps for different reasons, and I realize not much has changed in that respect.
But, when I think back to how I lived 20 years next door to a Black family and had nothing but good neighborly experiences, how my children had friends whose parents had migrated from all over the world, how no one looks sideways at people dating members of other races and cultures, and how many bright and talented Black folks DO get a chance to shine now, I feel a bit better. I have no illusions that we are a “post-racial” society. But I have hope.
By reading this book, any reader will have the context to understand how and why we got to where we are in 2020. Now to keep working together to build a better world. Like my dear husband told me last week, even when there are setbacks, we have to keep trying. We’re all worth it, aren’t we?
Whew, sorry I got so pedantic there. I’ve just been thinking a lot, here by myself. Now I will go to the convenient exercise room and do my walking. Indoors.