Monday, April 1, 2024

Word of the Year: Migration: The Warmth of Other Suns


Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "A negro family just arrived in Chicago from the rural South." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1922. 


The post I wrote back in 2011 fits perfectly in this year's word of the year series. I haven't yet read Ms. Wilkerson's newer book, Caste, but it rests beside me as I type.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rootless Lit: The Warmth of Other Suns

"Rootless lit" - Literature that speaks to travel, migration, displacement, exploration, discovery, transience, divesting of stuff, or portability. 

Rootless lit book review: The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Summary from Publisher's Weekly: "... Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's ... study of the     "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest."

Credit: Amazon

I thought I "knew" what it was like to be black in the American South before institutionalized segregation ended. I "knew" it was bad.

But as I moved through the book, I realized:

  • Even though I had never articulated it to myself, I must have held the untested belief that black Americans had somehow acclimated to the reality of Jim Crow repression in the South.   
  • As much as I thought I "knew" of atrocities such as lynching, mortal beatings, and being dragged behind vehicles til dead, there were even worse monstrosities.
  • I knew nothing about the aggressive actions southern states took to keep black Americans from leaving.

Ms. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through the voices of three people who migrated north in three separate decades. Reading their stories, it really hit home that one never gets acclimated to daily humiliations, whether petty or grand. There is anger, bitterness, frustration, fear, despair - most of which could not be expressed during the Jim Crow years because the consequences of doing so might mean terrorism, brutalization, or death, for even the slightest infraction of the "rules."

I like how Ms. Wilkerson framed the Great Migration in the context of other migrations, such as the Eastern Europeans to the U.S. She made a good case for identifying the South as the Old Country and the North as the New World, noting differences in speech, customs, food, education, etc.

The author made the matter-of-fact and consistent choice of the word "escape" to describe what motivated, in full or in part, the immigrants' journey from the South. This kept the profundity of the Great Migration in front of me throughout the book.

She also used the phrase "caste system" to describe the realities in the South (and the North, as well). I found this helpful, too, because it made the point that even though the Great Migration was a story about black Americans, it wasn't "just" about race. The Great Migration was a universal story of people who fled from oppression and caste assignment and who sought better lives for themselves and their children.

I liked, too, that Ms. Wilkerson didn't sanctify or otherwise glamorize the three people she chose to tell their stories. They were ordinary, flawed individuals.

The Great Migration ended circa 1970. That is only yesterday, sociologically, and its effects continue to unfold.

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