I thought I knew the outlines of America’s racial history, from the battles of the civil war to the struggles for civil rights. I knew very little. Isabel Wilkerson’s book helped me imagine the inside story, and absorb some astonishing details.
It’s a great read about America’s 20th century “great migration”, the outflow of around six million black southerners over six decades. It’s a vast “macro” book that’s anchored in three “micro” stories about Ida Mae, George and Pershing – ordinary characters who did the extraordinary thing of leaving everything they knew, risking punishment or worse, and heading north.
The heart of the book is the story of Ida Mae, the sharecropper’s daughter from Chickasaw County Mississippi, who was frankly no good at picking cotton, but did have the guts to get out. Half a century later, in her final years, she tells her story to Wilkerson, looking out from her Chicago South Side apartment over a drug and gang-riddled street that seems like a scene from “The Wire”. The drug-runners call her “grandma”, give her some respect and leave her be. They know this is a woman who’s been through a lot already.
The title is a quotation from Richard Wright, who went north to Chicago back in 1927.
“I was leaving the south
To fling myself into the unknown…
I was taking a part of the south
To transplant into alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns,
And, perhaps, to bloom.”.
When Wilkersen came to speak to us at the Nieman Foundation in Harvard this spring, she talked about the years she spent gathering material, around twelve hundred interviews. She told us why it was personal – about her mother’s journey from Georgia north to Washington DC.
She wanted to record the inside stories of the great migration before the survivors died. She said many never told their own children what they came from, and what they went through, setting the scene for a significant cultural gap between the migrant elders and the new generation of northern-born urban youth.
It surprises me that it took so long for a book like this to appear. It helped me understand why the white southern establishment clung to its “Jim Crow” caste system for so long – a lot of it, in that phrase from the Clinton campaign, because “it’s the economy stupid”.
But I like the way Wilkerson states the facts without preaching about racism. She leaves it to us to think about how white America could remain unaware or indifferent for so long. One of the many big historic questions about man’s inhumanity to man.