Our country is like an old house, and old houses need fixing, and more fixing –Isabel Wilkerson (from podcast ‘On Being’ with Krista Tippett*)
As you will recall, I usually post a list of my favourite books at the end of each year. This one just couldn’t wait. Because we can’t wait. Our world needs every day possible to do better. The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Isabel Wilkerson is the best work of non-fiction I have ever read. The story she tells is one of a country within a country and how its people struggled, and still struggle, to be recognised as equal. But in this day of mass migrations it is also a universal story. Isabel researched this book for 10 years and then spent 5 years writing it. The quality and care of her efforts are evident. The historic fabric of one of America’s most underreported stories is woven from carefully transcribed anecdotal telling, research and statistics so deftly threaded throughout, it reads like a novel. All 622 pages of it.
The Warmth of Other Suns is one of those books I did not want to end, but not because it paints a pretty picture of life in the US between 1915 and 1975. I didn’t want it to end because it was a fascinating revelation—a third of which happened during the first 20 years of my life. If you think you know this story, you probably don’t. I am very sorry to say, I was completely oblivious to what is now called The Great Migration. Since it was so underreported, my ignorance is partially understandable. The Great Migration is the epic story of how over six million black people living in the south of the United States, moved north and west during a period of about 60 years, trying to escape the extreme segregation of the south. ‘Jim Crow‘, as the segregationist regime was called, disallowed colored people to walk on the sidewalk alongside white people, to sit in the same seats on public transport, to buy the same real estate, indeed any real estate at all…and worse.
Growing up in rural southern Ohio is also partly why the movement was not in my consciousness. Ohio was geographically part of the North. It boasted a very effective ‘underground railroad’ which spirited runaway slaves to safety, but later on would deny migrating southern blacks the same opportunities migrants from Europe enjoyed. I may have missed the movement, but I was not oblivious to the undercurrent of prejudice that still existed when I was growing up. You may pose the question in your mind, as I did, but weren’t the blacks treated equally after their emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865? Not only was this not the case, but the situation worsened for most so-called emancipated ‘colored people’ as they were called in those days. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many states took another ten years to invoke a version of equality. The truth of this will vary, depending upon who you speak to, much as the extermination of Jews has at times been a point of contention for holocaust deniers. This book has such depth, there can be no doubt of the terrible injustice done to people who had purposely, and gainfully, been introduced to the US, in some cases by tearing them away from their families in Africa, and bringing them to enslavement.
But it is even more than that.
Migrating is never just about migration—it is about freedom —Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of speaking at a book signing and looking up to see a little old Greek lady with an armload of copies of her book for her to sign. The Greek lady said “You have told MY story too.” She wanted to share the book with her family. This was the associative experience Wilkerson wanted to convey with her book. As a migrant to Australia, and the grandchild of a migrant, I read the book with great interest. The Great Migration was also about moving from the ‘Old Country’ in the south, to the ‘New World’ in the north for the migrants. It overlapped the huge influx of migrants from Europe, some of which were my family, and so it was the plight many people faced. But the colored people were at the bottom of the pile, even though they had been in the country for twelve generations previously.
If all history books were written as well as this one I would have been a better history student. This work has been a real awakening with respect to government policy regarding migrants, as well as the recalcitrant behaviour of the general population whose unconscious collusion continues today. When we know better we can do better, but it is still a choice.
A month ago when I began reading, I had no idea I would finish it on Martin Luther King Day (USA), in the same week as the first African American President of the USA would finish his second term in office. With Australia Day coming in a week, I can’t help but think of all the challenges both of my countries have before them. We have so much experience from which to draw it is a wonder we still falter when encountering someone who is different from us. And yet we do. I hope many will read this book and find knowledge and compassion, and perhaps even part of their own story within its pages.
Do the best you can, then when you know better, do better. –Maya Angelou
*If you have 51 minutes, listen to the podcast linked in the opening quotation, via your computer.