One of the things that keeps me going on a daily basis, something I’ve relied on since 1996, is Democracy Now! It keeps me going because it provides me with a constant flow of new inspirations, people I might not have heard about otherwise (though of course, some I already know) whose lives are an inspiration to me. But every one in a while, there’s a segment where I say to myself, “Okay, inspiration. I got it. But this is ridiculous!”
Yesterday brought one such segment, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration: Isabel Wilkerson Tracks Exodus of Blacks from US South” an interview with the author of a massive history of America’s most profound virtually unknown event, an act of self-re-creation almost unparalleled in human history, involving six million Americans, for which more than 1,200 people were interviewed. As I listened, I was paying close attention to what was being said, but I was always contended with all manner of other thoughts intruding. On the one hand, there were constant instructions of bits and pieces of American history–African-American history, you might say, but not being African-American, I still feel it’s my history, as well, because it has touched my life in more ways than I will ever know.
And I kept thinking of how I’d known certain stories, and known that the Great Migration was the background to them–such as the various different streams of personal history that brought different activists into the Black Panther Party here in California, almost entirely with family backgrounds rooted in Louisiana, where there was a long-standing history of black resistence that they were carrying on. I had known this larger history, but only known of it in a relatively diffuse and abstract manner. And as I listened, I also marveled at how incredibly significant this history was, how much profound change it had produced–just thinking about American music alone, and how that in turn had changed the entire world at least five times over this past century–with jazz, with blues, with r&b, with soul, and with rap. And I thought about how remarkable it was that this story had never been told before in this comprehensive way, and what a stark contrast that was, for example, with the way that the Civil War–essentially the story of a massive and destructive dead end–had had its story told so many countless times that we could never be free of its unending lies, and here was a vast, almost limitless ocean of truths and possibilities about which we know almost nothing as a nation.
And I was thunderstruck–not least by the fact that I’d never really thought about it before.
Of course, this is not just an incredibly specific historical story. It’s also completely universal at the same time. It’s a story that anyone who’s ever moved out into the unknown will recognize as their own at some level, too. But that universality does not negate its specificity. It only explains why it can touch each and all of us–if we are willing to be touched.
Here is how that segment began:
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a pivotal but largely overlooked event in American history: the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West of the country. Some six million black citizens left the South during the period of the Great Migration, which began around 1915 and continued into the 1970s.
The Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist and professor Isabel Wilkerson has spent, oh, close to fifteen years researching why millions of African Americans decided to leave the towns and farms of the South on such a large scale. Her own parents made this journey, from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, DC, where she grew up. Well, her book is just out, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She’s also the the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and is currently professor of journalism and director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University. She joins me in the studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Isabel Wilkerson.
ISABEL WILKERSON: Great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Absolutely remarkable book. What inspired you? Talk about your own family.
ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, in some ways, I think I grew up with the-almost born to be writing this book. I mean, I was the child, the daughter, of people who migrated from the South to the North. My mother migrated from Rome, Georgia, a small town, to Washington, DC. In a different decade, a little later, my father migrated from southern Virginia to Washington, DC. There they met and married. And had it not been for this Great Migration, I wouldn’t be here. And I would be reading-
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they leave?
ISABEL WILKERSON: They left because they wanted to be able to have better opportunities. They left because they were living under a caste system, which dictated and controlled every aspect of the lives of African Americans. In some ways I describe it as a defection as much as it was a migration. In many ways, they were seeking political asylum from a caste system that determined, for example, that in Birmingham, for example, a black person and a white person couldn’t play checkers together. Someone actually sat down and wrote that out as a law. There were places-there were courtrooms in the South where there was actually a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book with the words of Richard Wright. Can you read them?
ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes, and I preface it by saying that, in some ways, it speaks to anyone who’s ever left one place that they-a place that they’ve never-the place that they’ve known all their lives for a place they’ve never seen. It speaks to the immigrant heart, and it reads, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where you got your title, The Warmth of Other Suns.
ISABEL WILKERSON: That’s where my title comes from, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in your book, you follow-you interviewed what? Twelve hundred people?
ISABEL WILKERSON: I stopped counting after 1,200.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s such a remarkable work and so beautifully drawn. The three different families that you follow illustrate the different migrations. Explain.
ISABEL WILKERSON: What the goal was was to capture the breadth and the scope of this migration, which was a national migration, from all parts of the South to all parts of the North, Midwest and West. In order to do that, I needed three people who would illustrate the three major streams of this migration.
So the first one was from-up the East Coast from Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, up to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston. That was the stream that my own family was a participant in. And the beautiful part about this whole migration is that it was very orderly; it was not just a haphazard unfurling of people. So, the person who represents that migration is a man who had-named George Starling, who had been-he had worked in the citrus industry. He’d been a fruit picker. He had also gone to college a little, had some college experience. And when he got out into the groves, he found that they were being mistreated horribly. It was dangerous work. They were being woefully underpaid. There was obviously no unionizing at that time. And he tried to organize the pickers to get a nickel more a box. And for doing that, his life was threatened, and he had to flee for his life. He left Florida for New York, for Harlem, in 1945.
The second stream was a stream from Mississippi and Arkansas to Chicago. And that was illustrated by Ida Mae Gladney, who was a sharecropper’s wife, who could-was very good in plowing and killing snakes, but she was very-really bad at picking cotton. She was really bad at picking cotton. And so, she was not much help in the field. Her husband and she and their two children left Mississippi for the North after a cousin had been wrongfully accused of a theft that he had not committed. The thing that they had accused him of stealing turned up the next day, but he had been beaten within-to within an inch of his life. And his-and when her husband discovered this, discovered the state that his cousin was in, he went home to his wife, and he said, “This is the last crop we’re making.” And they headed north to Milwaukee and then ultimately Chicago.
And the final leg of this migration, the final stream, is the one that’s written about the least, but in some ways is-some ways one of the most exciting things to write about, was the one from Louisiana and Texas out to the West, out to Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle. And that was illustrated by Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who was a surgeon in the Army during the Korean War. When he got out of the Army, it turned out he could not perform surgery or work as a doctor in his own home town of Monroe, Louisiana. And so he set out for a treacherous, unexpectedly treacherous journey across the desert at night alone, unable to stop. And that was a journey that I attempted to recreate myself.
AMY GOODMAN: And you did it with your parents.
ISABEL WILKERSON: I did it with my parents. I rented a Buick, as he had driven. He drove a Buick Roadmaster. And he would often say that if you had seen it, you would want it, too. He was a character in many ways. And we set out on this journey. And I told my parents, the rule was that only I could drive, because that’s what Dr. Foster had been forced to do. We got to the really treacherous part of the journey, where we were going-it was nighttime. We couldn’t stop, because he had not been permitted to stop. No one would take him in. He couldn’t find a room to stay.
AMY GOODMAN: Because he was black.
ISABEL WILKERSON:Because he was black. And he had not anticipated that. He thought once he got after-past a certain point, he’d be able to stop, but he found that not to be the case. And so, I tried to recreate that, and I wanted to experience what was it like to have your fingers get swollen from gripping the wheel for so long, for so many hours. Your eyes grow heavy, so heavy that they begin to ache. And yet there’s still more road, and there were hairpin turns, and it was dark, and you’re going miles upon miles upon miles. No settlements at all, even to this day. You’re driving around the mountains. They’re two-lane roads. And at a certain point, my parents said, “Let’s stop. Stop the car. Now. We must stop. And if you won’t stop, let us out”-because it was really-I mean, you’re going over the lines, and clearly I was weary and tired. We had no trouble finding a place, because it was no longer 1953, which is an indication of how far the country has come since that time. We still have a ways to go, though….
There is so, so much more. And that’s only the inteview. (There’s a second part as well!)
Go read it all–or better yet, listen. This is an utterly incredible story, without which, you really can’t understand America. It’s something we really spiritually need as a nation, to understand who we really are.