July 19, 2016

As Toni Morrison writes, this is a “profound, necessary and an absolute delight to read.  It is at once mind-opening, sobering, inspiring and, above all, truthful.”  It tells the story with great academic depth of the migration of black Americans from the south to the north during the period 1915-70.  It does so with data-based perspectives which show that contrary to much of the written history, the men and women making this journey tended to be better educated, better employed and have stronger family formations than blacks who had been born in the north. 
The story comes alive through the tracing of the journey of three individuals over a period of 50 and 60 years who traveled from Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Each of these stories is worthy (and indeed is represented here) by its own “book.”
The book brings to life in an unforgettable way the horrible treatment, whether in orange groves or cotton fields, that led these individuals to make the courageous decision to leave and then the discrimination they faced as the “lowest of the lowly” new immigrants in cities in the north.  Substantively, none of this is really surprising to someone who has lived as long as I have, but in the details it is brutal as it documents in the most personal way, the denigration of blacks requiring that they not associate with whites, not only in schools, use of water fountains, bathroooms, bar rooms  and theatres, but in something as trivial and mundane as betting windows at a horse track. 
Wilkerson never trivializes or idealizes the lives of these men and women.  They all made mistakes, as they themselves admitted; they all gave up something vital which, to varying degrees, was hard for them to leave behind in the south.  They had disappointments in their children; deaths in their extended families; these were lives that I only wonder: how I could have possibly managed?
The common denominator, of course, is they were all looking for Freedom.  As James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son:
 “Most of them care nothing whatever about race. 
They want only their proper place in the sun.
And the right to be left alone, like any other citizen of the republic.”
The challenges were legion.  We look at the horrors going on around us today, and “horrors” they are.  But this history reminds one that there were 58 bombings of houses that blacks moved into or were about to move into between 1917 and 1921 alone on the south shore of Chicago.  As Wilkerson writes, “No laws could make frightened white Northerners care about blacks enough to permit them full access to the system they dominated.”
The terrible harm reaped on the children of these immigrants by the drug-infested culture around them is spared no detail. 
Again, James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son:
“I can conceive of no Negro native to this country
Who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred
By the conditions of his life…
The wonder is not that so many are ruined
But that so many survive.”
As these immigrants from the south were the first to say, that provides no excuse to their youth but it does describe circumstances that need to be understood as one draws judgments and particularly draws conclusions on what we need to do now.
The all-pervasive presence of “Implicit Bias” is revealed again and again in this book.  For example, the “expectation that any colored woman walking in the white section of town was available to scrub floors and wash windows” continued into the 1960s.  The author’s mother had a woman call out to her in the late 1950s when she was on her way to decorate and fit slipcovers in Cleveland Park, a wealthy neighborhood in Washington, D.C.: “Say girl, could you come up here and clean my bathroom?”  “I’m looking for someone to clean mine,” my mother yelled back to the woman.
There is wonderful contemporary joy to be taken from the joy which these immigrants to the north felt as they were able to vote, as they were not in the south.  And their votes mattered Ida Mae’s (one of the three lives Wilkerson illuminates) first vote and that of her husband’s in Chicago was one of those tens of thousands of other colored migrants’ votes that helped Roosevelt carry the State of Illinois by two percentage points in the reelection of 1936.We continue to face repression of voting by African-Americans (and others) today, especially in Ohio.
Wilkerson records an amazing galaxy of African-American leaders in every field—black mayors (including Lou Stokes in Cleveland), sports stars like Bill Russell, artists like Duke Ellington—who were children of parents who fled from the south. 
This history, showing the embedded systemic impact of racism that existed both as a driver to this great migration and in the reality which those who moved to the north found themselves in has lessened today, but it is far from gone.
 And one should not forget that the children, and the grandchildren, of the men and women who made this brave journey and incurred all of the insults and discrimination they did along the way,  while feeling being of a different generation and, in many ways, wanting to distance themselves from their forefathers and mother’s generation, still inevitably carry the varying combination of fears, resentments, ambitions, and of determination that every one of us draw, knowingly or not from the road which prior members of our family traveled.

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