Coherent and Compelling Tales of Black Migration

Part 2 of an essay by Harvard Professor Emeritus Martin Kilson on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African Americans.


Intertwining Social Substance and Personal Migration Tales

Author Isabel Wilkerson's sectional presentation of the three personal migration tales in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration results in a somewhat back-and-forth storytelling trajectory for her history of black Americans' Great Migration saga. But Wilkerson's intellectually shrewd and technically astute capabilities enable her to craft an overall narrative text that's coherent and compelling. The nearly 600-page text is organized into five parts, and in the subsections within the five parts, Wilkerson fashions what might be called "fragment tales" relating to each of her three personal migration tales. There are about 18 subsections that Wilkerson uses to relate the Foster migration tale, the Gladney migration tale and the Starling migration tale.

Part 4, entitled "The Kinder Mistress," is the largest section of The Warmth of Other Suns. Part 2, "Beginnings," runs 202 pages, and Part 4 is 206 pages, together making up some two-thirds of The Warmth of Other Suns.

Wilkerson has an overarching theme for each of her five parts, and this theme is identified with a quotation from writings by iconic African-American intellectuals. At the start of Part 4, "The Kinder Mistress," she quotes from Langston Hughes' elliptical and poignant poem, "The South":

The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth …
Passionate, cruel,
Honey-dipped, syphilitic --
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face …
So now I seek the North --
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
is a kinder mistress.

It's through the jagged-edged, white racist themes of Hughes' exquisite poem that Wilkerson portrays the trajectories of the three migration tales, from the white South's Negro-hating realm to the North and West's hoped-for Promised Land. It's especially in Part 4 where Wilkerson's narrative of her three migration tales relates substantive evidence of the multilayered, systemic infrastructure of white racism in the South, an infrastructure that commenced in early 1880s, following the U.S. government's cynical political scuttling of the post-Civil War Reconstruction democracy.

In the early section of the book (Part 2, "Beginnings"), Wilkerson prepares her readers for the institutionally vicious and cruel aspects of white racism under Jim Crow:

Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, "Burn, burn, burn!" as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.

Across the South someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as "stealing hogs, horse-stealing … jumping labor contracts, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks … or trying to act like a white person." One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents.

In closing out this discussion, Wilkerson quotes from one of the major modern-day books on vicious and cruel Negro-phobic aspects of Southern racism during the first half of the 20th century. That book is Herbert Shapiro's White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (1988), from which Wilkerson refers to a chilling observation by Shapiro: "Perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had. All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching."