Author Isabel Wilkerson

By Jabari Asim

"Scratch a name in a landscape," the writer Chet Raymo has observed, "and history bubbles up like a spring."

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Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, doesn't settle for a single name; nor does she merely scratch. Her lengthy, long-awaited exploration of the Great Migration amounts to a lifetime of deep digging, and history gushes forth like a geyser.

The Great Migration involved the movement of some 6 million black Southerners over the course of six decades, roughly 1915-1970. Wilkerson notes that "some 555,000 colored people left the South during the first decade of the First World War," and more followed in subsequent years. In a curious turn of phrase, she calls the earliest departures "merely the first step in a divorce that would take more than half a century to complete."

Later, Wilkerson describes the relationship between blacks and the South as "an abusive union." The degree of mutuality that "union" implies is not often apparent in Wilkerson's mostly riveting narrative. But the abusive part certainly is. Wilkerson cites research noting a lynching every four days from 1889 to 1929 and points out that "a thousand hurts and killed wishes" led to the migration.

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The exodus dramatically altered the cultural landscape of black America and the larger society that tried fitfully to contain it. The migration winds its way through black artistic expression, from the paintings of Jacob Lawrence to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks to the plays of August Wilson. It has also seldom escaped the gaze of scholars. Much like the artists who have made black culture their focus and their muse, Wilkerson avoids the language of sterile assessment and "academic distance." She acknowledges the importance of academic studies and refers to them on occasion, but aims instead to "convey intimate stories of people who had dared to make the crossing."

Her attempts to tell their story necessarily transformed her, as she puts it, "from journalist to unintended historian." The change is of enormous benefit to readers. Like Annette Gordon-Reed, Paula Giddings and other black women writers who have wrestled valuable knowledge from our tangled past, Wilkerson at her best challenges our most harmful confusions about ourselves while reaffirming our most hopeful aspirations.

From hundreds of interviews, Wilkerson focuses her narrative of tortuous upward mobility on the compelling life stories of three participants: Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a surgeon who fled Monroe, La., for Los Angeles in 1953; George Swanson Starling, a labor organizer with a couple years of college under his belt who fled the orange groves of Florida just ahead of a "necktie party" in 1945; and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife who left Chickasaw County, Miss., with her husband in 1937.

Wilkerson makes regular, laudable attempts to place their battles — often waged amid painfully local conditions — within a vast global context. She points out, "The Great Migration had more in common with vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances … or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land."

At the same time, she argues, "the Great Migration was an unrecognized immigration within this country." The South, in Wilkerson's persuasive telling, becomes the Old Country with its own set of customs and beliefs that ultimately prepared black Southerners far better than is commonly believed. Wilkerson cites statistics showing that the new Northerners tended to be better educated, higher earning and in more stable marriages than blacks who had already been living in the North.

They may not have had the Internet, but they had ways of getting the word out, and the most efficient was the Chicago Defender. Distributed secretly by Pullman porters — "the midwives of the Great Migration," in Wilkerson's memorable phrase — the paper painted a picture of mesmerizing possibilities. That picture helped draw blacks to cities in unfathomable numbers. "Beginning in World War I, as many as seven thousand people were estimated to be living in a single block in Harlem," Wilkerson reports. By the '70s, when the migration was finally winding down, "nearly half of all black Americans — some forty-seven percent — would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began."

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To be sure, there was no shortage of the anguish that Baldwin lamented, and Wilkerson doesn't flinch from exposing it. The journeys of Foster, Starling and Gladney are fraught with hurdles that Wilkerson often re-creates with impressive skill. By 1997, for example, Gladney's South Chicago neighborhood had become split between earnest, hardworking people and drug-dealing criminals, "both co-existing on the same streets, one at odds with the other." But just as plentiful, and perhaps more resonant, are examples of the migrants' triumphant spirits, the unshakable willingness to believe in a way out of no way.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Wilkerson's tone at book's end is mostly valedictory. Her three central figures, she writes, "believed with all that was in them that they were better off for having made the Migration, that they may have made many mistakes in their lives, but leaving the South had not been one of them."

She notes with some sadness, "Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people" like Gladney and her fellow strivers. Wilkerson is wrong, of course, and it's a good thing. Her steady, careful work here will bring Ida Mae and company a hard-earned portion of immortality. 

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Jabari Asim's latest book is A Taste of Honey: Stories. His grandparents relocated north from Liberty, Miss., during the Great Migration.