Last September I highlighted a new book by journalist Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns (subtitled The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration). I finally managed to get it from the library, and, because it was recalled by another reader (due today!), I polished off the 550-page book in a marathon reading stint over Christmas. I’m happy to report that, as all the reviews indicated, the book is superb, well worth reading for anyone interested in America’s racial divide, the civil rights movement, or simply the sociological consequences (which were huge) of the Great Migration. That term refers to the large-scale movement of blacks from America’s south to the north and west, starting around World War I and ending only when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
It’s a long book, but not a ponderous one. Wilkerson centers her story on three “migrants”: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a surgeon who left Louisiana for a new life in California in 1953, and George Swanson Sterling, a Florida fruit-picker who, after angering whites by trying organize his fellow pickers, fled from certain lynching to New York’s Harlem in 1945. You get to know these people in great detail: the infinite race-based humiliations and degradations that made them leave the South, their attempts (not wholly successful) to build new lives in supposedly discrimination-free parts of America, and their continuing and conflicted relationship with their southern birthplace.
The story is both heartening and sad: Wilkerson followed her subjects, all of whom she interviewed for many hours, from when she met them in the mid-1990s until they died. All three had terrific memories (I suppose that’s one reason Wilkerson chose them from all her subjects), so their biographies are full of engrossing detail. While they all achieved “success” of a sort in the North and West, it was mixed with more than a touch of tragedy (I won’t say more about that). She blends the stories of these three people, told in short, several-page snippets, with larger analyses of the demographics and sociology of the Great Migration. Her thesis is that this migration was the American equivalent of the migration of hopeful immigrants from Europe to America that took place beginning about the same time: both groups fled poverty and often discrimination for a new life and better jobs. The difference, of course, is that American blacks were already citizens; but, despite that, they couldn’t escape their origins for a simple reason: their pigmentation. While European immigrants could assimilate by marrying locals or changing their names, southern blacks could never pretend to be WASPs.
I give this book two enthusiastic thumbs up: you’ll not only learn a lot about this underappreciated part of recent America history (I see its remnants about me every day in Chicago, since I live on the South Side, perhaps the most famous destination of the Migration), but also become deeply involved in the lives of Ida Mae, George, and Robert. The ending is poignant and bittersweet, and will make you both proud of the migrants and sad about their fate. The writing is quite good (Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism—the first black woman to do so—for her work at The New York Times), and the scholarship, though thorough, is worn lightly. (The book was 15 years in the making and Wilkerson interviewed over 1200 people.) If there’s one flaw—and it’s a small one—the writing is occasionally awkward and more than occasionally repetitious, with the same facts repeated in different places. But that’s a trifle that should by no means put you off.
If you’re looking for a fat but fascinating book to start 2011, and you like history, sociology, and just plain good biography, this is the one for you. The hardback is only $16.95 at Amazon.
I’ve also finished Bomber County by Daniel Swift, one of Barnes and Noble’s picks for best nonfiction of 2010. This was okay, but did not in my estimation merit the rapturous reviews it garnered from Anthony Grayling and others. It was an ambitious and idiosyncratic undertaking: an attempt to unravel the story of Swift’s grandfather, an RAF bomber pilot killed in 1943; to recount the horrific life of those pilots, whose wartime longevity was measured in months; and to analyze the question of why there was so little war poetry in WWII compared to WWI. The book turned out to be a dog’s breakfast, with the back-and-forth between the topics making it hard to pay sustained attention. Swift’s insightful analysis of literature during the war, including works by Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, was the best part, but in the end the center did not hold, and some of Swift’s lyricism seemed forced.