Isabel Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, couldn’t have come out at a better time for black New Orleanians, who as 2010 statistics confirmed but our own hearts knew lost more than a third of our community in the last decade. As we reassess what we had – good and bad – what we miss and what matters, we may find instruction and solace in this book about a previous era of departures, comparing its lessons to our Diaspora.
Wilkerson, a former bureau chief for the New York Times and now a professor at Boston University, wrote briefly about the evacuees from New Orleans in a 2005 article for that paper and won a Pulitzer for her reporting in 1994 about floods in the Midwest. So she has the credentials and the passion for our confidence in her as a writer. A child of migrants, she has been researching the movement of black people from the South for 15 years and has conducted 1,200 interviews to create her new book. Her dedication and expertise shows.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautiful book. It opens with a quote from author Richard Wright, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown…respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
Wilkerson follows three main characters Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from their childhoods in Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, respectively, to Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Their personal portraits are rich, tender and, occasionally shocking – such as the time when Gladney believes that her father was buried alive in a coma because no doctor checked the black deaths in her town. Wilkerson also interweaves other harrowing facts of their lives, for example, that Gladney and Starling had to secretly leave their homes because the whites in their rural areas would have used their power to keep blacks as workers, not unlike in the years of slavery.
The Warmth of Other Suns takes place from 1915-1970 and contains facts that New Orleanians may have forgotten or may not have experienced, as we were insulated, somewhat, in an urban setting. But Wilkerson points to Monroe, La., to explain why one type of migrant left, exemplified by Robert Foster. Coming from a family of educators, Foster wanted more than his small town offered – a segregated school system and a hospital which didn’t allow black doctors to operate, as well as a white establishment which had specific roles for blacks.
Foster leaves to become a surgeon, settling in Los Angles after a long, arduous journey, which Wilkerson describes perfectly – taking him along dark, winding roads in the mountains and arriving at motels which are designated as whites only – not because of the law but because segregation was a fact of life in the West in 1953. After arriving in Los Angeles and working his way to the top of his profession, Foster experiences some high life with his famous patient Ray Charles. Foster goes to Las Vegas, and is among the first blacks to stay in its hotels and use its gambling tables. He comes to live an unapologetic extravagance – in a sprawling mansion surrounded by an elaborate garden. His flashy, lavish life could have never occurred in the South, Wilkerson points out because people with money still needed to be humble and non-threatening to the white establishment.
Wilkerson shows with meticulous writing the distances that the migrants traveled. For example, of Foster’s journey, Wilkerson says “Alone in the car, he had close to two thousand miles of curving road in front of him, father than farmworker emigrants leaving Guatemala for Texas.” The distance is also emotional as the book later shows. “He stayed awake at night weighing the options. All this education and no place to practice and live out his life as he imagined it to be.. a citizen of the United States like the passport said.”
Many of us may recall the trials of the South in the years of segregation and the frustrations experienced by professional people who could not work to their capability or get the same respect as whites in New Orleans. Segregation, its insults and its threats affected everyone – men who were called boys on their jobs, and people who received less pay for the same work, for example. There were also the obvious stares, muttered curses and measured distances that characterized whites’ relations with us.
One redemptive aspect in Wilkerson’s book is her frank explanations of the South and then the North in those years, giving copious footnotes to her research to show that her observations on black life were not constructed simply from her feelings or the feelings of those she interviewed but were backed by newspaper stories of the day and the statistical reports of sociologists and the U.S. government.
She began the book “because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who experienced it.” To her credit, Wilkerson retraces the steps of the migrants, in one case, driving from Monroe to Los Angeles in a car accompanied by her parents.
No one can accuse her of revising history, which is the popular charge of people who would like to forget that virulent racism existed. Wilkerson’s book, however, puts racism and its response -- the black experience of the Great Migration in perspective. She tells the stories of black migrants in the same way that writers address colonists’ opinion of the American Revolution, the Union’s retelling of the Civil War and the Jewish perspective of World War II. Blacks in her books are not victims of racism alone, but active participants in a major change which affected the United States.
“Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America,” Wilkerson writes. She calls it a “silent pilgrimage” and “perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.” It was a movement that affected just about every black family in the American South.
OUR PERSONAL DIASPORA
Wilkerson’s lovely book will have resonance for New Orleanians. Surely, all of us know people who left the city in the period of 1915 to the 1970s. We know that they took the trains, buses and drove to the West, Midwest and Northeast, as the author records.
My own family left for Chicago and New York in the 1940s and returned. Then again in the 1950s and 1960s, we drove to Ottawa, Canada, every year so that my father could study outside of the United States, my mother could speak French in an integrated setting. They also wanted me to experience life as a carefree child, not one who was constantly on guard.
We returned to our family at home in New Orleans every fall.
Now, the 2010 census shows now that approximately one third of New Orleanians left since the year 2000. We probably know these migrants personally. We know who is gone, where they lived, how they were. We have spoken to them on the phone about their journeys. But we are not looking at their journey in retrospect, as in Wilkerson’s book. We are immersed in the impact of their leaving -- on the rest of the country and on us.
The Great Migration changed the demographics of America’s largest cities, making urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, and St Louis and others primarily black. Wilkerson shows that the migrants – against commonly-held beliefs – did not introduce dysfunctional families. Wilkerson notes that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then in the U.S. Labor Department, said in 1965 that southern migrants brought a “tangle of pathology” to the cities of the North. There was a similar outcry in cities like Atlanta and Houston when they received New Orleanians.
Wilkerson notes that Moynihan was wrong though. In fact, “the general laws of migration hold that the greater the obstacles and the farther the distance traveled, the more ambitious the migrants.” They were more likely to work harder, stay married and support their families. But the racism, isolation and overcrowding that greeted them in the Northern cities did eventually create urban poverty, given the large number of people who arrived.
This may cause us to reflect on our impact on other cities, which have absorbed New Orleanians. Our criminals may have made the headlines. But our hard-working families and middle class may be living there in anonymity.
Another parallel is that during the early years of the Great Migration, the people who moved north were called immigrants, much as our people were called refugees. Wilkerson notes that the people she interviewed insisted they were never immigrants, even though the South sometimes appeared to be another country. They were born in America. So were the New Orleanians.
With regard to Katrina, we should take a lesson from the book to consider the people our city received after the storm. Orleans Parish added about 3,200 Hispanic immigrants between 2000 and 2010. There were more than 33,000 who moved into the seven parish metropolitan area in the same period. Katrina brought workers and now families. Reflecting on the lessons of Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, we should consider that the way we accommodate the Hispanics now will portend the future of our city too.
Something else to consider regarding the Great Migration and our Diaspora is that “Overall, southern migrants represented the most educated segment of the southern black population they left,” Wilkerson quotes the sociologist Stewart Tolnay. A fact of New Orleans’ diaspora was that many middle class and upper class blacks left Orleans Parish a while back, first to the East, then after Katrina to other places in Louisiana and the rest of the nation.
The census figures show that about 36% of blacks in Orleans left and only about 18% of whites. So is it stating the obvious to say that New Orleans is less welcoming in general to blacks or is that fact not being written? What are people being offered in other places?
We know that the people who returned are often struggling to get equity in schools, housing and jobs. How is that being analyzed in the present?
It appears that most often, the poor are being scrutinized – and often negatively characterized them as the cause of the city’s problems rather than its result, as if poverty was a credential that one maintained from cradle to grave. What Wilderson’s book shows is that people take opportunities when offered.
Perhaps now is the time to ask if the racism of other cities gave way a little bit easier than the racism of New Orleans, wound so tightly as it is with our caste system. The fact that the earlier black migrants could reinvent themselves freely in the North probably still applies.
In the interest of full disclosure, I left New Orleans in 1972 to study journalism at Boston University because I wanted to get out of the South too. In 1974, I came home and worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a few other small papers, and then went back to New York to be a writer, finding opportunities there that I did not have at home. Unlike earlier migrants, who did not live in an era of easy transportation, I have been able to leave and return often. I don’t think I’ve been away from New Orleans for more than a six month stretch. Similar to some of them, I remember my community practically every day – my neighbors who still sit on the porch and keep the news, my family who always sets out an extra plate when I come in town, and the open-hearted second-liners who dance with me, musicians who inspired me to sing, and the people in the grocery stores and at the bus stop who tell me their life stories and listen to mine.
At the end of The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson shows that the migration from the South to the North was a decision between a rock and a hard place. People left the lynchings of the South to arrive at the riots of the North. She mentions an incident in 1919 when a black boy floated into the white side of the Lake Michigan and drowned because whites threw rocks at him. As a result of his death, a riot broke out which lasted for 13 days in which 38 people were killed and 537 were injured.
I know that when people left after Katrina it was because they had to. They did not want to leave forever, not initially. So they are still torn, you can bet. But what will we provide to bring them home. People want jobs, safety, education, and they want to be free from humbling themselves because of the way they look or where they grew up in town. One thing that Wilkerson’s book showed was that migrants’ possess is a chilling clarity about their needs. Survival trumps home.
New Orleans now is the size it was in 1910, but without the Jim Crow suffered in my parents’ generation or in mine. Now, reading about the Great Migration as told in stunning detail and empathic insight by Isabel Wilkerson, you may just think about our 21st century Diaspora and wonder. Will our migrants stay away or will our new New Orleans, one that is so much greater than in the past, bring them home again?