Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it
Might not be such a bad idea
If I never, never went home again
They returned home to a Jim Crow South that expected them to go back to the servile position they left. Most resented it and wanted to be honored for risking their lives for their country rather than attacked for being uppity. Some survived the war only to lose their lives to Jim Crow.
—Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 145.
Men lynched, castrated, and burned alive for using their tongues as weapons—against a terror state that told them each day they counted less than human. Women hanging from trees, their fingers severed and stored in jars as souvenir, throngs of ecstatic worshippers cheering, commemorating a weekly ritual—the women probably talked back in a way that suggested they forgot their place in the society they were born into. Angry mobs banging down doors in the dark night, searching out a young man accused of stealing turkeys—if found, a tree needs watering.
Hang onto your rosary beads
Close your eyes to watch me die
6 million Black Americans in the South had seen enough to know Death had their names written in blood; so starting World War I a great migration began—many, like Nicodemus, creeping through the night to elude the paranoid suspicions of their vengeful captors. They slipped onto freight trains, crammed into cars, and dragged their feet for long walks from a place more hell than home, unsure of the future but desperate in conviction. And with heads pressed forward, never looking back—at a ghastly past that had made migration compulsory—they fled the South for the North, commencing a sprawling relocation which slashed in half the South’s Black population within six decades.
Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Boston University professor, documents this heretofore unengaged history in her grand new text, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a dexterous and detailed look into what became of a movement—told through the trails of three central characters—without which Motown might have never found meaning and Jazz might have never found new notes, relegating John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong to obscure footnotes in the book of time.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Wilkerson on the scope of her research, ongoing migration in the 21st century, and the unique literary approach used to tell this great story until now never told.
Thanks for taking the time out of your chaotic schedule to speak with me. I guess the personal is political because your mother migrated from Georgia to Washington, D.C., and your father from Southern Virginia to Washington, as well.
Yes. I literally would not exist if they had not made that decision because they never would have met. They were from different parts of the South, and the culture, believe it or not, is different from state to state. My experience growing up first generation in the New World made me very aware of how that experience is very close to the immigrant experience—and I identified in school with people whose parents had migrated from around the world—because you’re having to forge your way in a place your parents can only help you so far in trying to adjust to.
6 million Black Folks?
Correct: beginning in World War I, with the opening and great demand—really desperate need—for labor in the steel mills and on the railroads in the North. And that was the beginning of the defecting from the caste system in the South, continuing until after the 1960s, when the system, as it had been known in the South, was dismantled. So that went on for almost three generations—people leaving.
And I guess the concept of Citizenship is prominent in your book because this act you describe as migration—which we normally think of as an inter-national affair: relocation from one country to the next. But for these brave men and women who embarked on this journey, and in such massive proportions, it almost suggests they couldn’t have been recognized as citizens of and by their very country.
Oh, absolutely. They were not recognized as citizens; they didn’t even have basic human rights. Their citizenship was not recognized in the land of their birth. And so they got about trying to find a place where it would be recognized and where they could live freely as citizens. And they shouldn’t have had to do that—but it was necessary: they could either stay in a caste system that restricted every inch of their movement, or they could leave. This was the choice every African-American family in the South had to face.
So they make the migration from the South to the North, thinking this might be night-and-day, hell-and-heaven; but they get to the North and find out that trying to flee one terror doesn’t exclude the existence of another terror awaiting you.
Many of the assumptions about them followed wherever they went, partly because the South was not another country, even if it acted like it in many respects. They found great resistance and hostility because they were coming from places where they were underpaid or earning no wages at all, so there was some fear that wages might go down and also fear from Blacks already there that this could endanger their already tenuous positions. So it’s one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and it’s going on now with groups coming from faraway lands, just trying to make it in this forbidden and hostile environment, which end up pitted against each other, not realizing how much they share in common.
These misconceptions, your book documents, were expressed by the layman, the working-class woman who had to compete with someone willing to work for lower wages; but they were also expressed by sociologists and economists. You quote economist Sadie Mossell who, speaking of the mass migration to Philadelphia, wrote, “With few exceptions, the migrants were untrained, often illiterate, and generally void of culture”; and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: “The inarticulate and resigned masses came to the city … [and] the disorganization of Negro life in the city seems at times to be a disease” (260-261).
And that’s an assumption made about people arriving from a faraway place who are misunderstood, underappreciated—their motivations and full humanities are not recognized even by the people with whom they should have the most in common. It was not just Whites in the North, but Blacks as well, making assumptions and judgments about them, which made the transitions difficult. They had all the challenges you could imagine, which in some ways are proxy for what any new immigrant group has to go through when they come to a new place. And I would hope the book helps people feel more empathy for what it takes to make that great leap: to recognize what they had to go through to get there—that’s astonishing!—and what they left behind.
If more Blacks had migrated from the South to the North, do you think the South would have remained the South as we know it? And what possible consequences for the North—since people and things were left behind, as you point out. If more had left, fed up with the brutality of Jim Crow, would the north have had its own southification?
I think the North did have a southification. Think about it. Look at what happened to the family which tried to move into the apartment in Cicero. First they had a difficult time getting in the building: they were turned away before they could actually move in; and when they did they couldn’t stay because the people took all their belongings and hurled them out the second floor window and burned it all. They even went as far as ripping out the radiators and faucets. It was a mob scene—not in the South but in the North. These were working-class, recent eastern and southern European immigrants who were themselves feeling insecure and economically threatened in this foreign place.
But I think that had more people left, the Civil Rights Movement would have taken off earlier because there needed to be a critical mass of people leaving in such numbers with a velocity that would make an impact on the South and would ultimately embolden the states to say, Enough has happened—now is the time to make our move. And the North only began paying much attention to the atrocities in the South when it was attracting so many Black people—when the cities began changing dramatically, demographically. All these factors were interconnected.
And what separated those who stayed from those who left?
That’s a really good question. You might be able to answer that question, too, when you think about the people in the community where you came from—who stayed. I don’t make a judgment whether it’s a good or bad thing to leave, as an individual. I look at it as necessary to make the change we now all benefit from—as such a necessary historical moment that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like had they not left. The people who stayed tend to be more the keepers of the culture, the ones tied to the sentiments and history of a place. Those who left are more restless, impatient; they have an agitation for something better and different. I heard people say over and over again, “If I stayed, I would have died. I would have said something that would have gotten me in trouble.”
I sense that this great migration is very much applicable to what we’re going through today. There was story a couple months back of Hispanics fleeing a small town in Connecticut following persistent police brutality: hardworking business owners just leaving in droves; they couldn’t take it anymore. So I guess it’s still going on today.
Oh, it’s still going on because human behavior is fairly predictable—people react a certain way when exposed to certain stimuli. And the continuity factor in all these cases is economic insecurity. So I would hope by reading this book people would recognize and see the humanity in anyone seeking to leave a place for someplace better, and recognize this as the background of all Americans—there would not be a country without migration: relocation, dislocation, adjustment.
And people don’t realize that if you’ve come a long, long way to get to a place, you cannot fail. Failure is not an option. You’re too far from home. You can’t even afford to stumble. You have to succeed. So that means the people who come here are often determined and courageous people who are misunderstood as wanting to take advantage, when often they are coming with the same hopes and ambitions as anyone who’s ever crossed the Atlantic, or the Rio Grande, or the Pacific to get here.
We hear that a whole lot with the Mexican, Middle-Eastern, African influx these days. I mean, people do think it’s about spitting in the faces of blue-collar workers, when it’s anything but. And I hope your book helps people, the literate public at least, understand something it needs knocked into its head: that immigrants are simply trying to establish a better life for themselves.
Exactly. I also would add, though, that the caste system, being what it is, means a lot of assumptions are made about African-Americans who have been here for a while, who have been forced to live like immigrants in their own country. So I also hope the book helps newer immigrants empathize with, and see the humanity, the commonality with people they may not know have lived the immigrant experience, as well. I hope it fosters greater understanding on both sides. We haven’t yet had a dialogue to see how much we have in common, and in the absence of it: suspicion, resentment, hostility—all these replace what could have been an opportunity for understanding.
Now, you could have written the book in some dreadful, legalese, textbook format. But you chose something, I think, more poetic, something magisterial—narrative journalism, which in long-form demands a lot of time, hard work, extensive research. And it was fascinating to see that in 2010 someone was still keeping alive that legacy.
Thank you. I chose it because I wanted to pull the reader into that world beyond imagining-right-now: when you think of the daily terrors, arcane laws, and then the hard decisions the people made to move, and even what they encountered when they made it to this New World. I wanted the readers to picture themselves in those same situations: see what they saw, feel what they felt, and to ask, What would I have done in the same situation?
So I wanted it to come alive for the reader, which means an extra layer of work because you do all the research necessary to write the more scholarly book, which is important for the furtherance of intellectual understanding, then you take another step, though, to get deep into the lives of the characters to tell their story: you spend a lot of time with them. I wanted to reach as many readers with a story that has been, in my view, the greatest underreported story of the 20th century. And I thought people needed to know about it.
One of my inspirations was The Grapes of Wrath, which is a seminal novel about the Dust Bowl migration, and yet there was no Grapes of Wrath for the Great Migration, which is by many times a larger relocation of people within the borders of this country.
How did this decade-long hustle match with your former gig as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times?
Oh, totally different. In other words, because it was so much bigger than any single topic I had ever tackled, it just took so much more time. But, really, it was the scale. I mean, the attention to detail, sitting down and talking to people, doing additional research: all that I would have done for any piece I would write for The Times. This was just so much bigger in scale. You’re talking 6 million people leaving over the course of three generations, the need to really talk about it from a century-long experience, the precipitating events, and the need to follow people afterwards. So you’re exploring 100 years of history, and that’s a lot. That’s a lot of material.
Yeah, I don’t think you’ll find out what Ms. Ida Mae was wearing at ten-years-old, or what she was thinking at thirteen, after 10 minutes of interview.
Yeah, one phrase might have taken an afternoon.
And if it’s not too personal a question, I’m just wondering where the funding came from, to be able to travel back to all these places and…
That’s a good question. I mean, it’s all part of the work of making it happen. For one thing, it’s nonfiction, so publishers provide an advance, very much like the music industry. And on that basis you make it work. But for 100 years of history, over 1,200 interviews in four different states in the North and three in the South, I had to get additional support. So I was awarded a Guggenheim: they recognized faith in the work and my commitment to complete it. And I also took teaching positions. I taught at Princeton and Emory. I had a lectureship at Northwestern. I continued to write—took short breaks. I did all that to supplement it.
But you had to create multiple selves to be able to teach and simultaneously embark on this great journey.
It also meant watching the budget. I remember catching a plane ride to California which had three or so stops. Soon as you went in the air it came back down. I stayed at the cheapest hotels at airports. You know, you do what you must to make it work.
How do you whittle down 1,200 subjects to 3?
Everybody had a certain strength and a window into the migration that they were sharing with me. But it really came down to about 30 people on my list, all very strong personalities—something that made them of interest. The book would still have maintained the same overarching goal, but the specifics would have been different, which would have affected the experience of the reader. I always wanted people the reader could identify with and see themselves in. So the deciding factor ended up being one person for each migration stream, and then I needed each to be different from one another. They had to all be leaving for different reasons, with different motivations. And they all needed to emerge from different classes. Finally, just great storytellers and characters in their own rights, who you would want to sit down and listen to.
Every now and then, you come in as a character—introduce the first-person pronoun. It’s usually short-lived, but I’m curious about the literary decisions you made to bring yourself in, tell the story of your mother and father, and then take yourself out.
That is really a great question because I struggled with that: I am a journalist who was trained to not use the first-person. So to use it felt like a wild leap into unknown territory. But I think it was probably more comfortable because I was talking not about me but my parents, who were part of that migration and generation. I felt it was necessary to help the reader understand the inspiration for the book, where the passion came from, to give a window into my awareness of the similar experiences of my family: it’s not as if I’m on the outside looking in. I am an observer, but one who has seen it up-close in my own life.
I did it with great thought each time. And other times I used the first-person had only to do—generally speaking outside of the Methodology section—with driving down the Mississippi with Ida Mae, and she wants to stop on the side of the road to pick cotton. And because I’m there, I can’t say, “She was with someone who was driving, and suddenly they stopped.” I was hoping for an authenticity, integrity, and intimacy in the work itself.
You flipped Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for “The Things They Left Behind,” a small section in the book.
Yes! Of course. Thank you! I love that book!
So what got you thinking you could tell stories with the abandoned possessions of these people?
Well, you know, I just love that book. Telling stories through things is a kind of art unto itself. And it has great meaning. I mean, what people choose to carry and what they leave behind—by definition, things were left behind because many people left on-the-run. And those things become emblems, symbols of loss, homesickness and heartache. And every person who leaves a place has something tangible they had to leave behind, and I think that makes it real for the reader, too.
The idea of just saying, They left, sounds so simple; but saying, “They would never be able again to sit down with their mother for a cup of coffee or grits and bacon”—that has a different connotation and meaning. It’s a way of cataloguing the loss and sacrifice.
Speaking as the first Black woman (Feature Writing, 1994) awarded a Pulitzer for individual reporting in journalism, would you like to see more Black writers involved in this sort of long-form, time-sapping, hopefully timeless, work your book is such a shining example and legatee of—as opposed to much of what we have today, which really could be described as fast-food novels? Shouldn’t there be a more vigorous push from the different levers we have for more Black involvement in narrative nonfiction and literary journalism?
I absolutely believe that and hope the book opens the door for more of this kind of work. I hope it has proven there’s an audience for it and there’s a desire for it. The issue, of course, is that it takes a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of determination and perseverance; and it just takes so long. A person has to really feel within themselves that it’s worth all that. No one can make that decision for you.
I hope there will be more such work because this is one opportunity to humanize a people that have often been left to the assumptions of conventional wisdom, rather than the reality of their lives and heart desires. And it can only come through when you take the time to make people feel really comfortable enough to tell their stories. It’s a delicate thing that takes a lot of time. There’s a need for stories to be told from the perspectives of ordinary people, not just the celebrities and household names. With ordinary people, truth and wisdom is found.
Certainly. And I think just as Mr. Talese did with Unto the Sons for his people, you’ve done for Black people with The Warmth of Other Suns—bringing to life stories of everyday people who would normally go uncounted in history; but now generations to come would pick up this book to discover what life was like and the legacy that birthed them. So you’ve told this epic story; took you 15 years, 1,200 interviews, and god knows how many miles and how many airplane rides—
You’re right about that.
How quickly do you take up another project after exhausting so much energy and time on this?
I’m still in the process of trying to make sure this book gets into the hands of as many people. My goal was just for people to read it. You know, there was a library with 147 holds on the book. Some people may not get the book till 2013! And so I am thrilled the word has gotten out and people want to read; it shows we have more in common than we’ve been led to believe, it helps humanize people who—as you’ve indicated and I agree—would otherwise go uncounted, unheard from; and, of course, these people are getting up in years, so there was a great effort on my path to try to get the stories told before it was too late. So right now, I’m thinking about that, but I can say about the next project that it would not take 15 years because I would never have taken on something if I knew it would take that long. But it’s a good thing I didn’t know.
TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic currently living in Michigan. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.