Monday, February 13, 2012

book review

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)

A social history of the migration of American blacks from the South to Northern cities would not ordinarily be at the top of my personal reading interest chart. But a sufficiently good book on any subject is interesting, and Debbie Notkin warmly recommended this as a sufficiently good book. And from such a book, I can learn something of a subject I previously knew little about.

The first thing I learned from this book is that the migration was not primarily a feature of the 1910s and 20s, as I'd ignorantly thought. It began then, but Wilkerson's first point is that it continued at full throttle through the 1960s. The book is structured as the stories - entirely unconnected, but interwoven in the narrative by juxtaposing their equivalent stages - of a woman and two men who migrated from different parts of the South to different cities of the North between 1937 and 1953. Each had different backgrounds and different experiences. (David Oshinsky's review will tell you who they are and a bit about them.) At intervals Wilkerson steps back to give briefly a broader demographic picture, skilfully evaluating how representative her chosen subjects' stories are.

I was trained as a historian in college, and it seems to me that this book demonstrates how a journalistic approach can tell a story of this kind better than a traditional historical approach can, at least when practiced by a journalist as dedicated as Wilkerson. (She says she interviewed over a thousand migrants for this book, though there aren't that many in her acknowledgments, before choosing her main subjects; and she did the main interviewing a dozen years before finishing the book; all three of the main subjects, already elderly then, have since died.) The stories are written as feature journalism, with the invented or reconstructed conversations and descriptions typical of such articles, yet much more briskly and from a greater overview height than a novelist would tell it. A historian couldn't take such liberties, but by consequence would be crippled from Wilkerson's aim to tell her subjects' life stories as the subjects themselves saw them.

This itself is a limitation, of course. Feature journalism is not investigative journalism. Wilkerson has checked facts against records and on the ground where possible, but apart from a little blithe psychological character analysis in the epilogue, she's not out to second-guess or interrogate her subjects. You have to take her accuracy, and theirs, on faith. Certain personal problems of the subjects (cases of adultery, gambling addiction, and work issues including strikebreaking and accusations of medical malpractice) are not delved into. This is their stories, told from their point of view, and since they've been unheard, we need to hear that first.

Long work on the topic and a good comparative eye frequently gives Wilkerson's overview sections a solidity that journalism of this kind doesn't always have. Her comparisons of the black migration to various white migrations from oppressive backgrounds, including Jews leaving Nazi Germany, is particularly skillful. On the one hand, the blacks didn't feel they were emigrating, since they were within the same country, and could and did return for frequent visits (though Emmett Till shows even that could be perilous); on the other hand, effective economic slavery and authorities' use of Jim Crow laws even to prevent blacks from getting on trains made it often impractical and risky.

The one thing I didn't get was Wilkerson's rebuttal to the claim that the migrants turned the northern black communities dysfunctional and dependent. What does a brief list of politically or culturally successful child migrants or children of migrants prove, when one of her earlier points was that there were few northern blacks before the migration? In any large enough group of people, there will always be success stories (she doesn't discuss the tragedy of Jesse Owens' life after his Olympic victories), and simple demographics dictates that most of those among northern blacks of that generation will be of migrant origin.

Regardless, this is an excellent book that gets more compelling as it goes along, and I now feel that the great migration has become part of my cultural awareness, which is what Wilkerson wants to make happen for her readers.

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