Every so often, either motivated by a publicized act of heroism or the ignominy placed on a sports superstar who had been called a hero and then got themselves in trouble with the law, there is a debate over how we as a culture ascribe the term “hero” to individuals. Should it really be placed on the shoulders of those who can pinpoint a curveball on the outside corner in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series in the same manner that we do to individuals like firefighters who risk their lives to put out fires and save those trapped inside burning buildings? The argument usually recedes since there is no way to stop an eight year old or a fawning sports writer from heaping praise on their team’s star.
A word that does deserve this type of focus is “epic.” Epic gets tossed around pretty loosely these days. More often than not for moments or acts that fall far short of being epic. Now before I become a 26 year-old version of Andy Rooney, I bring this up because Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” chronicles the truly epic efforts of more than six million African-Americans who left the South in the decades from World War I through the 1970s. They left for points north and west that included LA, NYC, and Chicago and cities less well known like Beloit, Wisconsin and Rochester, New York.
Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book, tells the story of this great migration through three different indidviduals. Ida Mae Gladney, who along with her husband and children left their lives as Mississippi sharecroppers in 1937 for Chicago. George Starling Jr., left for New York City in 1945 after being forced out of college by his father and getting in trouble for attempting to get his fellow orange pickers a decent wage. The third figure is Dr. Robert Foster, the son of educators in Monroe, Louisiana who attended Morehouse, married the daughter of Atlanta University’s president and moved to California in 1953.
In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Wilkerson tells the story of these three individuals and their families to provide a greater context for their decision to leave for the north. The struggles of Gladney’s mother following the death of her husband and Ida, once she is married and a critical moment provides the impetus for them to board the Illinois Central for Chicago.
For George, he had spent two years in college, but his father was unwilling to provide money for his junior year. In a moment of spite, he married his girlfriend, and with school no longer an option, he was forced to pick fruit in the Central Florida fields. With World War II on, there was limited men for the jobs and high demand for the fruit. George and other pickers realized they could take advantage of the situation to demand the pay they had deserved all along. Despite initial success, other workers turned on George and his allies. Forced to leave town, he boarded a train for New York City to avoid potentially being beaten or worse, killed.
Foster is unlike the other two lead figures in the story. His family were leaders in small Monroe, Louisiana. His parents were educators and his father was a leader in the church. Foster attended Morehouse in Atlanta, eventually courting and marrying the daughter of Rufus Clement, the president of Atlanta University. He had entered a world of elite black society. Foster spent several years in different cities across the US as he earned his medical degree. He decided to move out to California and eventually became the personal doctor of Ray Charles.
Wilkerson’s book not only tells the stories of these three Americans seeking the rights they deserved as their birthright, but the history of the migration, the civil rights movement, and America in the 20th century. Throughout the book, Wilkerson shows how myths about the impact of black migration on urban areas are wrong. Highlighting academic studies that examined census data, it becomes clear that the blacks from the south were more likely to be in stable marriages, be unemployed, and free of drugs and other vices found in the dense urban cities they fled to than northern blacks or whites of a comparable socio-economic status. Additionally, Wilkerson provides new analysis on how neighborhoods like Chicago’s South Side became predominantly African-American and the not-on-the-books forms of Jim Crow blacks faced in northern cities after leaving the south.
In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the reader follows Gladney, Starling, and Foster from their childhoods to the years where they decide they will leave the south, through their lives in the north, and finally during the close of their lives. Once they are settled in their respective northern cities, I found Gladney, who was the matriarch of a family that was constantly on the move, scrambling for work in their early years in Chicago and Starling, whose marriage was loveless at best and worked for almost thirty years as a porter on the trains rumbling from NYC to Florida and back to be the two most interesting figures. This thankless, hard labor weighed down Starling. Foster, who suffered under Jim Crow during his years in Louisiana and in the Army was, once nestled into his established life in LA, quick to the casino, apt to be gambling with friends instead of being with his family. His patients loved him and he was a great doctor, but in comparison to the struggles of Gladney and Starling, he had a glittery lifestyle with comped rooms at Vegas hotels.
Throughout her book, Wilkerson points out how blacks arriving in northern cities were in a similar position to immigrants coming west from Europe, east from Asia, and even further south from Mexico and Latin America. They were struggling to find work and housing for their families. Many times however, these groups who had more in common with each other than they did with the rich industrialists were pitted against each other by those same industrialists. Fights and violence would break out as European immigrants believed arriving blacks would take their jobs for far less pay. The description of the apartment set-ups reminded me of stories of my great-Aunt Molly and grandmother who moved from Ireland as teenagers after World War I to Brooklyn in cramped apartments looking for any legit job to pay the bills.
The book starts out in the depths of the Great Depression. A time and place in American history that to many my age is something we either read about in history textbooks or heard of through the sepia tinted memories of our grandparents. The stories of the terror inflicted on blacks in the US at that time are horrific. But it is the incidents of the 60’s and their consequences that continue to resonate in our country to this day that is equally troubling. We clearly still live in the shadows of our Jim Crow laws and forefathers decisions. Imagine taking Amtrak from New York to Richmond and as the train pulls south from DC, all the black passengers are forced to leave their seats for a segregated car with the baggage. Forty-three years ago – 1968 – isn’t that long ago. It is more than just America’s history, this is our history.
This is the twelfth book on the Times Notable Books of 2010 list that I’ve read as part of this literary experience. With just over ten percent of the list completed, I’ve begun to notice an overlap in stories. The stories of Ida Mae and George in the days before they left the south for Chicago and Harlem are very much alike those described by Howard Bryant in his biography of Henry “Hank” Aaron. Aaron’s father instilled in him at an early age a deference to white people out of fear of violence. George, before working in Detroit briefly, was instilled with that same fearful deference. Similarly, Ida Mae’s history in Chicago intertwines with President Barack Obama’s as described in David Remnick’s “The Bridge.” Ida Mae lived long enough to vote for Obama during his 1996 State Senate race and hear him speak at a 1997 community. Mixing metaphors is a dangerous business, but if President Obama is what comes at the end of the bridge in Selma, folks like Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, along with six million other Americans, played an important part in getting America across.