I finished Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2010) a couple weeks ago. The book tells of what has become visible now as the great migration of slave-state blacks Northward and Westward between 1915 and 1975. Though she interviewed a thousand people for the book, the narrative primarily follows three people from their varied backgrounds in Jim Crow states to what is hoped will be better lives up North. Sharecropper Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937; field worker George Swanson Starling left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a physician and surgeon, left Louisiana in 1953 for a better life in California. Though none of these migrants saw themselves as part of a movement, with a little distance we can see them as exactly representative of a mass movement involving some six million blacks, mostly in waves after the two World Wars.
As has become a custom of late, I'm reading this book in audio form which makes it difficult for me to recount my way through the pages by way of favorite passages. But like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia or Chris Hedges' Death Of the Liberal Class, this one has too many quotable passages anyway. It's not the language that grabs me, though Wilkerson is a former Pulitzer Prize-winner. The magnetism comes from the world she captures, an alien place that most of us--I, certainly--don't really understand.
Everyone knows the term Jim Crow, and most of us know that it represents a series of laws and codes intended to enforce a racist view of the world. But that description, ugly as it is, sounds considerably less menacing and heinous than the reality of Jim Crow. On many occasions in the past I have found myself shocked by information I should have taken on board years before; and so it is here. I've seen many a photo of "whites only" and "colored only" signs from the Jim Crow era and I know a little about the Civil Rights marches of the '60s, but somehow I never really took this information in and processed it.
Wilkerson's book goes into minute detail about what life was like for Southern blacks after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and provides a chilling rationale for what became a mass exodus of blacks from their homes over a 60-year period. I want to think that Lincoln's proclamation marked the beginning of the end of one of the epic wrongs of history--slavery--but in fact the act changed very little in the lives of the now-former slaves. The conquered Confederacy was under Northern control after the war for the decade of Reconstruction, and Northern values were enforced during this time. But with the withdrawal of Union garrisons, the ways of the Old South quickly reasserted themselves, and an ugly and rigid caste system--a system of apartheid--was enforced. This was Jim Crow.
I knew all this, of course, but it depresses one right to one's bone marrow to see the totalitarian and cunning and slippery way this tyranny was enacted--to see the frantic urgency with which this system was built and expanded. Far beyond separate-but-decidedly-UNequal facilities, blacks were placed, by law and custom, in an inferior position to whites in all things, and harsh and differential treatment was mandated and brutally enforced. This enforcement went so far as to punish any white person not wishing to follow these rules, and any black person even suspected of an infraction was dealt a brutal, and often fatal, reprimand. Many slaves became sharecroppers, working as "free men" the same land they had hitherto worked under duress. These land owners quickly found novel and unconscionable ways to keep their former slaves under their iron control. The common scenario was for a sharecropper to work an entire year and then go to the boss at season's end for a "reckoning." The boss would add up the worth of the sharecropper's labor and subtract from that the "costs" the sharecropper incurred from the boss--food and lodging and medical expenses, etc. The laborer had no say in these calculations. And the outcome in the vast numbers of cases was--at best--a draw: the sharecropper worked for a year for no wages, "earning" only the most meager hardscrabble existence. With a "fair" boss, a sharecropper might earn a few dollars at year's end, but more often the books would show the sharecropper further in the hole than when he started. That placed the sharecropper in the boss's debt, a position of legal standing which would give the boss leverage over the workers' very lives. Naturally, there was no legal recourse for any black person in the South, and even beatings and lynchings were not considered matters of legal importance--unless it was a white person who was beaten, then any kind of mob "justice" was tolerated, even mandated. A white man could do virtually anything to any black man, woman, or child and be reasonably assured that no legal action could be taken against him (nor would he likely face public condemnation). Blacks on the other hand were routinely beaten and tortured and killed for infractions they may never have committed. As men and women and families fled this oppression and injustice (imagine a black soldier returning to the South after fighting for his country overseas, only to face Jim Crow back at home!), the South saw its free-labor economy evaporating; it's incredibly revealing to watch the oblivion of the Southern whites as their economy faltered, and to see the risible and offensive attempts to correct the situation--always without admitting the epic wrong that lay at the core of the problem.
This system, laid bare before us, is absolutely shocking to my naive and easy-going nature. The details--and I had no idea how vast and all-encompassing this institutionalized racism was--leave one sick to one's stomach. To think of millions of people living in this system, denied essential human rights and the basic rights of law and citizenry, and for this system to have existed after the legal abolition of slavery, makes one realize that the greatest stain on our country continued long after the Civil War was said to have settled the issue. And as the story continues, we realize that the monstrous discrimination continued on, closer and closer to our own day, until we find ourselves in the present day (where we hear Supreme Court justices claim that racism is no longer an issue--which proves the lie much more eloquently than a detailed roster of infractions could do).
But as a white person a hundred years removed from slavery, I can only wonder at this state of affairs. I can't really understand what it was to live under this system, on either side. All I can do is try to absorb the reality of those times and translate it to something in my own world. And here's what strikes me: it seems that the country went through an episode of mass mental illness in the 1860s (and beyond). There was a wild irrationality in the Confederate mind, a blood-boiling certainty about things that just weren't true--not least in the conviction that a person's merit could be determined by their race (or their sex). Seven states--slave-holding states all--seceded immediately upon Lincoln's election to the Presidency, even though he had stated for the record that he had no desire, and felt he had no legal right, to interfere with slavery where it presently existed (all that was being proposed was that new territories added to the nation be free). But the would-be Confederacy took that information and concluded that "He's a-comin' for my slaves!" or "He's reducing me to the equal of a slave" and felt the only way to hang onto their "property" was to secede and form a new nation--a nation whose constitution, tellingly, held as a central tenet that whites MUST occupy a superior status to non-whites
It's just hard to make a rational account of this, and yet we descended into massive and prolonged bloodshed, town against town, neighbor against neighbor, because of it.
And as horrific and inexplicable as this seems when I read it, the real take-away is the recognition that very little has changed. As I read I find myself again and again thinking that this crazy, conspiracy-laden irrationality, this fear-and-armageddon thinking, is alive and well and completely unchanged in our present day. And it's centered in exactly the same geographical area (though racism and irrationality are found everywhere): the states of the Old Confederacy--the "red state" phenomenon where "conservatism" and social dysfunction are inextricably linked. The primary speakers of this country's political right--Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly--spout exactly the same kind of apocalyptic, made-up garbage (presumably because a straight accounting of the facts won't really get anyone's blood up). They and their followers are mad as hell at an awful lot of things that are demonstrably untrue--and talk of secession from the union once again swirls.
Any sober look at the opposition to Obama can't help but see a thick sinew of racism in the criticism of the policies of his administration--indeed, finding overt racism is not hard to do. Which REALLY makes it seem as though we've made zero progress in the last 150 years. While racism has always been with us and probably will continue to be a force until whites are soundly outnumbered in our population; and while far fewer people in 1860, North or South, were likely comfortable with the idea of full equality between races; I suspect the proportion who would reorder the world based on race remains similar to what it was back then.
It says the worst things about us that we seem unable to progress beyond this ugly clannishness, and that our culture, far from embracing rationality, is moving backward as rapidly as big money can write the checks.
Wilkerson's book tells an important story and is entertaining and engaging, but it's overlong. I appreciate that she did years' worth of prodigious research, but there is a lot of repetition. There's an argument to be made (tho she has not done so) that a lengthier immersion into this horribly unjust world is needed for those of us in the privileged classes to begin to grasp what it means to live under such strictures; but the book's impact was limited by our seeming to cover the same ground too many times. But that's a small complaint that does not undo the book's importance. If we are to prevent history repeating itself--as it seems to want so badly to do--we must first know this history. If this story is as eye-opening to others as it was to me, this book should be required reading.