Onward & northward
BOOKS | Chicago woman's experience aids author's Great Migration exploration
September 16, 2010
BY MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA [email protected]
When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author first meets her -- in Chicago in 1996 -- Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, 83, sits by the window of her second-floor apartment in her family's three-flat in South Shore, watching madness overtaking the inner city nearly 60 years after she'd fled the South in the Great Migration.
"There they are, all scuffling beneath her: urban drug dealers, falling-down sweatpants pooling at their feet, now bent over the driver's-side window of a late-model sedan from the suburbs; fourth-graders doing lookout for men who could be their fathers; young girls with their stomachs swelling already; middle-aged men living out of their Pontiacs; gangsters who might not make it to the weekend," Isabel Wilkerson writes.
It is a snapshot early in Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Random House, $30). And over the course of 545 pages the author takes us back and forth in time in this epic chronicling of the 55-year phenomenon known as the Great Migration.
A scholarly though readable documentary of what Wilkerson, the first black woman ever to win the Pulitzer in journalism, describes as "perhaps the most underreported story of the 20th century," The Warmth of Other Suns unveils -- through the lives of Gladney and two other migrants -- the saga of how some 6 million African Americans left the South for points unknown in the North and West between 1915 and 1970, forever changing the American landscape.
Not only are Gladney and the other protagonists' intimate accounts of survival in the Jim Crow South and racist North and West jarring, so too is Wilkerson's data. Before the migration, for example, 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the South. By its end, 47 percent lived outside the South.
Wilkerson, who won her Pulitzer for feature writing in 1994 as the New York Times' Chicago bureau chief, spent more than a decade on this massive undertaking that is researched from both archival data and 1,200-plus interviews.
"From the early years of the 20th century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make," Wilkerson writes. "They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay. ... In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande."
Scholars note not much has been written on the sweeping nature of the Great Migration or its human story as it unfolded beginning from World War I over six decades. What had existed focused on either its earliest phase, its impact on particular destinations -- e.g. Nicholas Lemann's 1991 tome The Promised Land, examining its effect on Chicago -- or on the pathology of ghettos that formed in large cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
On leave from the Times, Wilkerson, now teaching journalism at Boston University, set out to tell the story in all its breadth and depth. The book, Wilkerson's first, is inspired by the stories of her own parents, who fled rural Georgia and southern Virginia for Washington, D.C., where Wilkerson was born and reared. (Chicago became home as she worked for the Times from 1987-2001).
"If it weren't for the Great Migration, I would not exist, and many, many people who grew up in the North would not exist. It's a very American story," Wilkerson told the Sun-Times.
"While covering the Midwest from Chicago, I became aware that everywhere I went, the African Americans I might be interviewing for stories all had Southern roots," she said. "And they were predictable. In Cleveland and Detroit, they were often from Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. In Chicago, people were from Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. In Los Angeles, they were from Louisiana and Texas. It wasn't just this haphazard unfurling of people anywhere. It was based upon where the train lines were leading."
Wilkerson would spend months trolling places where senior citizens hung out in Chicago, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. She would whittle 1,200 interviews down to her three protagonists, whose lives are interwoven with Wilkerson's research to offer a comprehensive assessment of this "leaderless" and "silent pilgrimage" that forever transformed urban America and helped push the country toward civil rights.
We meet George Swanson Starling, valedictorian of his high school class in Wildwood, Fla., who dropped out of college and worked in the citrus fields after money ran out. Starling fled Florida for New York in 1945 after being targeted for lynching because he tried to organize a work stoppage.
Then there's Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, the highly educated surgeon son of middle-class parents in Monroe, La., who fled to California to escape a caste system preventing him from practicing medicine at a hospital.
And there's Gladney, who at age 24 with her sharecropper husband sold all they had, packed up two small children and stole away in the night from Chickasaw County, Miss., after a cousin was beaten nearly to death by the white farm owner, on false charges.
Gladney's life is the history of African Americans in Chicago and comes full circle. When a young state senator shows up in August 1997 at a police beat meeting, Gladney would not know she was meeting the man who in 2008 would be elected America's first black president. She passed away in 2004.
"She was just a beautiful, spiritual, inspiring person, one of the most amazing people I've ever met in my life, and she stays with me till this day," Wilkerson says of her Chicago subject. A 1998 trip shared with Gladney back to her Southern roots provides one of the book's most poignant passages near the end.
The Great Migration was not unlike "what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them," Wilkerson surmises.
"What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom throughout history have often done. They left."