A few weeks ago I finished Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in which four million African-Americans moved north and west from the Jim Crow south over six decades after World War I. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in African-American or really American history of the 20th century. The book uses copious interviews with migrants and members of the communities they left and joined, combined with coverage of older and a new body of reevaluative research on the migrants, to argue compellingly that southern migrant blacks were a resilient and hardworking group whose individual decisions culminated to change America’s cultural, economic, and geographical landscape, and in so doing pushed American history forward.
While I read I found myself noting the words that Wilkerson uses to describe the African American experience under Jim Crow that because of their over-affiliation with other events or our successful efforts to smooth out our own national history, we rarely read in popular accounts of American history. Words like apartheid, terrorism, human rights, and most notably, caste. Perhaps other folks are used to seeing caste used, but it surprised me. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but caste makes me think of India. How have we so successfully purged our language of correct usage of words? Because despite the fact that Jim Crow used violence to maintain caste distinctions that had become technically illegal, still we use words like “segregation” which connote “separate but equal.” There’s no equal in caste.
And, since this is a hiphop blog, I should note that this book does a great job of mentioning–throughout, but especially at the end–the way the Great Migration influenced the landscape of American music and culture.
Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. (529)
Many black parents who left the South got th eone thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migrantion to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jacksn, Prince, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifa, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in their country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (535)
As a Chicagoan myself, this book filled in a huge part of my understanding of my city. One of the book’s three main characters, Ida Mae Gladney, moves to Chicago from Georgia and the changing Black Belt she sees out of her South Side window is as fascinating as how she got up there in the first place. I also loved how in Wilkerson’s language and especially her epigraphs, the book was shot through with influences from literature and music. A lot of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, letters, newspapers, spirituals. It’s history, y’all. Anyway, read this book! I’ll end with another segment from the conclusion that sounded like it came out of a Nas song. Mind blown!
It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled–the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert–blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizos were among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago. Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613. (537)