I didn’t really know what this book was about when I picked it up – only that it was well-regarded. I’m so glad it found its way into my hands. Isabel Wilkerson has taken on a large-scale, ambitious subject here, and rendered it beautifully. And the audio reading by Robin Miles is lovely to boot.
The “great migration” in the subtitle refers to the movement of black Americans out of the South and into the northern and western United States in 1915-1975. Wilkerson starts from the very beginning, looking at the experiences of former slaves just after Emancipation in an impoverished region struggling to rebuild with a new order of things. The creation and expansion of Jim Crow laws designed to hold blacks down took time after the end of the Civil War to take effect. In the new caste system, former slaves and their descendents were unable to move up in the world and were in constant fear for their lives if they were to misstep around Southern whites. By 1915, they had begun to move out of the South, in what became a mass migration along lines so distinct that enclaves of blacks from specific towns and states were recreated in new locations.
Wilkerson shifts between two ways of studying the Great Migration. Sometimes she takes a broad view of history, in which she cites her own interviews (she states that she did over 1,200) with migrants and their descendents as well as a number of historical sources, to render the story of the Migration generally. And sometimes she follows the specific personal stories of three individuals who she interviewed at great length over a long period of time, traveling the country with them and becoming part of their lives. (In this respect, the journalist/author becoming part of the family of her subject, I was reminded of Rebecca Skloot’s amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.) George Swanson Starling moved from Eustis, Florida to New York City, later sending for his wife Inez to join him there. He had to leave Florida suddenly because a friend tipped him off that a lynch mob was coming for him; he had been involved in organizing his fellow citrus pickers to demand higher wages. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney moved with her husband George and their two children, with a third on the way, from Mississippi where they had been sharecroppers. They would eventually end up in Chicago, by way of Milwaukee. And Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was an ambitious surgeon and veteran from Monroe, Louisiana, with his heart set on Los Angeles. Known as Pershing in Monroe, he would resettle as Robert (or Bob, or Doc) in LA and send for his wife and daughters to join him there, where he built a new life in high society with the big house and booming practice he’d always wanted.
I found this shifting back and forth between the broad view and three personal histories extremely effective. Anecdotes from the lives of Southern blacks drove well home the misery of their bottom-rung status there; some of these stories are horrific, but important to show the desperation some migrants felt when they left their homes in the South. National trends played a role – for example, during WWII demand for Florida’s citrus was high while the supply of labor to pick the fruit was low, with everyone off at war, and this imbalance led to George Starling’s ability to demand higher wages. And the history of Chicago’s race relations and residential segregation puts Ida Mae Gladney’s home ownership into the proper perspective. You get the point. The history is well-documented and, I’m convinced, well-researched; and the personal stories make it all, well, personal. I was deeply involved with our three representative individuals by the end of the book and, yes, I cried.
I love that Wilkerson brought such a large-scale, important trend, that has had such huge effects on American history, to life the way she did. I also like that she examined the broad effects of the Great Migration, in terms of the cultures of both white and black residents of the North and the South, and took the time to show that black migrants were really far more like immigrant groups in history than like migrants within their own country. I recommend this book as part of a study of American history – but one need not be an academic to appreciate it. The story of the Great Migration is made accessible here, and I’m glad I know more about it now. This 19-disc audiobook (over 600 pages in print) went by easily. This is how I like to take my history lessons. Check it out.