Monday, April 9, 2012

What is it that history teaches us?

Does it help us hear the cries of the past? "The Warmth of Other Suns" is a beautifully written, stunningly researched account of the migration of 6 million black Americans from the south to northern and western cities between 1915-1970. They fled Jim Crow laws, lynchings, violence and exploitation and streamed into major cities, emptying the south of its agricultural labor.

This history comes alive through the stories of three individuals: Mississippi sharecropper Ida Mae Gladney, who left for Chicago in 1937, educated activist George Starling, who fled Florida for Harlem in 1945, and surgeon Robert Foster, who abandoned Louisiana for better opportunity in Los Angeles in 1953. All were driven from their birthplaces by institutionalized racism, crushing humiliations, and the determination to find something better.

Author Isabel Wilkerson, herself a child of southern migrants, follows her subjects on their journeys. They struggled in new communities where they could now vote and sit anywhere on a bus but faced invisible, unwritten barriers. Still, nearly all would say that opportunities were greater and life was better. They cooked southern food and practiced their southern faith. They worked long hours, had small families, and stayed married. Yet somehow the ghettos into which they were crowded became dangerous places for their children.

This story is absolutely engrossing. Wilkerson gives us the details which bring it vividly and compellingly to life.

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