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A migration that shaped a nation

In MIT talk, author Isabel Wilkerson discusses how the Great Migration changed American history.
Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson
Photo: Joe Henson

Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper living in segregated Mississippi decades after the Civil War ended. Born in 1913, as a child she was once dangled from her ankles over a well by white boys, and on another occasion hid from a drunk white farmer randomly shooting around her house. By 1937, after a relative was beaten and jailed for a crime he did not commit, Gladney and her husband migrated to Chicago. By the time of her death in 2004, her state senator was none other than Barack Obama. 

The remarkable trajectory of Gladney’s life is a central story in Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns, a new look at The Great Migration, in which 6 million black Americans left the South between 1915 and 1970, for cities in the North, Midwest and West. Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South; afterward, just half did.

In the book, Wilkerson, a journalist and professor, calls the Great Migration “the biggest underreported story of the Twentieth century.” In a talk at MIT on Tuesday evening, she expanded on the ways the Great Migration changed American society and culture and accelerated the Civil Rights Movement that brought legal equality to blacks in the South in the 1960s. 

“The South was truly different until the Civil Rights Movement,” said Wilkerson, detailing the legal system that upheld segregation, right down to the fact that it was illegal for blacks and whites to play checkers together in Birmingham, Ala. “But that movement needed a precursor. It didn’t happen overnight.” Because so many people left the South, she noted, “the pressure put on that region by the Great Migration helped create a moment that was ripe for people to act.”

‘It’s the American story’

The Warmth of Other Suns also recasts the Great Migration as an episode comparable to other waves of American immigration. “The book is about the universal human longing that anyone in an untenable situation might have,” said Wilkerson in her talk, which explored some of the broader social currents forming the backdrop to MIT’s own history as it commemorates its 150th anniversary; the talk was sponsored by the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education.

In a long series of alternating scenes, The Warmth of Other Suns principally details the achievements and struggles of three people: Gladney; George Starling, a man who fled Florida for New York City; and Robert Foster, a doctor and army captain from Louisiana who could not perform surgeries in white hospitals in his hometown, and wound up moving to Los Angeles, where he became successful, wealthy and was even Ray Charles’ own physician.

As Wilkerson emphasized on Tuesday, the participants in the Great Migration had the ambition and determination associated with immigrants from other ethnic groups. The migrants tended to have more education than other blacks and ultimately made more money than blacks already living in the North and West.

Wilkerson expanded on that theme in an interview with MIT News before her talk. “There were assumptions made about who these people were and how they behaved,” she said, citing the common stereotype that black migrants “didn’t work or didn’t want to work.” In reality, she noted, they earned higher incomes “because they were working longer hours in more jobs,” and because “failure was not an option. That is something about the immigrant psyche that rings true for all groups. It’s the American story. These people were doing what so many other people have done, people who came across the Atlantic in steerage or across the Rio Grande.”

A new narrative

The Warmth of Other Suns has received high praise. The New York Times called it “a landmark piece of nonfiction,” and the book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

Wilkerson settled on her three main subjects in part because they represented the three main geographic streams of the migration, shaped by the railroads. Blacks in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia usually wound up on the East Coast (including Wilkerson’s parents, who left North Carolina and Virginia for Washington, D.C.); those from Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama generally went to the Midwest; and blacks in Louisiana and Texas tended to settle in California.

Wilkerson, who is now a journalism professor and director of the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University, added in her interview that the book’s unusual structure of overlapping stories underscores that its main figures are “pieces of the whole.” Filmmakers, in Wilkerson’s view, are more willing to experiment with this kind of narrative device than writers: “If you think of the films of Robert Altman, or films like Traffic or Crash, they have multiple perspectives in which the people never actually intersect but they’re all telling the same story, giving you different sides of a theme.”

Tuesday’s talk, at the Stata Center, drew an attentive audience; Wilkerson says readers have often responded to that theme of universalism. At one talk Wilkerson gave in New York, she recalled, an audience member said, “'If I start talking about the book, I’ll cry, because I’m an immigrant from Greece, and this is my story too.’ I find that gratifying … for people from other groups to identify with it means the goal of this kind of work has been accomplished.”

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