Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Warmth of Other Suns

Well it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday last week, or at least the official observation thereof.  In homage to him and to the black folk who have so contributed to who and what we are as a nation, I am finally getting around to writing this post about a great book about the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.  I read this book a few years ago, and since then I've been thinking about it and the issues it discusses, trying to come up with something coherent I can write about it myself.

The occasion for finally writing this blog post was all the more auspicious on the MLK Jr. weekend, because I happened to be in my hometown of Chicago, for better or for worse the teeming black heart of the North and the archetypal symbol of the Great Migration.  On the train trip there I was confronted at every turn with reminders of the Great Migration and the US's black culture, perhaps simply because the Migration touched everything about this country.  I traveled from Washington, DC, that recently whitewashed black metropolis, on a train, that great conveyor of black folks fleeing the South for the uncertain promise of the North.  The train's staff was almost all black, which of course brought to mind stories of Malcolm Little flitting about the eastern seaboard in his youth.  The journey took me from former slavery territory, through Harper's Ferry, site of John Brown's last stand, and into the snow-blanketed plains of the Midwest, whose cold and flatness and overt difference were surely welcome markers of the final destination for southern black refugees from the early 1800s onwards.  The final leg of my trip had us flying past mile after mile of bustling, fuming factories in northwest Indiana, still churning out steel and cars in quantity, if not employing nearly as many people as they did before massive mechanization.  And finally to my beautiful black city (or at least what's left of it), through Chicago's South Side black belt--South Shore, Englewood, Washington Park, Bronzeville--as it empties out, houses decaying and vacant land opening up in slow motion.  This is the whimpering, inauspicious postlude to the story of the Great Migration, the grand, shameful failure of the North to fully welcome and include all who came to its shores in search of opportunity.  They came, they prospered, they stopped prospering, and then they hobbled back to the South, having moved the country forward without moving forward themselves.

But back to the book--here is a review of it from the author's website:

“Wilkerson has created a brilliant and innovative paradox: the intimate epic. At its smallest scale, this towering work rests on a trio of unforgettable biographies, lives as humble as they were heroic… In different decades and for different reasons they headed north and west, along with millions of fellow travelers. . . In powerful, lyrical prose that combines the historian’s rigor with the novelist’s empathy, Wilkerson’s book changes our understanding of the Great Migration and indeed of the modern United States.”

I agree with the reviewer's qualification of The Warmth of Other Suns as an intimate epic.  The book weaves together both the personal stories of migrants for whom the Great Migration was the defining bedrock underlying much else in their lives (but who in the end were mainly just trying to live their little, particular lives), and the sweeping, unfathomable scale of this massive movement of population, culture, and ideas over the breadth of the United States.  The book is amazingly, thoroughly well-researched.

However, "intimate epic" is a difficult, perhaps inherently incongruous genre, and the historian and the novelist are always at odds in it.  Wilkerson's prose shifts between spare, utilitarian historiography and large-scale statistics, and florid descriptions of landscapes or human moments.  She is a journalist, and it seems that she can't combine personal interest-style reporting with cold, hard, big-issue reporting, at least not in a graceful, unified way.  As such the book's style felt at times like a patchwork, which is perhaps the only way it could have sounded.  The most effective passages, and indeed those that fill up perhaps 90% of the book, are when Wilkerson steps back and subsumes her own voice, and we follow directly the stories of the three protagonists she has chosen as typifying the Migration's different faces.  This is where the reader is truly thankful for Wilkerson's acute journalistic instinct to let the story tell itself from the mouths of those who lived it.

Aside from the high quality of the book, and its ability to maintain you rapt through hundreds of pages, I was also stricken by how much it relates to my own story.  It occurs to me that the black Great Migration is really a part of a larger, more general great migration in the 20th century US, when our population went from something like 80% rural to about 80% urban today.  My parents each left smaller Midwestern towns for Chicago (after their parents had left rural living for those smaller towns).  In both of their cases they left their hometowns in search of better jobs, more sophistication, more options for culture and thought and enrichment that could only be found in a bustling metropolis like Chicago.  In fact, the fifth anniversary of my dad's death, which also has fallen in these past few days, has seen me reviewing the mementos of his life.  It is fascinating to think about all the movement and living and change that happened between the "Born:  Wichita 1947" and his death on a bitter cold day in 2009, in a hospital room overlooking a frozen Lake Michigan in his adopted home of Chicago, where he spent well over half his life.  Also as in Wilkerson's case, I am a product of this migration.  If either of my parents hadn't undertaken the journey, they wouldn't have met, and I wouldn't exist.

Obviously my white parents weren't fleeing racial violence and terror in their white birthplace, but Wilkerson brings out that this awful, suffocating terror for black folks in the South simply overlaid the boredom and lack of opportunity that defined rural life in general as the nation urbanized and industrialized.  In Colombia today something similar happens; displaced people fleeing rural violence and terror are mixed in with a larger rural exodus comprised of people looking for better economic opportunities in the cities.  In all cases the economic realities are driving the rural-urban migration, though the specifics of violence and fear (which are in turn driven in large part by economic realities, too) differentiate some migrants from others.  Likewise, Wilkerson draws explicit parallels between black Great Migrants and European immigrants to the US.  Both groups traveled great distances and encountered a much bigger change in culture and climate than did the more typical, white Anglo rural-urban migrants in the US, who usually migrated from a surrounding rural hinterland to a nearby catchbasin city (Wisconsin to Chicago, Missouri to Kansas City, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, etc.).  It's a lot farther from Louisiana to LA than my father's journey from Kansas to Chicago, or certainly than my mother's Beloit-Chicago hop, and the culture shock was a lot more drastic for these long-distance black Southern or European migrants (though that said, the Mississippi-Chicago black migrants were and are unique in the relatively small distance and the ease of going back and forth).

In this respect, the story of the Great Migration is really the story of the United States in the 20th century, and perhaps of the modern world in general. 

Another aspect of the book that most struck me was the sheer nastiness, the neurotic hate of the Jim Crow South.  You get the sense that many white folk, not just lawmakers but the general populace, went out of their way to be mean to blacks in every way, every day.  There are countless stories of common whites humiliating blacks in ways great and small, bullying, beating, even killing blacks just because they knew they wouldn't fight back.  In some towns there were separate staircases to public buildings, even separate Bibles to swear on in the courtroom.  I mean, how pathological is that?  I'm linking to an article that reminds us of how bad life was for Southern blacks during Jim Crow.  It argues that Dr. King's most important legacy was not any one march or speech or even any law that he got passed, but simply his example and his exhortation to blacks to overcome their fears of the white oppressor.  I always advocate for sticking with your roots, which would normally impel me to speak out against massive migration.  I think it's important to appreciate your land, your culture, the place you're from.  You shouldn't just pull up stakes, give up on what you know for an uncertain, fanciful shot at success elsewhere.  But in the Jim Crow South, staying put was intolerable for blacks.  Not many people could unquestioningly love a land where you and your family were constantly under threat.

The book briefly hints at, though it doesn't fully explore, the tension and the difference between those blacks that left the South and those that stayed.  Yes, those that left were often the most motivated, the most educated, those willing to endure some short-term hardship for a better future, as opposed to just grinding on passively through a life of oppression.  But it would be wrong to think of those who stayed behind as consenting, feeble-minded Uncle Toms.  The Warmth of other Suns has a poignant example of two brothers (or maybe cousins), both black doctors in Louisiana.  One, the less politically-minded and perhaps less brilliant, leaves for the freedom and the glamor of Los Angeles.  The other urges him to stay behind, and does so himself, feeling a duty to serve his beleaguered countrymen.  Furthermore, let us remember that it was Southern blacks who led the Civil Rights movement, Southern blacks who braved state terror and oppression to change the laws and the culture of the land.  It may be that they were in part inspired or enabled by the departure of others for the North (the Southern white establishment must have been more willing/desperate to compromise knowing that the entire peasant underclass could always just up and leave, if it really wanted to), but we mustn't forget that Southern resistance to racism and terror was much more ardent, and in the end much more effective, than anything Northern blacks mounted in the 50s and 60s.

If the white South had been punished for its sin of hatred and brutality, and the North had benefited, I'd be very happy.  It would be a fitting recompense to us open-minded Northerners, and indeed we did benefit economically for a time, as the South provided us with a hard-working, cheap labor force happy to live among us.  Reading about the mid-20th century, my Northern pride kicked in, and I thought, "Of course the South deserves to be the depressed, dangerous place it still is today.  They committed the sin of entrenched hate, which led them to hold onto a feudal, backwards economic model in which a huge portion of their population was kept from making meaningful contributions to the advancement of society.  While the North was an open society, happy to incorporate those beleaguered Southern peasants and extend the promise of prosperity to them."

The problem is that blacks weren't accepted in the North either.  If you want to see entrenched hate and a backwards, feudal economic model, just look at Chicago today!  For the most part black migrants were not incorporated in the virtuous cycle of prosperity that swept over the industrial North during the middle of the 20th century.   The terror of the South was gone, but the North's cold economic exclusion kept blacks in an economically marginalized position.  The migrants portrayed in the Warmth of other Suns did not fare much better economically than if they had remained in the South.  Granted, the immediate change from Depression-era Mississippi to boomtown Chicago was a big step up economically, but in the book we see that the children of many of the migrants regressed to being at the bottom of the economic barrel.  If this is typical, then black migrants went from Southern oppression, to a good spell in the North, to either Northern poverty and decadence or a return South.  Through the many decades spanned in the book, with all their epochal changes for the nation as a whole, the well-being of the black migrants seems to be the one thing that changed little.  They transformed the country, but didn't seem to benefit much in the end.  We in the North owe these brave black migrants more for what they contributed to our economic development. 

Furthermore, more recently both North and South have adopted what is largely a fraud-based pyramid economy of empty finance, over-priced services, strip-mall retail, and oil-derived leisure.  This is at base even worse and less viable than the feudal sharecropper economy present in the South during the Great Migration.  So now blacks go back to the South, because the North no longer offers a better economic life, and certainly can't offer the ties to land, family, tradition, and mild weather of the South.  This is disgusting and disappointing to me--the North failed many blacks and thus failed itself, instead of taking advantage of a historical moment to become even greater.

This is all of course an oversimplification of things.  Many blacks have succeeded in the 20th and 21st centuries, and perhaps the freedom and capitalism they enjoyed in the North was indispensable for that transition from disenfranchised peasants to middle or upper class citizens.  Or maybe not--Southern blacks seem to form an important part of the black middle class in the nation as a whole (both in the Jim Crow era and today), and the South is becoming as prosperous if not moreso than much of the post-industrial North.  Who knows how our nation's economic trajectory, and the place of blacks in it, would have changed if the Great Migration had never occurred?  In any case, too many blacks have not partaken in the capitalist growth and prosperity, and they form a sort of permanent underclass in the North that I imagine might have been better off if they'd have stayed in the South with family.  Their forebears made such sacrifices, yet they have not been able to benefit fully from them.

I want to make it clear that blacks do not form the majority of the US's poor, and that poor people do not comprise a majority of blacks.  But in Chicago, in my part of the country, the place I most care about, the underclass that has been most left behind by prosperity and hit most fully by post-industrial decadence and depression are blacks, and their story is an integral part of the Great Migration and its aftermath.

If my possible reading of the Great Migration as a failure is correct, then Malcolm X was clearly the most prescient prophet of this result.  (By the way, I've temporarily curtailed my bedtime reading of his autobiography with my young sons.  I don't know how to explain to them that I'm white, I don't consider myself a devil, but nevertheless I want them to hear a text that refers to whites as devils on almost every page!)  Anyway, Malcolm X spent his whole life in the North, and suffered lynching, oppression, discrimination, and terror in his life, so (rightly or wrongly) he saw little difference in the nation's attitude towards blacks in North and South.  He equated overt Southern oppression with the grinding, inhuman indifference of the industrial North.  I have written in a past blog post that Malcolm perhaps saw more clearly than Dr. King or others the North's brand of economic oppression (which persists in North and South long after most explicitly racist laws and customs have faded).  As such, maybe he was really getting more at the heart of black marginalization than Dr. King did, despite the latter's seemingly more concrete gains in his lifetime.

On the other hand, despite the apparent differences in the two men's outlooks and methods, maybe they were both getting at the same thing--that blacks had to (still have to?) overcome their fears of upsetting the status quo in order to become truly free.  As it says in the article I linked to above, maybe Dr. King's greatest accomplishment was ending "the terror of living in the South" by defying the white terrorizer.  If this is so, then his legacy is similar to that put forth in the eulogy Ossie Davis rendered to brother Malcolm:  "Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood!"

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