Monday 9 April 2012

The Warmth of Other Suns


Why did 100 years elapse between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the American Civil Rights Act in 1964?  Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, sheds much light on this question.  Although black slaves were freed during the Civil War, it took another century for attitudes in the Deep South to change.  After a brief respite for blacks during Reconstruction, they were subjected to a more subtle form of slavery with the adoption of the Jim Crow laws.  “Separate, but equal” became the motto:  blacks ate in different restaurants, drank from different water fountains, borrowed books from different libraries, lived in different neighbourhoods, attended different schools, rode in separate railway cars, sat in a separate section of busses, were paid different (lower) wages, etc. 

Although blacks were no longer “owned” by whites, they still had to answer to them in the South, sometimes paying with their life:  lynchings were a dangerously common occurrence for decades.  Whites dictated the wages blacks received as they performed the back-breaking work of cotton picking on the large plantations.  Any attempt to organize to demand higher wages was met with hostility by the sharecroppers.  Any attempt to speak out against Jim Crow laws was met with resistance:  one newspaper writer was locked up in an insane asylum; a man who belonged to the NAACP had a bomb go off under his bed on Christmas Day.  Any attempt to “mix” with white society, even a young black boy speaking to a white girl, could result in dire consequences:  one boy was tortured mercilessly. 

Blacks finally sought refuge in the North and West of the United States:  it was called The Great Migration and would last from 1917 until 1970.  Refugees purchased train tickets and, with a box full of chicken and sweet potatoes for the journey, said goodbye to their loved ones at railroad stations across the south, making their way to destinations like Washington D.C., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, etc.  In the later decades, some left by car, travelling across the Arizona desert to the ‘promised land” of California, settling in cities like San Diego, Oakland and Los Angeles. 

Those blacks who feared repercussions left in sneakier ways.  One man was stuffed in a box in the fetal position, put on a train and turned upside down, a position he held for 26 hours as he headed north to Washington DC where he was met at the station by a member of the NAACP.  The black newspaper reporter who was deemed insane and locked away in an asylum, managed to escape, with the help of Northerners, and was hustled away in a car, joined by a caravan of other cars; once the motorcade crossed the state line, the reporter found his way to a railroad station and purchased a ticket to freedom in the North. 

While the North and the West provided freedoms for blacks that they did not have in the South, it was not always the promised land that they had hoped for.  One farmer from Florida, who moved to New York City and became a railroad porter, remembers changing the cars at Washington D.C., as the train changed from an integrated to a segregated one.  Another central figure in the book leaves Mississippi for California, attempting to find a hotel in the desert, only to see VACANCY signs be turned off the second he arrived and requested a room.  One black couple moved to Chicago where they tried to get into the neighbourhood of Cicero, only to have their new apartment ransacked, and to see a riot ensue.  Cicero, a neighbourhood that had made room for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, sadly had no room for black migrants.  One black boy accidentally crossed the invisible colour line in the water at a Lake Michigan beach and was drowned by whites.

While blacks in the Southern towns risked lynchings, black migrants to the Northern cities faced the vices of the streets like drugs, prostitution, etc.  Children of migrants sometimes succumbed to these temptations.  Furthermore, the South held two centuries of history for many black families, roots that were lost once they moved to the North.  Some blacks chose not to dwell on their pasts, hoping to make a new history for their children, but in essence leaving them rootless.  

Even so, many blacks found work in the Northern factories at wages they never could have earned in the South.  Many migrants were able to send their children to integrated elementary and high schools and even to Ivy League Universities where they trained for professions that they would likely not have learned in the South.  Some migrants saw their children win sports scholarships to colleges and later find jobs in the NBA or the NFL.  One young runner named JC, the son of a migrant, went on to win a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936; we know him as Jesse Owens.

The Great Migration is a fascinating topic to explore.  Isabel Wilkerson’s book is packed full of American History.  What a great read!

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