Saturday, August 11, 2012

Case Studies from the Great Migration

I don't think I ever heard the term "Great Migration" in any of the American History courses I took during high school or college, but I have since taught August Wilson's Fences many times, though, in freshman lit, which the playwright opens with a brief expository  section about this group of Americans and how they fared in comparison to European immigrants coming into the same areas of the United States.  In her nonfiction account The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, whose mother was part of this "movement," traces the lives of three individuals who left the South over a three-decade

span, moving to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. 

The book is difficult to read, not because of the writer's style but the subject matter.  After reading it, though, I don't think I can ever teach Fences or A Raisin in the Sun or a number of other works without drawing from what Wilkerson reveals.  The treatment of blacks in the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction South demands attention not only from a historical perspective but as it sheds light on much of the continued disparity between the races in the U.S.  The stories that unfold often contrast facts with the misrepresentation in accounts concerning segregation, housing, crime, and many other facets of the lives of those who left the only home they had known, out of desperation or despair.

I was particularly surprised to find how difficult they found the actual process of leaving, since employers often guarded train stations and blocked their exits.  Many left in secrecy, slipping out of town and going to distant train stations, left they be arrested under false charges to prevent their leaving.  The vast numbers choosing to head north or, in some cases, west had a huge impact on agriculture in the South, taking away much-needed but poorly paid and poorly treated workers.

Rather than presenting an economic or sociological survey, however, Wilkerson focuses on individuals. Readers come to know and care about her three protagonists, one woman and two men, through the story of their lives from childhood until old age and death.

Wilkerson occasionally inserts details from her mother's story, and she herself remains a presence--though never an intrusive one--in and out of her narrative as she interacts with the characters as she researches their lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns provides no answers, easy or otherwise, but it opens up the possibility of dialogue and helps readers to understand the tangles and complexity of racial issues that continue in this country.  Her contribution, though only a portrait of three individuals adds much to a conversation that needs to take place.
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1 comment:

Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

Although I studied American History in university, I did not realize the impact of this population shift. The book will fill a gap.