The achievement of Isabel Wilkerson's amazing The Warmth of Other Suns is to transmute sociology into memoir.
The migration of 6 million black Americans from South to North over the half century from 1915 to 1970 is a fact so large that it is hard to hold all its aspects in mind: the effect on the region left behind, on the destination cities, on the migrants themselves, on their descendants, and finally upon the character of the American nation as a whole. In a beautifully written work that steps beyond the social science analysis that has predominated to date, Wilkerson helps us to understand the life behind the statistics. The story she tells is her own story too, for she is a daughter of the Migration herself.
It's a telling tic that we often use "urban" as a synonym for "black." Yet until somewhere close to the halfway mark of the 20th century, black Americans were overwhelmingly a rural people: a brutally exploited agricultural labor force, held first as slaves, then as peons. Then, abruptly, they self-reinvented, a process nicely symbolized for Wilkerson by the first election a black mayor of a northern city: Cleveland's Carl Stokes in 1967. Soon followed Newark (1970), Detroit (1972), Atlanta and Los Angeles (1973), Chicago (1983), Philadelphia (1984), and New York City (1989). In every case, these first black mayors were children of the Great Migration: next-generation immigrants whose parents offered them a new life.
One of Wilkerson's profiled families starts from Mississippi. Poor and barely educated sharecroppers, they are sent on their way when a cousin is brutally beaten on a false charge of stealing turkeys. They settle in Chicago, where the first generation toils at low wages and the next generations fall prey to addiction and crime.
Another of Wilkerson's profiled families flees from Florida, after the husband attempts to organize his fellow orange pickers for higher wages. The grove owners mark him for a beating, maybe murder. A man with some higher education, he eventually finds work as a porter on Atlantic Seaboard railways, where he is assigned the ironic duty of enforcing Jim Crow laws. His family does rather better up north, finding there a greater measure of dignity and security - even if his own children likewise fail to clear the jump into the middle class.
The most spectacular story is that of Dr. Robert Foster. The son of the principal of a segregated black high school in Louisiana, Foster gains a medical education and marries the daughter of the president of Atlanta University - the very same president in fact who fired WEB DuBois in 1944. Foster moved to Los Angeles, and after an early struggle gained respect and wealth in his profession. Ray Charles, a patient, wrote a grateful song about him. Dr Foster lived a wild life, and lost much of what he earned at the tables in Las Vegas. Still, at his funeral, he was mourned by grandchildren enrolled as students in Ivy League schools. Foster's move to Los Angeles represented his biggest gamble, and this time he hit the jackpot.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a big book in every sense, and it inspires many thoughts. For here and now, just two of my own to accompany all the many accolades the book has won.
1) Many of us on the right would like to tell a story of the post-Civil War South that indicts segregation as a product of government regulation only. Wilkerson's quashes that illusion. The oppressive actions of the Southern state presupposed the oppressive organization of Southern society and the Southern economy. It was no act of government that imposed the rule that a black customer in a shop must wait until all the white customers had been served. Store owners did not worry that mistreating black customers would cost them business, because the post-1865 settlement had failed to compensate ex-slaves in any way for their unpaid labor, meaning that even in freedom they remained nearly as landless and poor as ever. The stark divide between economic wealth and political power that matters so much to libertarian theory does not describe reality in the South of 1915.
In the North, the migrants encountered discrimination. No matter how much wealth they accumulated - and some accumulated a great deal - they could not gain the highest degree of status. But in the South, the utter lack of status had prevented black Southerners from accumulating wealth in the first place. To transform the South into something more like a market economy, open to all participants, would require the forceful application of federal government power in the years after World War II.
2) Although Isabel Wilkerson analogizes the Great Migration to other immigrations to the United States, that comparison is only an analogy. The Southern migrants were American citizens, moving as of right within their own country. Yet there is a way that the comparison is apt. Unlike, say, the northern Americans who moved into the Sunbelt in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the Southern black migrants arrived in the cities of the North as basically unskilled labor. As the story of Dr. Foster reminds us, there were exceptions to that norm - but the norm was the norm.
This encounter between Southern peasant labor and Northern industrial cities caused a social convulsion to which we are still adjusting. The convulsion was made worse because the Southern migrants arrived in their largest numbers after World War II - at exactly the same moment that Northern factories were beginning a long wave of automation that hugely reduced their need for the kind of labor the Southern migrants could do. (From a left-of-center perspective, Thomas Sugrue's study of the migration into Detroit, Origins of the Urban Crisis, details the swift pace of labor up-skilling and down-sizing in the years after World War II.)
Discrimination intensified the effects of the skills mismatch - by, for example, barring the Southern migrants from attractive housing. Limited economic opportunity and the greater availability in the North of new forms of social welfare precipitated the crisis of the black family that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was already warning of in the early 1960s. Drugs, crime, and urban decay followed apace. Three generations later, the skills gap between whites and blacks still yawns wide.
History never repeats itself, but it's hard to avoid noticing parallels between the Great Migration and the post 1970 immigration from Mexico and Central America - only with the difference that this time the skills mismatch is even more extreme than it was in the 1950s. Only this time, the migration is not as of right; and the migrants are not people to whom American society owes a debt for past wrongs.
Migration is hard. It carries huge costs for both the migrant and the receiving society. The progress of absorption is measured in decades, even centuries. There's no room for myth-making in the study in so important a subject, but instead the courage to face all its truths, both the welcome and the unwelcome.