Roots of US Racism:   Read The Warmth of Other Suns

By Shlomo Maital

     Every story has a ‘back story’ – background that is essential for our understanding. The current Black Lives Matter protests have a very long and old back story. It is found in the wonderful book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: the epic story of America’s great migration, by African-Americans, from the South to the cities of the North.  This migration is in large part the back story of Black Lives Matter. 

    I heard about the book in a favorite NPR podcast, On Being, when Krista Tippett, podcast founder, interviewed author Isabel Wilkerson, in 2016. Here is an excerpt from this interview. It is very long. To save you time: African-Americans migrated from the South, after they were ‘liberated’, freed as slaves, to save their lives, literally, but found they were enslaved again, as sources of cheap exploitable labor, in the factories of the North, where the racism was if anything more fierce and more hypocritical.    Warning: This blog is 1200 words, double the usual length.

Wilkerson: citing a source: “He wrote, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown… I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps — just perhaps — to bloom.”

Tippett: “You’ve said that the language of “political asylum” is absolutely apt here for what people were undertaking. And it’s just not — as much as we know a lot of these stories and a lot of the things that were wrong, that feels like a new recognition.”

Wilkerson:   “It does. I think that because it happened within the borders of our own country, we don’t think about it as — first of all, it was a kind of immigration. Although, these were — this was the only group of Americans who had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens. They were forced to seek political asylum within the borders of their own country because they were living in a caste system in the South that did not recognize their citizenship. And some of them travelled farther than current day immigrants might, but that was really not the point. The point was that the country actually was kind of two countries in one, and that’s what they had to do.

   “I often say that the book is viewed as being a book about the Great Migration, and over time, as I’ve talked about it over these years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not about migration. The Great Migration is not about migration, and really, probably no migration is about migration. It’s about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it. This is the means that they feel they must take in order to find freedom wherever they can find it.

Tippett:   “Yeah. And this book is such a — it embodies this paradox that writers know, that storytellers know, that radio actually knows, that the more particular you can get with your story, the more universally it can be received, that others can join their life and their imagination with what you have to share. And there were these moments for me in the book that were just so human, that were so relatable, that made all these other horrors come home.

And so one of them for me was George Swanson Starling. You asked him what he hoped for in leaving, and he said, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way” — I’m getting chills — “without the fear of getting lynched at night.” And even the way it comes across — he didn’t say it — it doesn’t sound like he said it with a lot of bitterness or drama. It was just matter of fact.

Wilkerson:   “Not even that much emotion because it was — these were the facts of their lives. And at that time when they were growing up — and this time period was a very long time. I mean, it was the end of Reconstruction until the 1970s. It encompassed someone who was born in the 1880s and passed away in the ‘60s would’ve known nothing other than this. And so, these were the facts of their lives.

   “And he didn’t — he was not emotional. He wasn’t bitter. It was just a matter-of-fact statement of what it was that he was up against and why he felt he had no choice but to go. I ran into a lot of people who said they don’t think they would’ve lived if they had stayed. There was actually a tremendous amount of fear that a lot of parents in the South had for their children if they were extroverted and opinionated.

Tippett:   “If their children were?”

Wilkerson:   “Yeah, if they were spirited and expressive, there was a need to reign that in. I mean, in other words, childhood itself had to be controlled and repressed because it could mean their very lives. And so he grew up under that. And his father said, “If you’re going to continue doing this work, the things you’re doing, it’s best that you go.”

   “And one of the things that happened in this Great Migration is that it spread people all over this country. I mean, people — these places that they went, there had not been a significant African American population. So you look at the African American population of all of the cities in the North, Midwest, and West are a result of this. We’re seeing the manifestation of that, Seattle or Oakland or Los Angeles.

Tippett:   Detroit wasn’t Detroit.

Wilkerson:   “No, it wasn’t. None of these places were what they were at the time. And a lot of them are filled by people who felt they had no choice and that they would not have lived if they hadn’t gotten out.”

Tippett: “Something else, something that was disturbing about the dynamic is that, on the one hand, African Americans were being lured by the North as cheap labor. And the South, for the same reasons, was keeping people in. That’s shocking to me. I don’t know. I shouldn’t be shocked, but just …”

Wilkerson:   “Well, I think that a lot of this actually is not — it’s out there, but it’s not commonly known. And one of the things I hear most often when I go out talking about this book — or people write to me constantly, and it’s the same phrase over and over again, “I had no idea.” I hear it over and over again from people who actually were alive at the time that some of these things were going on. Part of it, is that a lot of the people just didn’t talk about it.

   “If you think about it on both sides of this caste system or this divide, there was not much incentive for anyone to talk about it. I mean, on the one side, people don’t want to really think about the awful things going on around them. And then those who were suffering from it and had escaped — they didn’t want to burden their children with it. It was like post-traumatic stress. They didn’t want to deal with it.”