Historian as History-Maker: Isabel Wilkerson Calls All of America to Account for Racial Injustice

(Photo: Joe Henson)

Isabel Wilkerson, author of the award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North.

This summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a compelling argument for reparations in The Atlantic. This nation, he argued, has inherited a debt. We ought to repay the community that we as a nation have hurt most. In its entirety, the headline read:

The Case for Reparations: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

The idea? You can stop slavery, you can stop Jim Crow, you can stop discriminatory housing policies, but it doesn’t stop the bleeding. And the first step to healing is reparations.

The idea of reparations for African Americans once had credibility, but in recent decades the notion has been scoffed at. Reparations are thought to be impractical, radical, or divisive—causing more harm than good. Others have disavowed the acts of their ancestors. “Why should I have to pay for what others have done?” is the sentiment.

Coates shook that notion. A discussion emerged this summer whose participants seriously considered and debated the notion of reparations, which no longer sounds so impractical, and the arguments against them have never sounded so unjust.

But back in 2010, in response to the prominent scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ta-Nehisi Coates said he didn’t support reparations. What changed?

In an interview with NPR’s Michel Martin, it was his research, and mainly a book that changed his mind. Coates called The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of the Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, “the mother” of his piece.  

(Random House)

The Great Migration is the title given to the mass exodus of African Americans from the South amid the chokehold of the racial segregation and oppression of Jim Crow laws and a tide of lynchings.

The impact felt by Coates was a common reaction experienced by those who read Wilkerson’s book. I spoke to Joan, an old family friend who had read The Warmth of Other Suns a few years back, who I remember having raved about it. “Original and brilliant,” she said.

“Let me put it this way, in third grade, I was staring at a map and I noticed that South America looked like it could fit into Africa. I asked my third grade teacher, ‘Did South America used to fit into Africa?’ and she responded, ‘Of course not, they’ve always been like that.’ The theory of plate tectonics came out a few years later.”

“I feel the same way about the Great Migration. It’s just a fact. I think she invented this understanding of it,” said Joan. “I don’t think anybody understood the magnitude of the Great Migration, of it all—and the sheer courage,” she said, of those who made the journey to the North.

Which may well explain why, five years after its release, Wilkerson has been on the road non-stop, making appearances across the country, lecturing about The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s been to nearly all 50 states of the union, and even traveled to the Netherlands, Singapore.

“And yet wherever I go, I hear this all the time, from people who pick this book up and read it: ‘I had no idea,’” Wilkerson said in a telephone interview with The American Prospect. “And it’s not just your average person. It’s the people who say, 'I majored in history, I taught history for 30 years… and I had no idea'” that strike her the most, she added.

“That means that the vast majority of Americans weighing in on any particular thing—when it comes to the issues that we are speaking about [the Black Lives Matter movement and the Voting Rights Act]—are not very likely to be fully aware of what got us to this moment. Because this information has not always been known.”

 

We know a lot about slavery. There were detailed records of slaves, as slave owners meticulously kept track of their “property.” Freedmen and runaway slaves wrote down their accounts. During the Great Depression, writers—including Ralph Ellison—were employed by the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project to take down the memories of former slaves.

But of Jim Crow and the mass protest against it, which took form in the Great Migration and the lives of those who first landed in Northern cities, we had very little record. As Wilkerson saw that the people of this era were beginning to pass away, she took it upon herself to collect and chronicle their memories, becoming “something of a one-woman W.P.A. project.

Wilkerson’s work is the missing puzzle piece of our country’s history. And as a result, this book is shaping the way people are coming to understand the United States and what is often called its “race problem.” The work has also shaped the way that Wilkerson herself sees the current Black Lives Matter movement.

In January she took a step away from her multi-year book tour to comment on the movement in articles for Essence magazine and The New York Times. It was the op-ed in the Times, “When Will the North Face Its Racism?” that created a flurry of emotion and pointed reactions.

Wilkerson addressed the thing few had touched upon: that these recent, notorious cases of police brutality against African Americans were happening in cities of the North—and when similar incidents happened in the South, justice moved more swiftly.

“In matters of racial injustice, the South has been the center of attention since before the time of the Civil War. But the North, with its shorter history of a mass black population, has only more recently dealt with the paradox of an enlightened ideal coexisting with racial disparity,” she wrote.

As a white person who grew up in New England, that line struck a chord in me. If you open a U.S. history book in a Northern high school, the story you find about African Americans in the U.S. is that the North was on the right side of history. The people of the North didn’t own slaves, the North fought with Lincoln, it eventually freed the slaves. At this point, the history book will skip to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. You’ll read about the murder of Emmett Till, about the Birmingham church bombing, the brutal Birmingham official Eugene “Bull” Connor, about the march from Selma to Montgomery, about the missing white students in Mississippi. Maybe you’ll read a line about the race riots in New York or Detroit. Maybe you won’t.

When Wilkerson views the current Black Lives Matter movement through the prism of the Great Migration, what she sees is a host of problems that have festered for decades. It begins with Southern blacks first setting foot in Northern cities, where “upon their arrival they were not recognized for what they actually were…essentially, refugees.”

They were met with suspicion. They were over-policed. Companies such as U.S. Steel and the Pullman Company recruited the newly arrived Southerners as strikebreakers, while unions barred them from joining their ranks. The only jobs they had access to were those no one else wanted. They could expect dirty work and low wages.

On top of this, redlining quartered them into overcrowded ghettos with higher rents. In cities across the North, the black residents living in these sections were denied FHA-backed mortgages. If they wanted to buy a house, they would most likely be stuck buying the house “on contract,” a predatory agreement that “combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting.” One missed payment and they’d lose their homes and all the money they put into them. If they crossed over the de facto segregation line, their house might be firebombed.

Simply put, the migrants that arrived weren’t absorbed into the mainstream of these cities. “And it set in motion disparities and mistrust and tension that we are living with to this day,” Wilkerson said.

“That’s why I wrote that piece, it’s not about one thing, it’s not only stop and frisk, it’s not only redlining, it’s all of these things together collectively,” Wilkerson comments, “The social geography of the cities of North, Midwest, and West are recipes for tension and mistrust, and we’re dealing with that right now, at this very moment.”

Take a look at where these recent high-profile cases of police brutality have taken place, and the landscape lights up like a map of the destination cities of the Great Migration. Michael Brown was killed just outside St. Louis; Eric Garner in New York; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; John Crawford outside of Dayton; Marlene Pinnock in Los Angeles.

“Many of these people are the children and grandchildren of those who had fled the South in hopes of being free. And now their children, grandchildren, and in some cases their great grandchildren are having to, feeling the need to be heard yet again, in another organic leaderless way,” Wilkerson says.

Wilkerson doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she does believe that there’s a lot to be learned from our country’s past.

I asked Wilkerson if she saw any concrete steps the North could take to face its racism.

“I think we would go a long way to just recognize what we are dealing with,” Wilkerson said. “We’re not even on the same page about that as a country. I think we have a long way to go to reach a sense of common agreement on where we are and how we got to be here and that is one of the things that I would seek to do. One of the things I really wish for all of us is greater empathy.”

Not to be confused with sympathy, she added, “Empathy means really truly getting inside the circumstances of someone else and really truly understanding what they are facing and what life is like from their perspective.”

To a great degree, this is how Wilkerson works. As a narrative journalist, she spends weeks—and in the case of The Warmth of Other Suns, years—with her subjects.

She immersed herself in the work, eventually moving from Chicago to Georgia to better understand the South. She interviewed (or “auditioned,” as she likes to call it) more than 1,200 people of the Great Migration for the role of protagonist. Each protagonist had to be indicative of one aspect of the movement as a whole—taking a different path of the Great Migration, differing personalities, differing reasons for leaving. In choosing Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, she selected people she would spend endless hours with, flying back and forth across the country to record their lives before they passed away.

It took Wilkerson 15 years to complete The Warmth Of Other Suns. She approached it as a journalist, but became an “unintended historian.” As such, she drew from ethnography, sociology, anthropology, psychology and history and inspiration from literature. Focusing on protagonists, rather than sources, her 622-page book reads with the ease of novel and the preciseness of an investigative hit. The book pulls from literature—the title comes from Richard Wright’s poem.

When I spoke to my family friend, Joan, she mentioned a part of the book that was deeply disturbing to her: lynching. She had known that lynching existed, but it wasn’t until she read about George Swanson Starling’s near encounter with death in Florida that she understood lynching. “If that was me, I’d have to get up in the middle of the night and I’d have to go walking through the orange groves to escape—I never felt it so personally.”

It’s this reaction that has driven Isabel Wilkerson as a writer and that has made her so immensely successful.

I asked Wilkerson if she considers herself a history-maker. She had, after all, written a history of the Great Migration that had never been so comprehensively told, and as a black female journalist, she had broken barriers of both gender and race.

There was a long awkward silence on the phone that dangled in the air. Growing uncomfortable, I mumbled something incoherent, waiting.

“I think that’s for other people to say,” she replied evenly. She repeated herself again, before she allowing herself to laugh and comment that some people may make note of her Pulitzer.

The Pulitzer. She won it when she was 33, becoming the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, and the first African American to win it for individual reporting.

And she could have mentioned her career trajectory. After graduating from Howard University, she spent a year at The Detroit Free Press before moving on to The New York Times, where she was first a metropolitan reporter, then a national correspondent in cities throughout the Midwest, before becoming the Chicago bureau chief. That’s a hell of a lot to do by the age of 30.

But her crowning achievement is The Warmth of Other Suns, the 622-page history that rose to the top of the charts, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and is on its way to being designated, by the Chicago Reader, the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written.(She recently edged out Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.) Ultimately, Wilkerson’s is a book that is changing our understanding of our history—and our present.

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