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The situational complexity in Isabel Wilkerson’s history of the Great Northern Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, lies in its parallel histories of three particular African-American individuals who made the life-changing decision to leave the racist American South for greener pastures in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the West Coast. Wilkerson’s decision to focus on three individuals, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, as representative of the intellectual, economic and cultural diversity inherent in a migration that is usually defined as having occurred between 1910 and 1930, but which Wilkerson views as having extended through the 1960s, and which involved around six million people, provides a sense of the enormous scale and complexity of arguably the most dramatic demographic shift in the country’s history (post-17th Century).
The end of the Civil War and the process of reconstruction did not eliminate the hatred and virulent racism endemic to the American South. At best, in many instances, it simply buried it under a thin veneer of respectability. For decades following the end of the Civil War, blacks continued to be treated essentially as slaves. Although the legal conditions had changed, the culture had not, and over time more and more blacks sought refuge and the chances for a better life in different regions of the United States. As Wilkerson states in her history, “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.” The migration, however, was structured differently than many assumed. Rather than any sense of randomness or specific destination, the migration flows were more a product of the railways available to blacks from different regions, for example, those leaving Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi had as their option the train to the Midwest, while those in Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia lived on the route to the Northeast and Washington, D.C. The availability of railroads, therefore, was the most important determinant of where migrants ended up.
Another element of Wilkerson’s history that could be considered to represent “situational complexity” could involve the fundamental reality of life in the regions to which blacks migrated. While the racism endemic in the Northeast and in other regions was not as violent and virulent as that in the South, it existed all the same. That is why her observation -- “It occurred to me that no matter where I lived, geography could not save me” – strikes so deep. The Great Northern Migration fundamentally changed the demographics of the United States, but the concentration of those blacks in urban ghettos served as a stark reminder of the distance African-Americans still had to travel – metaphorically if not literally – to experience the American dream in the same manner as the Europeans who arrived ahead of them.
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