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Archive for August, 2011

In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black bible to swear to tell the truth on.

Warmth of Other Suns

When author Isabel Wilkerson said ‘epic story’, she wasn’t kidding. It took me eight weeks to read this book from cover to cover, and I usually tend to give up if I think a book is taking me too long.

As an aside – I used to be the type that had  to finish every book that I started, until I decided that life was too short to be spent on books I found too hard to read, even if most of the world thought otherwise. And so, I have a small list of nemesis books – books I started, many times in some cases, and was never motivated to finish, or even proceed beyond page 21. So, that’s my policy. I try, but not too hard.

But with The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I persisted. It might have taken me a while to read the book, but that was only because I was trying to take in the details and imagine a world, and a people in my head. Before I moved to the United States, I was told by many that the country had ‘no history’, because it was relatively new and did not possess the historical richness that other parts of the world, say Europe or even India, had in plenty as evidenced by their castles, collosuems, and other remains of ancient (really ancient) times. Apparently, contemporary history does not count as ‘real’ history to many. However, I find modern history fascinating – as it is ‘lived history’ it is more ‘certain’, it is easier to relate to and understand. And, there are stories (if we can get to the storytellers before they become history themselves). Little details make up the big picture, and suddenly events past are playing out in your head.

…it is the larger emotional truths, the patient retelling of people’s interior lives and motivations, that are the singular gift of the accounts in this book. With the passing of the earliest and succeeding generations of migrants, it is these stories that have become the least replaceable sources of any understanding of this great movement of people out of the South to the American North and West.

Wilkerson has done a masterful job. She employs three protagonists, who fled the South at different times of the Migration, had varied personal motivations, and struggles during and after their resettlement in the North and West, and uses their accounts to chronicle the Great Migration, which lasted over half a century and saw six million southern blacks leave the South and Jim Crow. Personal stories are powerful – they vividly illustrate individual fears, hopes, dreams, successes and struggles in a manner that no abstract account can. Millions of such stories made up the Migration, and are a part of the story of the making of Modern America.

Wilkerson begins during Reconstruction, when slavery was abolished (in name) and an explicit caste system was created in its place (much of this is reminiscent of the caste system that existed, and still exists to a certain degree, in India; and the black experience can be likened, to some extent, to that of the Dalits in India. City dwellers, such as me, can often be ignorant of the egregious discrimination  practiced in the name of caste in other parts of the country, as I realized when I read Untouchables. Indeed, Wilkerson herself alludes to the similar Nazi treatment of the Jews when she talks about the black-white relationship in the early 20th century. People everywhere are really the same). The symbiotic relationship that often existed between white masters and black slaves, gave way to extreme persecution and domination of one race by the other. Large scale migration is attributed to ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, and one can think of several reasons that might have propelled the southern blacks out of the South and to the American North and West, which Wilkerson collectively calls the Kinder Mistress.

Let’s not fool ourselves. We are far from the promised land, both North and South. In the South, we still confront segregation in its glaring and conspicuous forms. In the North we confront it in its hidden and subtle forms.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Restrictions based on color of skin were just one of their concerns.

In the receiving cities of the North and West, the newcomers …had to worry about acceptance or rejection not only from whites they encountered but from the colored people who arrived ahead of them, who could at times be the most sneeringly judgmental of all.

At least they had their lives. And so they persisted in unfair circumstances, in crowded colonies, with rampant crime, and exposure to drugs. Wilkerson also addresses the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the past, the dysfunction of urban cities has often been blamed on the poor, uncouth, uneducated migrants. However, recent research, Wilkerson says, indicates otherwise, that migrants (southern blacks) tended to be better educated, likely to be and remain married, more likely to raise children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed than northern blacks.

In cases where things went awry, it turned out that the longer the migrants were exposed to the northern cities, the more vulnerable some became to the troubles of the preexisting world they entered.

Resettlements change lives and large scale resettlements change the course of a country.

***

The conductor called out the name of the station and the city, and after so long a ride through the night and now into day, some passengers from the South gathered their things and stepped off the train… “Newark”. It sounded so tantalizingly close to “New York”, and maybe, some assumed, was the way northerners, clipping their words as they did, pronounced New York. It was confusing to have their intended destination preceded directly by a city with such a similar name and with an identically named station. And as they had been riding for as many as twenty-four hours and were nervous about missing their stop, some got off prematurely and, it is said, that is how Newark gained a good portion of its black population, those arriving in Newark by accident and deciding to stay.

Over half a century later, during my first ever train ride to New York City, I would make the same mistake. After all, ‘Newark Penn Station’ sounds remarkably similar to ‘New York Penn Station’ to the foreign ear, whether you were from the South or from India.

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