HI 56 / LO 36, Feels like 36
I don’t usually do book reviews, but I can’t resist after reading Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” (Thanks for the recommendation, Dad and Kevin Tankerlsey!) It’s a remarkable book.
First, for the writing (Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing at The New York Times). All writers know the best way to grab the attention of the reader is to tell a story. That’s as true in writing history as in reporting on a tornado. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North by telling the stories of three people—Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster. Ida Mae was from Mississippi, George was from Florida, and Robert was from Louisiana. Ida Mae left in the ‘30s, George in the ‘40s, and Robert in the ‘50s. Ida Mae went to Chicago, George went to Harlem, and Robert went to Los Angeles. Ida Mae stayed working class, George became middle class, and Robert became wealthy. What Wilkerson does is absolutely masterful. All I could do was marvel at her craft.
Writing aside. Let’s get personal. I am a white woman, born and raised in Texas. The Lone Star state is big enough to have a lot of variety, but most of the places I’ve lived have had more Mexican-Americans than African-Americans. So, I was reading this book to educate myself.
There are scenes that are difficult, but they’re difficult because I can’t imagine them. There are many, many others that I can imagine because I’ve witnessed similar incidents. The quiet prejudices—those I have seen. Wilkerson also made me reevaluate what I thought I knew about urban poverty, about immigration, and about politics.
It’s obvious that Wilkerson has a special place in her heart for Ida Mae, and I did, too. For one thing, Ida Mae picked cotton, and so did my dad. Wilkerson writes that by choosing Chicago, she exchanged cotton for snow:
“In a symbolic kind of way, snow was to Chicago what cotton was to Mississippi. It blanketed the land. It was inevitable. Both were so much a part of the landscape of either place that where you saw snow you by definition would not see cotton and vice versa. Coming to Chicago was a guarantee that you would not be picking cotton. The people sitting at the dining room table this late winter night had chosen snow over cotton.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
Ida Mae loved her family. She trusted in God, even when her Chicago neighborhood became overrun with drugs and prostitution. On a difficult day of traveling with Wilkerson, she said, “Now, we ain’t got nothing to do with God’s business.”
Here’s how Wilkerson summed up Ida Mae:
“Ida Mae Gladney had the humblest trappings but was the richest of them all. She had lived the hardest life, been given the least education, seen the worst the South could hurl at her people, and did not let it break her. She lived longer in the North than in the South but never forsook her origins, never changed the person she was deep inside, never changed her accent, speaking as thick a Mississippi drawl in her nineties as the day she caught the train out of Okolona sixty-odd years before. She was surrounded by the clipped speech of the North, the crime on the streets, the flight of the white people form her neighborhood, but it was as if she was immune to it all. She took the best of what she saw in the North and the South and interwove them in the way she saw fit. She followed every jump shot of the Chicago Bulls and knew how to make sweet potato pie like the best of them in the Delta. She lived in the moment, surrendered to whatever the day presented, and remained her true, original self. Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve. And because of that, she was the happiest and lived the longest of them all.”
Amen to that.