A Review of:
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991); and Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010)
[Note: I’ve been thinking a lot about the titles of my blog posts lately, and how difficult it might be for people to find posts on certain topics, given the way I’ve titled them. One result of this was that I have re-titled quite of few of my earlier posts, basically moving the generic, series title to the end, so that the specific, post title comes first. As I reviewed these past posts, I noticed that I had grouped the Lemann/Wilkerson review with one about Gore Vidal’s novel, Lincoln, in a post with the rather vague title of “Book Notes.”
Perhaps, back in March 2011, when that post went up, such a grab-bag title might have been adequate, but no longer. During the four years since I put up that post, I’ve had a lot of time to develop this blog, and one strong theme I’ve chosen has been the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement. So, I decided to separate this review from the one about Vidal’s novel, revise it, add a couple of pictures, but–more importantly–give it a clear title that would point to a key aspect of the Civil Rights Movement.]
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A while ago, I posted a review of two works that I wished I had read while teaching the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement course, during my previous life as a “prep school” History instructor. The present volumes obviously might seem to merit that same rubric, but I think I actually read Lemann’s book when it first came out in 1991, before I tackled my school’s Civil Rights course.
Anyway, Lemann’s work and Wilkerson’s nicely complement each other in assessing the impact of the “Great Migration,” the flight (not to put too fine a point on it) of nearly six million African-Americans from the South that occurred over much of the twentieth century. Like the exodus of East Germans through West Berlin that forced the Soviets to erect the Berlin Wall, this vast out-migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South gave the lie to its defenders’ claims that the whole population flourished under, and of course was content with, a brutal system designed to maintain a cruel status quo.
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Chronologically, Isabel Wilkerson paints on a broader canvas, dating the Migration from 1915 to 1970, while Nicholas Lemann focuses on the latter stages, 1940 to 1970. Lemann’s book, which served as the basis for a PBS documentary television series, The Promised Land, in the 1990’s, has a slightly narrower human focus as well, mainly emphasizing a single group of black Mississippians who escaped from Clarksdale to Chicago. Wilkerson, on the other hand, provides thorough treatments of three African-American individuals over the whole course of their lives, analyzing why they left the South, how they managed that feat, and what their lives were like in the “Promised Land.”
One of those Wilkerson followed, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, and her sharecropper husband George, like the leading characters in Lemann’s drama, uprooted themselves from Mississippi and made their way to Chicago. Her other two main characters were from quite different backgrounds than the Gladneys and found refuge in other “gateway” Migration cities: George Swanson Starling, a laborer and organizer in Florida orange groves, headed for Harlem, where he spent the rest of his life as a railroad baggage handler on trains traveling up and down the east coast; Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his way from Monroe, La., to Los Angeles, seeking, and to some extent finding, a world where his skills as a physician would be appreciated and where he could live the sort of life he had always dreamed of.
One thing Lemann’s book has that Wilkerson’s lacks is a detailed look at how the ramifications of the Great Migration played out in the Nation’s Capital and in national politics. While Wilkerson does not ignore this wider context, her concern throughout is for how these developments affected her three main characters.
Lemann’s treatment of national politics in the wake of the Great Migration is interesting and important, but his 114 page detour in that direction means that readers do not learn nearly as much about the individual Clarksdale refugees Lemann studies as they do about political and bureaucratic infighting.
On the other hand, Wilkerson’s more richly textured portraits, though of a far smaller sample, allow the reader really to know the people she focuses on, while at the same time suggesting that, although not completely irrelevant, national forces had less to do with the lives her chosen trio made for themselves outside the South than their own grit, determination, and, sometimes, luck.
I’m not sure which of these books I would have assigned in the Civil Rights course I taught before retirement. Wilkerson’s biographical approach would have better complemented the two autobiographies I used in the course, one by a black female author, Anne Moody, and one by a white male, Melton McLaurin, about growing up in the Jim Crow South. Still, I also showed excerpts from the video series based on Lemann’s book in the course, and using sections of his book to supplement the documentary images might also have worked well.
Both books definitely merit close attention from anyone interested in the tremendous impact of the economic, demographic, and political tidal wave that was the Great Migration.
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For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)