THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Sharing moving accounts of the Great Migration

By David Shribman
September 16, 2010

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They called it the Great Migration, the movement of nearly 6 million blacks from the South to the North and to California between 1915 and 1970 — a wave that, like the great American migrations that preceded it, was one of discovery and disappointment, of mystery and misery, of heroism and hope, that transformed the participants even as it changed the places they settled — and the places they left.

This great migration, much ignored until recently, was also a moment of great decision, both for the emigrants and for the nation. These individuals left one part of their own country for another, without leaders, sometimes without money or skills, often without a clear idea of where they were going — but always with a clear idea of why. Uprooted and their lives upended, they were fired with faith and fortitude — and a determination to find a better chance.

“They fled as if under a spell or a high fever,’’ writes Isabel Wilkerson, biographer of a movement and sculptor of one of the most lyrical and important books of the season. “The Warmth of Other Suns,’’ written by the daughter of participants in this great wave, is a monument to deep research and even deeper reflection and will sit comfortably for decades on bookshelves beside Oscar Handlin’s “The Uprooted,’’ which won a Pulitzer Prize nearly six decades ago.

Fleeing a Jim Crow society and taking advantage of a northern labor shortage growing out of World War I, this movement of men and women two generations removed from slavery would boost the black population of Chicago from 44,103 to more than a million. It would integrate cities. It would reshape work, traffic, and marriage patterns. But it was more than that. “[I]t was,’’ she writes, “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.’’

Richard Wright was only one of the millions who would feel what he called “the warmth of other suns’’ in “Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth’’ — the work from which Wilkerson took her title — and whose worldview and work would be transformed by it. In one way or another, to one degree or another, this sun warmed — this sun baked — the lives of Langston Hughes, B.B. King, August Wilson, Ralph Ellison, and millions of others.

Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people — a prodigious effort requiring well more than a decade of devotion — and focused her attention, carefully and, it must be said, lovingly, on three of them, two men and an unforgettable woman who left what she calls “the heartbreak Jim Crow land.’’ These stories, case studies written as novellas, humanize this movement and place it squarely within the most American of experiences, for whether in the front of the train or at the back of the bus, these migrants did what so many others in American history did, move from a place of oppression to someplace else in search of something better — that something being the North or as Langston Hughes called it, a “kinder mistress.’’

The better life they sought (and by and large found) was oftentimes bitter and oftentimes brutal. Isolated, abused, marginalized, these migrants had even less opportunity than the white foreigners who more easily hid their ethnic identities to become comfortable if not rich — and assimilated.

“Blacks, though native born, were arriving as the poorest people from the poorest section of the country with the least access to the worst education,’’ she writes. “Over the decades of the Migration, they came with every disadvantage and found themselves competing not only with newcomers like themselves but with second- and third-generation European immigrants already established.’’

This is a story sensitively and deftly told, not so much a tale of triumph as one of travail, unless of course you consider the triumph of the human will that this movement captured and then fostered. What separates this migration from the others that shaped the country is that this was a migration of people who already were Americans. They embarked on their migration to find a different America and in doing so they helped to create a new America.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration By Isabel Wilkerson

Random House, 622 pp., $30