The first book about history (other than single biographies) that I decided to read for my 2017 reading challenge was The Warmth of Other Suns. Isabel Wilkerson’s prizewinning tour de force, Other Suns recounts the African American migration from South to North during the first half of the twentieth century. As Ms. Wilkerson puts it, “Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would…transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched.” (See p. 9 of the softcover edition printed by Random House in 2010.) This book was an excellent (I almost said necessary) read for me as a white woman, and it changed the way I view urban ghettoes, among other things.
Wilkerson, the first black American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, has a beautiful way with words and a rare persistence for research. Most of her interviewees speak with the honeyed language of the South and the wisdom of another generation we would do well to heed. Following are my favorite quotes from the book. Some of them are inspiring; others, eye-opening.
1) “The measure of a man’s estimate of your strength,” he finally told them, “is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place.” (p. 41, quoting theologian Howard Thurman’s explanation to his daughters of Jim Crow laws for everything from waiting rooms to playgrounds)
2) “You tell us that the South is the best place for us,” the man said. “What guarantees can you give us that our life and liberty will be safe if we stay?” (p. 43, describing a secret meeting that took place after a “near lynching,” when one of the meetings’ leaders encouraged his fellow black men to stay in the South)
3) “You lived with it,” Pershing said years later. “But it wasn’t that you liked the taste of it.” (p. 88, on living in a racist, segregated Monroe, Louisiana in the 1930s) Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was a friend and doctor of Ray Charles, the famous singer, and his story is one of the three main narratives in The Warmth of Other Suns.
4) “The ant see a crumb, he can’t carry it himself,” Ida Mae said. “Don’t you know another ant will come and help him? They better than people.” (p. 106, reminiscing about her days as a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife) Ida Mae Gladney and her husband left Mississippi for Chicago after a cousin of his was brutally beaten when falsely accused of theft. Later, in a discussion of sharecropping in the South on page 167, the author quotes Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist: “How a man treats his tenants is not felt to be a matter of public concern, but is as much his private affair as what brand of toothpaste he uses.”
5) ‘Jim Crow had followed him across the Atlantic, and it was hitting him that he would never get ahead as long as these apostles of Jim Crow were over him.’ (p. 146, summing up the refusal of a southern colonel to make Dr. Foster chief of surgery)
6) ‘Ida Mae and the children rumbled over curled ribbons of dirt road in a brother-in-law’s truck from Miss Theenie’s house to the train depot in Okolona…Miss Theenie had not wanted them to go and had prayed over them and with them and then watched as her second-born daughter left the rutted land of the ancestors. “May the Lord be the first one in the car,” Miss Theenie had whispered about the train they were hoping to catch, “and the last one out.”’ (p. 183, describing the Gladney family’s exodus from Mississippi)
7) ‘A name was a serious undertaking. It was the first and maybe only thing colored parents could give a child, and they were often sentimental about it.’ (p. 188, explaining Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s grandiose name) The author goes on to explain the nicknames that sprang from the confusion of having multiple bearers of the same name. She adds, ‘It left mourners at southern funerals not knowing for sure who was in the casket unless the preacher called out, “Junebug” in the eulogy. Oh, that’s Junebug that died!’
8) ‘He was out for sure now and on his way to Illinois, and at that moment he could feel the sacks of cotton dropping from his back. Years later, he would still tremble at the memory and put into words the sentiments of generations who went in search of a kinder mistress. “It was like getting unstuck from a magnet,” he said. (p. 221, quoting a migrant named Eddie Earvin, who left Mississippi in 1963)
9) “I was hoping,” he said years later, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way without the fear of getting lynched at night.” (p. 229, quoting George Starling, the third main character of this book, who fled Florida for New York after his attempts to get higher pay for black orange-pickers nearly cost him his life)
10) ‘They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight. Thus these violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy.’ (p. 273, summing up the riots that happened in large northern cities during the 1900s, mostly between poor whites, often ethnic minorities, and the African Americans they perceived as threats)
11) ‘The car was brand-new, blue, the color of the flag, as my mother would remember it, with whitewall tires and white side panel trim. But it was dusty from the drive, its windshield spotted and speckled, and not looking anywhere close to the four thousand dollars she’d paid for it. Her sister Theresa, who had followed her up north, was with her, and they couldn’t roll into town like that. No migrant could, none would dare let on that their new life was anything less than perfect; they had to prove that their decision to go north was the superior and right thing to do, that they were living the dream and everything was out of a Technicolor movie set.’ (p. 365, explaining the author’s mother’s decision to stop and get a carwash before going to see ‘her own beloved mother.’)
12) ‘The strikers never threw anything but names at Ida Mae and Doris, and when the two of them looked back on it years later, they marveled that they had never gotten hurt. “I wouldn’t do that now,” Doris said.
‘Ida Mae turned to Doris. “Well, I didn’t really understand…We all supposed to be working.”’ (p. 407, talking about when Mrs. Gladney and her friend continued working when other hospital orderlies and nurse’s aides were striking and the two had to be escorted into the hospital by police) Some of the new migrants couldn’t understand why northerners felt comfortable protesting wages that were so much better than what the sharecroppers had made back South. They believed in working hard and without stopping.
13) ‘It wasn’t that he was against the civil rights movement. He was all for standing up for one’s right. It was just that, to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody else at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it.’ (p. 410, referring to Dr. Robert Foster’s refusal to allow his daughter to picket with her classmates at Spelman College in Atlanta)
14) “That’s why I preach today, Do not do spite,” he said. “Spite does not pay. It goes around and misses the object that you aim and comes back and zaps you. And you’re the one who pays for it.” (p. 421, quoting George Starling as he reflected on the poor decisions he had made in the past) George had married his wife, Inez, mainly to get back at his father for refusing to help him finish college. He regretted that hasty decision for the many years of their unhappy marriage.
15) ‘The times might have changed, but he never would or sought to. Displayed in his home was the COLORED WAITING ROOM sign that once hung in his office and that he was forced to take down under threat of a court order. Nobody in the world was going to tell him what he could do or what he could hang in his own home on Willis V. McCall Road.’ (p. 440, referring to former sheriff Willis McCall) Sheriff McCall was investigated 49 times for alleged abuse and misconduct toward black people in Lake County, Florida. He always managed to emerge from the cases unscathed, thanks to a loyal constituency of segregationists.
16) “They curse like sailors, they throw rocks, they do everything they big enough to do. They ain’t got no home training, and they mama can’t do nothing ‘cause she on drugs. That seven-year-old, they say he was the ringleader. He know more than he telling. But they shouldn’t put them in the penitentiary. They too young…Watch what I say, now. You got to start working on those little ones early.” (p. 467, quoting Ida Mae Gladney on two grade-school murder suspects and modern Chicagoan children in general) When Ida Mae’s family and several others moved into her neighborhood in South Shore, Chicago, a mass exodus of whites to the suburbs followed. For a variety of reasons, including the disinclination of white landlords to keep up the neighborhoods, her neighborhood fell quickly into disrepair and then became a hotbed of crime. Ida Mae disapproved of but rarely understood the extent of the criminal activity surrounding her. Her own family remained free of the drugs and vice.
17) ‘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 was surrounded by the clipped speech of the North, the crime on the streets, the flight of the white people from her neighborhood, but it was as if she were 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…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.’ (p. 532, describing Ida Mae Gladney and comparing her with Dr. Foster and Mr. Starling, the two others whose stories Ms. Wilkerson tells)
18) ‘They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.’ (p. 538, referring to the southern migrants’ escape from a land of enforced segregation)