Wednesday, February 20, 2013
I've been reading two great books on the Great Migration. Between 1915 and 1975 more than 6 million African Americans moved from Southern states to the North and West. Cities like Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Cleveland, Detriot, Chicago, St. Lewis, San Diego and Los Angeles swelled in numbers of Black residents. This phenomena was bigger than the gold rush and the dust bowl as far as moving populations across the land. The stories of this part of our history are under-told, however. The full impact and influence of this great migration on citizens is hard to fathom. I have heard a little about it over the years, and I'm sure it was mentioned in my education, but I never really understood the magnitude of the movement. My reading in the past couple months has opened my eyes.
American Tapestry: The Story of Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michele Obama by Rachel L. Swarms is a fascinating book. Swarms traces back through six generations in Ms. Obama's family, telling their stories and connecting the various family lines. It was a surprise to Ms. Obama and many of her relatives both near and far flung to find out that she has White ancestors as well as Black. Most of her distant cousins were living quiet lives unaware of their connections until this research was done by Swarms. Swarms first published her findings in the New York Times in 2009. This book is the result of her continued research. One of the things I really loved about it was the way it illustrates how intertwined our common heritage is in the United States, whether one is Black, White or Brown. Anyone who thinks the history of one minority has nothing to do with the rest of the country is only seeing part of the picture. American Tapestry reads like a novel and is both entertaining and enlightening. Here is an interview with Swarms for the Root.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is the Pulitzer-prize winner journalist who spent more than 20 years researching the Great Migration to write a book that is often called "epic". Her own parents were part of the movement of Blacks from the South to North and West of the country, so she had a personal interest and passion for the historical research. In the book she traces the lives and journeys of three African American families in the years between 1940 and 1950. Again, the writing in this book is haunting and beautiful and captivating. It is an American story that we have not fully been conscious of and have not celebrated or shared. But we all live with the impact.
One of the things I noticed about the stories of the people portrayed in both of these books is that many of those who lived through this time don't really talk about it too much. We don't hear their stories handed down. They seem to want to forget the troubles and move on, always pushing forward to a better day. But that leaves the younger generations left out of their own history. We need to listen and absorb and relate to this history, as it is part of all of us. Again and again as I read these books I am thinking of my own family and my life, and comparing where I was, or my parents and grandparents were while these events were happening. Piecing it all together, I am getting a better sense of where we are right now and what is happening in our current environment. History has a way of doing that...
If you are looking for a great read with depth, breadth, relevance and drama these two books should definitely be on your list!