Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I have just finished reading Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, an account of the exodus of six million blacks from the mostly rural South to the cities of the North and West between the First World War and the 1970s. It is the rarest of books -- a historical narrative of impressive scholarship with the literary merit of a great novel.

Wilkerson is herself a product of the Great Migration; her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, DC, where she was born and raised. She is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist who is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.

The book is particularly compelling for me. I grew up in the Jim Crow South that Wilkerson so graphically describes. The worst of the caste system lurked only in my peripheral vision. I was a child of a middle-class, college-educated family, living in an all-white suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I don't recall hearing anyone in my family use the word "nigger"; in fact, I hardly heard race mentioned at all. Whites and blacks were so rigorously separated that I might as well have been living on an all-white planet. The rules were plain enough: We sat at the front of the bus, the blacks sat at the back. We walked in the sidewalk; they stepped into the street. A white man was "sir"; a black man was "boy."

For a few years we had a black maid, a young woman who came to our house once a week to do the washing and ironing for what I suppose was a few dollars and bus fare. That was about the extent of my interaction with blacks until my high-school summer job at the Chattanooga Public Library, when I chose to eat my brown-bag lunch with the black janitorial staff on the back steps, rather than in the white staff lunch room with the librarians. The company was more congenial. Why the blacks indulged my adolescent presence I can only attribute to their grace and generous spirit.

But Jim Crow was always there, in the background. Klan gatherings with white sheets and burning crosses often made the local news. A cross was burned on a lawn in our neighborhood one night, at the home of a white judge, who, as I recall, had ruled in favor of a black man in a dispute with a white.

I was lucky enough to escape the segregated South, by winning a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, my own "great migration" of sorts. My five siblings would follow. Ironically, the scholarship was designated by its benefactor for "a white boy from Tennessee."