Book Saloon: Better Than “Cats”

My friend Gayle and I have tossed books back and forth for years, and I must admit that now that she’s retired, she’s getting way ahead of me, and further afield.   Since she spent her career working with banksters, and I’m sort of a commie, we both reveled in the page-turning corruption potboilers that emanated from the Enron and Bush scandals, and know each other’s tastes pretty well.  Her latest recommendation landed here when I was in one of my recurrent Watergate obsessions, and I foolishly set it at the bottom of the pile for a week or two.

It was called “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the great migration of African-Americans from the American South from WWI through the 1970′s, and though it sounded interesting, my mind was elsewhere at the time.  A few days ago, she asked whether I’d read the book with obvious excitement, and I had to guiltily admit I hadn’t, but planned to right away.  Gayle is an understated sort, and her eager enthusiasm led me to believe I was missing out on something really good.  That night, I cracked it open, and was riveted ten pages in.

The author, Isabel Wilkerson, is herself a daughter of the Great Migration, and though she worked for the New York Times when she embarked on her research, it clearly consumed her for more than ten years, during which time she developed lasting relationships with her subjects, traveling with them through time and often space, to learn and tell their stories.  Their stories aren’t pretty; one fled hours ahead of a lynch mob, another was a surgeon in the US armed forces and found Jim Crow Mississippi lurking in American military bases in Europe, the other shed a life of sharecropping peonage with barely enough for bus fare out.

All left beloved (and not so beloved) relatives behind, and none knew what the future in a strange new place held, but they all did it anyway.  As a white person raised in middle class comfort living four miles or so from my family home, I have to give them a lot of credit for courage and determination.  All were young couples hoping for a better life, where they wouldn’t have to teach their children how to conduct themselves as second-class citizens (and I use the term “citizen” loosely; none of them were allowed to vote…), and none knew a thing about the places they would soon call home.  One thing they knew, though, was that anything had to be better than what they had.

In the opening pages, Wilkerson describes her first meetings with her subjects, then in comfortable, after a fashion, old age, but begins with their respective moments of leaving, an act at that time so subversive and dangerous that their accounts are grippingly harrowing, and drew me in immediately.  Tugged between a drearily resigned world of stifling conformity and tradition, and a tantalizingly optimistic one of new hope and opportunity, each couple decides (or the wife haltingly agrees) to choose the latter over the former.

For those of us who can casually ask friends or Google minutia about, say, the best vegan joint in Stockholm, these people’s choices of where to call home, which were more likely dictated by the cheapest bus or train routes out,  starkly illustrate what scary leaps they were making.  The closest destinations in the midwest and eastern seaboard were cold, unforgiving, and dense beyond their imaginations; the further ones in the west had better weather and more space but for their distances, might as well have been on the moon.

The journey itself was made more difficult by the awful conditions “colored” people were made to endure on segregated trains; the one who drove west was unable to get motel rooms along the way, even in the “free”states of Arizona and New Mexico; all relied on a network of earlier migrants for lodging, job leads, and pointers about making one’s way in an unfamiliar and often inhospitable new place.  Packed into unofficial but nonetheless segregated neighborhoods left behind by earlier immigrants, they were exploited by landlords, shopkeepers, and employers, but each in their own way managed to not just make it, but attain a degree of material security through hard work, homeownership, and a tight network of fellow migrants and family.

Wilkerson accompanies two of her subjects when they made pilgrimages back home, a fraught ritual undertaken more out of obligation than nostalgia; in both cases bittersweet.  They look back at the homes which gave them their accents, cuisine, and folkways without fondness or regret, simply understanding and acceptance.  One by one, each experiences the successes and failures of their children, survives the passing of their spouses, and the last one dies in the epilogue.  None see their stories as part of a larger epoch; to them the Great Migration was a personal rather than historical journey, woven together only by Wilkerson’s narrative and the changes which the Great Migration brought to both the North and South.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of book that didn’t just keep me up late, though it did, but it also left me ashamed at times, inspired at others, and gave me a deeply personal connection to people whose lives I had never even contemplated, and an era that still shapes our lives and politics today, for better and worse.

I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

 

 

9 Comments

  1. mikeinportc says:

    Sounds riveting .Love first-hand history, especially from non-VIPs. It’s on the (mental) list. ;)

    Just got done with Heirloom Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer , by Tim Stark. Currently on Terminator Planet , by Nick Turse & Tom Englehart, and The Zen of Zim by Don Zimmer .

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’ve got some heirlooms going this year, with several fruits already. I picked those wine-dark ones. I love everything Englehart, and would definitely grab that, but haven’t heard about this Zimmer guy. Keep me posted. Gayle is just finishing Rachel Maddow’s “Drift,” but after that I’m going for Parmy Olson’s “We Are Anonymous.” Read an excerpt at Salon on the bus and almost missed my stop.

  2. meremark says:

    -

    In a 12-hour reading marathon I absorbed The Manufacturing of a President, by Wayne Madsen, which first appeared on Lulu.com one week ago.

    You want this:
    http://www.waynemadsenreport.com/

    and you want this:
    http://www.lulu.com/shop/wayne-madsen/the-manufacturing-of-a-president/paperback/product-20216251.html

    Non-fiction. Hint: ‘FACT’ printed in red; (in manuFACTuring). (Sorry, escapists.)

    The facts of the matter, (CIA 1947-2012), make out Maddow, or anyone else we see as celebrities or celebrated in massmedia, deluded in her (their) every word on-air.
    … and they better stay delusional if they’d like to stay televisional.

    True this: One read-thru of ‘Manu.Pres.’ and you’ll never again ask or wonder, ‘Why doesn’t Obama walk his talk?’
    This book answers all questions. … you know you want it

    -

  3. meremark says:

    -

    A comment on Warmth of Other Suns. The Great Migration — it has a happy ending though, doesn’t it? I mean, look, here we are, all here today. The vertex of civilization; life is good.

    Or am I missing something? Peace on Earth, maybe.

    In the way and warp and woof we got here where we are today, and the situation we’re in, and what-tell, I found this piece in the genesis which sure explained a lot to me; (after all, even women couldn’t vote until 1915) …

    blah blah blah and then it said

    The Plymouth colony had never had a royal charter, so its governance had always been on a somewhat precarious footing. Massachusetts, however, was placed into constitutional anarchy by the uprising. Although the colonial government was reestablished, it no longer had a valid charter, as a result of which some opponents of the old Puritan rule refused to pay taxes, and engaged in other forms of protest. Provincial agents traveled to London where Increase Mather, representing the old colony leaders, petitioned new rulers William and Mary to restore the old colonial charter. When King William learned that this might result in a return to the predominantly entrenched religious rule, he refused. Instead, the Lords of Trade decided to solve two problems at once by combining the two colonies. Accordingly on October 7, 1691, they issued a charter for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and appointed Sir William Phips its governor.

    Provincial charter
    —————

    The new charter differed from the old one in several important ways: one of the principal changes, inaugurated over Mather’s objection, was to change the test requirements for attaining voting eligibility from religious to financial. … The new rules required prospective voters to own £40 worth of property, or real estate that yielded at least £2 per year in rent, and blahblahblah

    CITE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Province_of_Massachusetts_Bay

    Change voter eligibility FROM ‘religious’ TO ‘financial’. 1691.

    Days after reading that, still palm-smacking myself, I can’t get over the enormity of influence for that change in ‘mass’ thinking. The rest after 1691 is History, across the 1700s, the 1800s — which peoples were ‘migrated’ and which were ‘massacred’, all set in motion, or destiny, by a spin of legislative language — up to, including, and beyond the 1900s and its veritable Great Migration …

    the sons of Coleman porters
    and the sons of engineers
    ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel
    riding on the City of New Orleans

    to the warmth of other sons; (pun intended).

    -
    I’m sure I’ll deeply enjoy reading the book, soul deep. I’ll look for it

  4. Ché Pasa says:

    Most of my African American friends are either Great Migrants themselves or their offspring. Some sincerely think it was a mistake from a social/cultural point of view. Materially, most are far better off than they would have been had they or their parents not left the South, but so much was lost in going North or West. Community. Family. Shared struggles. The land itself. Growing your own food. Faith.

    Some have vowed to or have actually moved back South saying they could have a better life there now than they can have in California, for example.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but California was one of the most rigidly segregated societies in the country until well into the 1960s and in many ways it still is — complexly segregated on race and class lines at that. But it’s not just a matter of de facto segregation and discrimination. There’s the little matter of the InJustice System that has put so many black males into its warm embrace.

    Worse, maybe, is the sense that African American social and cultural practices and perspective as they developed under the oppressions of slavery and Jim Crow has no value.

    “Warmth of Other Suns.” I’ve seen the title, now I’ll have to find the book. Thanks for your recommendation!

    • cocktailhag says:

      That conundrum is recurrent through the book; material gains often came with social losses, most often as children of migrants absorbed the social pathologies of the urban ghettos to which they fled.
      My experience living in LA right after the riots in 1992 was that it was hypersegregated and getting moreso. I found it profoundly depressing, albeit funny, when a mutual friend sparked up a joint in my friend’s car and she got all worried about getting busted.
      “White girl, nice car, you’re fine,” he said as he passed it to me.

      • Ché Pasa says:

        It’s a fascinating study and a continuing struggle for many who try to find the best way forward — if there is one. These days it’s hard to tell.

        “White girl, nice car, you’re fine,” is still too true.

        So, after I finish “Walking Fish — a Novel” by Joanne Bodin, “Warmth of Other Suns” is on my reading short list.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Let me know how you like it; I love good fiction, but I hate bad, and that makes me too skeptical (and cheap, natch), to pop for it. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is at least informative, even if it’s boringly written and/or self-serving, so I plod through like a kid eating spinach.
          I ought to write more about LA; in addition to living there briefly, I spent a dozen years afterward working down there, sometimes for months at a time. As you’d expect, I devoured California history from Carey McWilliams to David Rieff and Mike Davis, just to try and grasp the place.
          I also saw the first performances on “Angels in America” at the Mark Taper Forum, where my ex and I had season tickets back in 1992. It was considerably better than “Cats.”*

          *I did borrow that line from one of your OWS posts, if you hadn’t guessed…