I read a book.
That, in itself, is not extraordinary.
It is the book that is extraordinary.
It’s a marvelous book. A thoughtful book.
A horrible book. A book of nightmares and hopes.
I still find myself trying to wrap my head around it.
The thing is… I was alive during most of it.
A little tot when some of it was going on and I grew up in parallel (and geographically very close) to some of the characters – real people – in this book.
While I never experienced the horror and humiliations of the people in this book, I did share a certain culture. And even more so because I came not from the wealthy or the low-class scum that visited the horrors and humiliations upon these people, but because I was from a very modest family in the same geographical area – only miles from one of the people in the book – and we shared a culture of food and manners and ties to that earth that lives to this day.
The book, of course, is the one pictured above. The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s informative. It’s thought-provoking. It’s horrifying. It’s amazing in its honesty and carefully-documented and -presented individual three lives out of the millions of black people who were a part of the “Great Migration” that took place between the first world war and 1970. One of those three lives was a physician (a surgeon) who left Monroe, Louisiana for California. Another was a Mississippi woman who went to Chicago with her husband. The third was a man from Lake County, Florida who picked oranges and grapefruit and who ran for his very life out of the state and up to New York.
As young as I was, and as far from the reality of a situation as you can possibly be, I never knew of this “great migration” until I read this book. Yes, I knew that black people sometimes moved up north and to other places, but I never gave a passing thought to the scope of it all which was enormous. It was monumental. Its impact was felt all over the south.
As I said, I was born and grew up within miles of one of the people this book documents – George, who escaped to New York from Florida. We lived in different Florida counties, but not all that far apart. George was an adult and I was just a little thing and I did not know back then the horrors that black people – colored people, then – endured at the hands of people with skin color like my own.
I didn’t know it back then – back when I watched the black people go to the back of the bus to sit down. And I didn’t know it when I watched an elderly black man stand at the end of the soda fountain waiting to get something for take out because he was not allowed to sit down at the counter beside his fellow human beings.
I didn’t know the horrors. I only knew these small differences that, in the grand scheme of things were not small at all. Yet even as a young girl I knew these “differences” were wrong. I don’t know how or why I knew they were wrong. I just knew. The “why” of it never came to me until now. Now I, at least partially, know. It was because my own privileged place in society (humble as it was) was undeserved. Unearned. Unjust. By virtue of the color of my skin – something over which I had no more control than did they – I was allowed to sit at the counter and take any seat on the bus that I wanted.
I knew it was unjust for others to have less – to be able to do less – because of their color. But it never occurred to me that it was unjust that I had more. It was not about me in my mind back then. I never compared me to them because I was unaware of just how much I actually had, and, in all honesty, I never really had the opportunity to personally know any black people but I benefited from their work – like the absolutely yummy food prepared by those wonderful black ladies in the elementary school cafeteria. I simply saw, from a distance, the wrongness. I knew it. I felt it – even at my very young age.
Still, I don’t want to give the impression that the injustice went only in one direction. While it was amazingly unjust that I had certain freedoms and privileges because my skin was white, the overwhelming injustice was that these “others” did not have such freedoms and privileges because their skin was black.
After reading this book, I have finally felt a real shame for my own race. I’m ashamed of them. I’m ashamed to have been related to any of them – except my daddy (in the south we call him “daddy”) who was a Kennedy Democrat and who would never have hurt a single soul. I still have relatives there who are free and loose with the n-word and having not a clue in this world why they are so hatefully prejudiced.
As I mentioned above, I knew some of it.
I knew black people made less money than whites – and did harder work for it. What I did not know was that their employers often cheated them out of part of their pay since many couldn’t keep track of the work and wages they were entitled to. And they couldn’t keep track, not because they were stupid, but because the whites built beautiful schools (with many of the black’s tax dollars) and then did not allow those same blacks to attend those schools. Often they (the whites) would steal (misappropriate?) the money coming to the blacks for the second- and third-rate schools they attended. The black students and faculty would drive to the white schools every year and load up their cast-off textbooks – often with torn or missing pages.
The black sharecroppers were at the mercy of their white landlords who robbed them of entire seasons of pay. Yet no black could dispute what the white landlord had written down as his “share” for all that labor. To dispute would be to end up hanging from one of the very orange or grapefruit trees he had spent backbreaking hours picking.
I lived so close, yet never knew the horrible events that happened in Florida. I grew up only miles from one of the stories told in this book. Yet I might as well have been a half-world away from the suffering of the blacks at that time because I never really saw it. I only saw that they had to sit at the back of the bus and weren’t allowed to go to my school. And I saw the wonderful old black men in tuxedo-like jackets who carried our trays of food to our tables in the Morrison’s Cafeteria. Beyond that, I knew little. My small family (I was an only child) was too poor to afford “help” so my exposure to the indignities suffered by those people was minimal.
The only orange groves I was personally familiar with could scarcely be called groves. They were more like several consecutive lots that had been hacked out of what was once a large grove and were now mostly filled with small wooden houses set on cinderblocks with, perhaps, an acre or two of orange trees all lined up neatly in their rows beside and behind the houses.
In fact, the place where I grew up had formerly been orange groves that had been cut up, mostly cleared, and sold as individual lots. We had orange and grapefruit trees in our back yard. We also had a huge mulberry tree that I could climb and get onto the roof when I felt adventurous. But the best trees were the guava trees and the loquat tree that grew at the very back of our lot. Living where I do now I will probably never taste a guava or a loquat again. These don’t pack and ship very well. But I get oranges and grapefruit up from California – only rarely from Florida.
I think, though, that after reading this book I will never again be able to look upon an orange or grapefruit without thinking of the horrible price paid to get them to people like me by another, separate but very unequal (as if you could ever be separate but equal), race of people.
The South, I’m ashamed to say, was particularly bad. And Florida, I now believe, was among the most egregious of those southern states.
If you read this book – and I hope you will – you will read of unspeakable horrors. And you will read of the bravery and suffering of these very real people who migrated north and west leaving the South behind them forever. The hardships of these trips (escapes) alone are mind-boggling. Some of these people who were a part of this great migration you will recognize. The famous Bill Russell of basketball fame is just one that comes to mind. Go to Wikipedia and read of his “Early Years” there.
I found myself asking “Why?” a lot as I read this book. Why did the whites treat the blacks so abominably? Why? So far, I have no answer. Maybe there just isn’t one. Many of the whites were quite well off and the blacks were in no way a threat to them – yet they exploited a helpless people as even law enforcement would not investigate and would look the other way (if they were not personally involved in the atrocities – as many times they were) when a black person bore the brunt of beatings and lynching.
And then, when the blacks left the south by the millions, these same white people looked around and wondered who was going to do the back-breaking work they had demanded of those who left. And, stupidly, instead of doing the right thing – the thing that would have actually worked; that is, paying them an honest wage for honest work and affording them the freedoms they were already entitled to by law (and which the whites ignored) – they threatened them. They caught them at train stations and tore up their tickets and arrested them. They beat them. Sometimes they killed them to send a message to others. But the message the blacks heard and felt even louder was “leave the south.”
Did you know that blacks were made to sit at the back of the bus, but ride in the first train car – even though they paid the same as whites for their tickets? It was because the first train car was the one that caught all the soot and smoke from the engines. Humiliation upon humiliation.
As I said, the south was particularly bad. But the north was not that much better. These people who came – sometimes with everything they owned in a paper sack – were not hired in jobs available to immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and other countries – in other words, people with white skins. When they bought a drink in a bar, the bartender would break, beneath the counter, the glasses from which they drank so that no white person would ever have to drink from them in future. Even in the West they were refused accommodations when they traveled. They were forced by riots and pickets and sometimes by their homes burning down to live in certain sections of the northern cities and not venture into areas where white immigrants lived. They suffered more than other immigrants because of the color of their skin. Immigrants from Slavic countries, for example, could change their names to more common American names – leaving their pasts behind them since the color of their skin allowed them to melt into the vast numbers of people in those cities. No name change could so camouflage the black person.
Years and years and years after this great migration of blacks from the South, I found myself also leaving it. And I, too, did not look back – at least not as we left. I faced forward and gave it not a backward glance. After reading this book I feel a great kinship with those others who left long before me because, like them, I’m a southerner and so much of the south is still with me. I miss the food, mainly. And the memories of soft summer nights with cicadas whirring loudly in the trees. I miss Spanish moss hanging from the oaks. I miss the easy manners. The people whose lives are documented in this book carried the south deep within them their whole lives. And so will I.
I see parallels today in my own life with this great migration from the south. Today it is not racial. It is political. I left and moved to a state where my Blue vote is finally counted. I left the bigotry and the heat and the bugs and the intrusive, hate-filled fundamentalist controlling religions. I left the politics of hate and greed and intolerance. Did I find a politics of less hate and greed and intolerance? I’m not sure. Perhaps not. I only know what I left.
But like those blacks who migrated and tried to take their culture with them, I suffer the same unique kind of isolation and loneliness. This never occurred to me when I left Alabama (where I had lived for the biggest part of my adult life after growing up in Florida) that sunny day and laughed and said, “I’m not looking back.” I thought then that it would be a whole new adventure with welcoming friends who would appreciate me for the good person that I am. But I have discovered, as those migrating blacks discovered, a unique kind of loneliness since there are few people here who share or understand the culture from which I came.
Those blacks took their culture with them. They planted collard greens and sweet potatoes and other southern delights in their tiny little gardens. They longed for the foods they had known all of their lives and tried their best to maintain them. Soul food restaurants grew within the northern neighborhoods in the big cities. Oh! If only one would grow here in the Pacific Northwest! I’d be in heaven with some grits once in a while – or fried catfish and hush puppies. Collard greens and cornbread – real southern cornbread (not the sweet, yellow cornmeal cake-like stuff that southerners call muffins) – would be totally wonderful. But, alas, if I want these foods, I must make them myself – when I can get the ingredients. (Even I must confess, however, that I use self-rising cornmeal to make my cornbread and do not work at it the old-fashioned way described in this book.)
Today, there is a reverse migration going on. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were a part of the great migration (which, according to the book, lasted officially from the first world war to 1970) are beginning to look again to the south and some are moving there – to a place they have never been; a place they did not grow up; a place with a culture they only share by some kind of distant default.
Those original immigrants mostly did not ever return to the south except for funerals or family emergencies. They left for a freedom to which they were entitled by law but denied by custom. And they, mostly, proved themselves by becoming doctors and lawyers and city planners and teachers and laborers and hospital workers and…
Only the later generations have suffered the drug-riddled neighborhoods and the prostitutions and the hardships of living person-on-person packed tightly into high-rises and decaying buildings.
Here is a Poem by Langston Hughes that describes the feelings of those original people who decided to escape, to leave, to do whatever it took to get out of the Jim Crow South:
One Way Ticket
I pick up my life
And take it with me
And I put it down in
Any place that is
North and East?
And not Dixie.
I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is
North and West?
But not South.
I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.
I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket?
Gone up North,
Gone out West,
Read this book.
It doesn’t matter what part of the country you came from or in what part of the country you currently reside. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. You can only be better for the reading of it.
As I said, I'm still trying to get my head around it all. It has made a profound impression and has touched me at the deepest levels.
27 December 2010