I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom. —Richard Wright
Talking with Isabel Wilkerson last week about the black diaspora put a lot of things in perspective. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning N.Y. Times bureau chief and former Oak Park resident, is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns – The epic story of America’s Great Migration.
Sometime during World War I, African Americans started leaving the South, turning their backs on intolerable injustice and violence, heading North, figuring anything had to be better than their previous lives. The migration lasted over 50 years and relocated some six million people, who ended up in northern, eastern and western cities. Today, more African Americans live in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi (I’ve also heard there are more Polish Americans here than anywhere except Warsaw).
Most African Americans in this area are only a few generations removed from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states. They came looking for better lives. They didn’t always find them.
But the story of injustice isn’t what I’ve been thinking about. I’m more interested in how the Great Migration transformed this country and forced it to come to terms with race and the legacy of slavery.
If slavery is this nation’s original sin, then racism has punished both sides of the divide. Overcoming racism remains our unfinished business. Until World War I, 90 percent of African Americans were stuck in the South, treated like inmates. The migration was this country’s largest prison break. They could no longer be ignored.
In the process, three streams of migrants (East, Midwest and West) set off a cultural explosion that transformed our sports, music, literature, and theater. It’s a remarkable story, a very American story. It is probably our most inspiring story. The experiences of black migrants were very similar to those of immigrants from other countries who were moving into our cities at the same time. That convergence, predictably, caused tremendous societal tension and explains the virulent racism many of us grew up witnessing in Marquette Park, Cicero and elsewhere. The newcomers were, in effect, struggling against one another for a foothold on the ladder to social acceptance. Their “otherness” made them fear one another, and African Americans had the extra disadvantage of irrational prejudice against their skin color.
But as Wilkerson notes in our interview (see page one), “They were the same people.” They had much more in common than anyone realized at the time. They were all migrants. They knew what it was like to pull up stakes and start over in a strange land. It’s a tragedy, Wilkerson says, that social and economic barriers prevented them from getting to know one another.
Some of this has changed, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the black minority and a slowly evolving white majority. And, yes, Oak Park played a small, but very positive role in that story.
We are the same people.
As it happens, I have my own Great Migration story to tell. Beatrice Little, the woman (saint really) who takes care of my mother these days, and who has been connected to our family for a half century, moved to Chicago from Panola, Ala., as a very young girl in 1929 (Panola comes from the Choctaw word for “cotton”). Bea was so young, in fact, she has no memories of her mother, Aurelia, who died in childbirth, shortly after they arrived. What’s more, the family had no photos, so Bea has never seen a picture of her own mother. Her only clue is that older family members said Bea’s daughter, Sharon, closely resembles her.
That story offers a glimpse of what some Americans went through to find a better life. On Friday, I heard the news that Bea’s grandson and his wife (who is Hispanic), are expecting their first child.
We are the same people.
African Americans are justly proud of their struggle for equality. All Americans should be proud of those efforts. It is the most American story ever told. All of us, no matter how removed, have the migrant experience in our family lore. Some have been established much longer than others, but all have at least some acquaintance with what it took to get here.
We are the same people. We live under the same sun. Someday, we will all bloom in its warmth.