Friday, July 29, 2016

Other Suns and the Illusion of History

It was impossible to drive across the country without thinking of Isabel Wilkerson's masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns, a stunning telling of the story of the Great Migration.

Wilkerson weaves numerous threads together (including those of her own life) and shifts effortlessly between close focus and the larger picture, but the book revolves around the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling, and Pershing Foster, as each of them makes their own personal journeys. The Great Migration was an unprecedented shift of population in this country and, as Wilkerson says, "it was the first big step the nation's servant class ever took without asking."

I won't try to capture the entire book, but I will share some of what hit me when reading it.

Some were simple factoids. The first Jim Crow law? Passed in Massachusetts.

Some of it echoes our present. Foster's parents were educators, and the picture of black schooling in the South is brutal. For instance, on the matter of financing schools:

"The money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children," a local school superintendent in Louisiana said bluntly. "We have twice as many colored children of school age as we have white, and we use their money. Colored children are mighty profitable to us."

And perhaps most striking and effective because of Wilkerson's thoroughness, is the ordinary everydayness of the racism these people lived through.

Travel always makes me think of the book because of Foster's story. At one point, this educated physician sets out to drive cross country, heading out West to create a new life, and the simple business of trying to find a place to eat or a hotel in which to stay is an insurmountable challenge. It's such a simple thing for a man to drive up to a hotel or motel and get a vacant room, but it's a simple comfort that is denied him. When my wife and I traveled, one of the things we could take for granted was the ability to get a room or some food wherever they presented themselves. I think of Dr. Foster, turned away from room after room, and I am angry that such crap happens, ever happened at all.

Foster's story also quietly rebukes the notion of meritocracy. Foster does everything that is supposed to get ahead. He gets an education, he does good work, and he is still defined and limited by both individuals and the system because he is black.

The book pierces one of the great illusions of history. Often we look back and it seems that, well, that thing happened Way Back Then, but this is now, and somewhere in between there was a break, a jump, a change, and now we live in Other Times, cut free and disconnected from those earlier days.

But to really study history, we see this is not true at all. The Great Migration did not end until 1970, and the lives of these people did not end until decades after that, and yet the roots of their stories are in the slave days of America. Ida Mae Gladney came to Chicago eighty years ago, and yet was forced to settle in the same neighborhoods where black Americans are still held down today.

Perhaps my generation is more prone to say, "Well, you know, this country once had terrible racial problems, but now we're pretty much past all that." But Wilkerson patiently takes us essentially year by year from slave days to the present, checking each year, noting "Well, that break didn't happen this year. How about this year? No? Well, let's check the next one." Until the conclusion becomes inescapable. The break never happened, and racism and racial injustice stretch through US history in a long, unbroken line.

There is no big break in the road that leads us to the world where a major television commentator explains that the slaves who built the White House were really quite happy and fortunate. Or a world in which an entire schooling philosophy is built on, "What poor children of color need is an environment of strict discipline in which they learn to be obedient and compliant. That's the only thing that will work for Those Children." It's an illusion to imagine that there is some sort of gulf, some sort of tectonic plate shift that separates our present reality from our not-so-distant past, and a mistake to believe that the past can be ignored or dismissed, that it does not contain clues to the nature of our present and a better path toward our future.

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