The biggest underreported story of the 20th century
“Between 1915 and 1918,” Jill Lepore wrote on September 6 in the New Yorker Magazine,
five hundred thousand blacks left the south; 1.3 million between 1920 and 1930. They drove; they hitched rides; they saved till they could buy a train ticket. They went to cities, especially Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. They fled Jim Crow, laws put on the books after Reconstruction… Before the Great Migration, ninety per cent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, forty-seven per cent lived someplace else. Today, more African-Americans live in the city of Chicago than in the state of Mississippi.
Isabel Wilkerson, realizing that the generation of Americans who lived under Jim Crow won’t be around much longer, set out to talk to them… She interviewed more than twelve hundred people, from all over the country. “I hung around playgrounds; I hung around the street, the bars… I went into hundreds of buildings and just knocked on doors… I’d sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could…” Her book [The Warmth of Other Suns] is the story of three lives, told, really, as an act of love.
The questions of social scientists (What is the structure of poverty?) and of policymakers (How can this be fixed?) are not Wilkerson’s questions… This is narrative non-fiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.
In my malnourished life – chronically, cyclically sapped of skill and energy, wisdom and esprit, and money – this is where my generosity lies; this is how I show my love. I hush, and listen. Like Peter Hessler (April 29), I have found that many Americans are great talkers, but they don’t like to listen.
At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. [But] in a small town, people asked very little of an outsider – really, all you had to do was listen… Once when I visited my parents in Missouri, I took a shuttle bus from the airport, and the driver was South Carolinian with a huge white beard that tumbled across his chest like snowdrift… He talked non-stop for 120 miles…