A Tremendous Force of Will

A conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson


Left: Rukaiyah Adams, photo by Leah Nash photography. Right: Isabel Wilkerson, photo by Joe Henson

Isabel Wilkerson's best-selling book The Warmth of Other Suns tells the stories of a few of the nearly six million African Americans who, between 1915 and 1970, fled the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life. This spring, she spoke by phone with Rukaiyah Adams, a fourth-generation Oregonian whose family was part of this decades-long exodus known as the Great Migration. The two discussed the staggering scale of the Great Migration and its role in the civil rights movement. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

Adams: The fascinating thing about your book and your storytelling is that it involves places. I wonder, in thinking about rootedness and the ambitions of the great migrators, how important was place? What parts of their communities that they left did they replicate when they moved to Chicago or Cleveland or Los Angeles?

Wilkerson: To uproot a tree takes a tremendous amount of energy—force usually, hurricanes or strong winds and thunderstorms, is required to uproot a tree. So you think about what it's like for them to uproot themselves from the only place that they'd ever known to someplace far away that they'd never known, taking a huge leap of faith into the unknown and just hoping that they and their family and their children would be treated better.

     So for African Americans at the time the Great Migration began, 90 percent were living in the South, and by the time it was over, nearly half were living out in the rest of the country. That means that to uproot themselves from the only place that they had been—the primary, the ancestral homeland for African Americans in this country for as long as African Americans had been on this soil—took a tremendous force of will. And I think that that's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this book: to remind people of the fortitude and the will that it took to just uproot themselves. I'm fascinated by and so enamored of the term you're using: root. So that's part of it.
     Once they finally got out and then established themselves in these places, they had a tremendous sense of hopefulness, even though they didn't know how well they would be received, and their expectations were modest. This was their one chance at having the American dream in their lifetime. And so they ... were more forgiving of these new places than their children and grandchildren ultimately would become. Because they were using their agency—they were making the decision for themselves as to where they were going to be, for [the] first time in the country's history, they were making the decision on their own as to where they would live out their lives. That didn't mean that they didn't experience tremendous disappointment. They found that they were all corralled—really, quarantined—into overcrowded spaces that became highly segregated upon arrival. But at least they had made the decision for themselves. I wanted to just get to the rootedness of the people who were part of migration themselves.
     Then, when they got to these new places, they sought to replicate those aspects of the culture that they were able to recreate for themselves. So they sought out the food that they recalled from home that was basically their cuisine. Some of them would plant collard greens; some of them even had chickens in the backyard if they had a yard. They made the cornbread and looked for the ham hocks and the kinds of things that they had recalled from home. And that was one way to establish new roots in the place where they had relocated.
     They also would search out like-minded people, and it was not difficult to do, actually, because there were so many people who were migrating that they could settle into colonies, you might say, of people as a way of survival. And as I have relived this in working on this book, I have come to recognize that it was the strength of those ties and connections that allowed them to persevere in the way that they did. There were state clubs in most of these receiving stations, the cities of the North. So in Chicago, there were Mississippi clubs and Arkansas clubs, and in New York, as big as New York City is, there was the South Carolina club and churches where everybody was from some particular part of North Carolina. So they found ways to replicate that, to create and plant new groups in this new place that they had chosen for themselves.

Adams: I'm a descendant of the migrators. My great-grandmother, when she left Louisiana, moved our family farther north than California. So your story in the book tells the story of the migration west to California, but there's a whole other group of folks who moved north beyond California from Louisiana. But you mentioned something that was really interesting about the migrators exercising agency. That's such an interesting topic. I've seen a few posts that have been reposted of yours on Facebook about the great migrators basically seeking asylum—that they were escaping the violence of the Jim Crow South.
     But my great-grandmother, when she got older, shared her Bible with me. She carried it around her whole life, and I always thought that it was kind of sanctimonious, her way of expressing her Christian faith. It turns out when she was young she didn't have a journal, so over the course of her life she just wrote on top of the pages in her Bible with a pen.

Wilkerson: Oh, that's so beautiful.

Adams: My heart was just full in reading it. And she treated it like a journal. And so in the journal entries around the time that my family left Shreveport en route to Oregon—she was really one of the leaders of the group to make the decision to come to Portland—one of the things she said on the page was she just hoped that what she's doing would enable somebody in her family to have fresh air, to feel safe, to have a good education and meaningful work. Those were the four things that she imagined would happen in the future.
     My family left the South right as the traditional view of civil rights was just starting to pick up. And I've always wrestled with my identity as someone who grew up in the North and didn't understand why they would leave. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, we know how important that time in the American South was, but I thought, “Why would she ever leave the South knowing that her people were gearing up for one of the most important collective protests in human history?” And now I know after reading her journal that her ambitions were a form of protest that took years to be realized.

Wilkerson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Every migration is a referendum on the place that [people are] leaving. There's something wrong. There's something seriously wrong that would force people to uproot themselves. ... In some ways they were uprooting the entire family tree, because sometimes with whole families there'd be one person—such as your great-grandmother—who would get it started, who would set out first, almost like there were many Harriet Tubmans of the Great Migration who would go and try to bring back everybody. So you go to some of these small towns in the South, and there's hardly anyone from a particular family there anymore. It was a complete uprooting of entire family trees for some people.
     We look at the civil rights movement as a singular moment in time that some people will date, say, to the time of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks, segueing into Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine and Martin Luther King—that era from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, a ten- or twelve-year period of time that we might identify as the civil rights movement. But actually, when you think about the long arm of history, you realize that there have been protests all along. There have been people protesting from the time of enslavement. There are people who have been seeking to escape at great risk to themselves and their families. Obviously the penalties, the punishment, for trying to escape if you were an enslaved person were barbaric and hard to even imagine that another human being would do this to another human being. We have been exposed to the barbarity of the punishment against enslaved people when they sought to be free. That is also a part of the civil rights movement, you might say. And, of course, Plessy v. Ferguson, in which a man in Louisiana—your family's originating state—boarded a train in order to integrate, to challenge the growing move toward segregation throughout the South after Reconstruction. That was part of the civil rights movement, too. There had been civil rights legislation in the 1860s, not just the 1960s. The first … was after the Civil War had ended and it was clear that the Republicans—interestingly enough, it was the Republicans—who felt that there was a need to codify and to formalize the rights of the newly freed people.
     And so the idea of civil rights and the civil rights movement is a very, very long story. And I think that history, or the way that we have commercialized history, has done a disservice to the long-running human rights struggle that African Americans have been in the midst of and in the forefront of from the time of enslavement. We tend to be a country with short memories.
     So if you think about the history of African Americans in this country, 246 years of enslavement—246 years of enslavement—followed by nearly 100 years of the Jim Crow caste system, which was the follow-up—the mutation, you might say, of what enslavement had been, there was this very short window of time—of Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War—the time of so-called “freedom” was so short that African Americans had been hurled back to the kind of Jim Crow caste system I'm describing. And it was at that point when [for] African Americans the question that they—and a vast, vast majority of them were essentially being held hostage in the South—had to figure out was, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” So what did they decide to do? Sometimes the one thing you can do is to protest with your body. These people were protesting with the only thing that they had, which was their body. ...
     The Great Migration was a seminal, significant, integral part of this freedom movement, and it took everything to make it happen. And I don't know that the civil rights movement as we know it would have happened; it would have happened eventually, but we cannot say that it would have happened when it did had there been no Great Migration—had there been no advance guard to in some ways put so much pressure on the rest of the country to pay attention to protests that had been going on all along.

Adams: The other thing I'm wrestling with now is being the descendent of those people who were so brave in facing such uncertainty and uprooting. I'm in the generation that my great-grandmother envisioned a life for. I've had more equal access to education, I have clean air, I have meaningful work. So in the long arc of what is seeking the freedom of our people, I keep returning to her experience and her notes in her Bible, thinking this protest didn't end with her feet and her arrival in Oregon. What is the role that I play in this conversation? I watch what's happening in Flint and Ferguson and Baltimore. And there's protest in the streets, and at this point I think that the next wave of power is in owning and having the authority to set the agenda and to direct resources instead of petitioning morals or the law. That's something I'm wrestling with, that the protest didn't end with their arrival. That each one of us, in living out a fully, joyfully, powerfully black life, is the continuation of the statement that she was making. That I actually need to live the life that she imagined would be so great, and it turns out it's better than she imagined. My great joy that I'm the recipient of that amazing risk that she took—it stuns me.

Wilkerson: We all owe a great debt to those brave people who took that leap of faith into the unknown. Not only you as a direct beneficiary, but the country owes a debt to them because they suffered so much under the brutal regime of Jim Crow. They—without the help of outsiders, without depending upon anyone else—took the step on their own to exercise their own agency. They went into often unexpectedly hostile environments. They were often misunderstood, they were often dismissed and faced rejection in these places that they had so much hope in, and still they persevered and hoped that life might be better—if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren and further down the line. Despite the odds, they were able to make it a better place for their children and grandchildren to the degree that they could, only to see the country flip back in the current era that we're in. So it's a very complex interweaving of forces that leads us to where we happen to be right now.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

I am so thankful that Isabel has written this book. As the descendant of a migrant to Oregon, I previously had a gap in my education that leapt from Reconstruction straight the 1960's civil rights era. This book has bridged that gap in my understanding and makes me appreciate my grandparents courage even more.

H.Butler | June 2016 | Beaverton, Oregon

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