In recent months there has been news of conflict over the removal of three statues of leaders of the Confederacy from public spaces in New Orleans. On Friday 5/19/17 Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a powerful speech about the need to deny the falsifications of history that are those statues and to embrace the phrase, e pluribus unum, from many we are one. The speech is well worth listening to (it is 23 minutes long):
There are two original sins in US history – the virtual elimination of Native Americans from the continent and the enslavement of millions of Africans. The former is largely invisible and unacknowledged in our daily lives. The latter, racism against African-Americans, continues to be pervasively present in many ways into the present. Neither is acknowledged in a truly meaningful way. Racism was present from the very earliest foundations of the country and continues to this day in a multitude of manifestations.
Only liberal whites could ever think that we had entered a post-racial phase with the election of President Obama. Most whites continue to deny the existence of racism or are active racists. And even in using this word “white” we encounter the shifting sands of racism in American history. Just a hundred years ago many of the people who now identify as white were not considered white by the ruling white elite. People of Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic and other European backgrounds not from the preferred northern European countries were excluded.1
The focus here is on racism and African Americans with particular attention to the creation of segregated America from the 1930s forward.
- see Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. New York: ACLS History E-Book Project, 2005. [↩]
Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s great migration,1 creates whole new planes of awareness of our history.
This book startled me to a new understanding of how encompassing and pervasive the Jim Crow laws and social rules of the South really were. Without much thinking on my part, I have always equated Jim Crow with images of separate water fountains, lunch counters, and schools, along with denial of voting rights. Included were images of lynchings and mob violence. Wilkerson’s work brings to life the real depth of the American system of Apartheid. These laws and social rules were so extensive as to lead to separate break times in factories so that whites and blacks would not even use a stairway at the same time.
This is the story of the six million African Americans who left the South for the North and West of the US between 1910 and WWII. Wilkerson builds her narrative of the main courses of this migration through the stories of three people leaving three different parts of the South, venturing to the three main destinations, NYC and the northeast, Chicago, and Los Angeles over three decades (teens through 40’s). Her overall research included interviews with over 1,200 people.
The stories do not end with the escape from the South. Wilkerson follows the stories as they unfold in their new environs. Here the transition from the oppressions of the South to the new realities of the north and west. No surprise the escape from the South did not mean an instant escape from racism institutionalized or otherwise. This part of the story is more familiar to a Northern urbanite.
This book, along with Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name – the re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII2 are compelling additions to understanding the history of racism in the US. Both are must reads.