This book brings to light the extent to which the Jim Crow laws were in fact part of a totalitarian system of government that ruled the South for more than seventy five years. How these laws came to be called Jim Crow by historians instead of “a system of racist oppression and exploitation” is a mystery. The fact that historians and school textbook writers adopted this term,which is derogatory in its basis, points to a shameful lack of focus on the facts of life in the South during the period between 1876 and roughly 1965. Worse it aided the systematic cover up of the actual functions of these laws and their impact on African-Americans. If the word Apartheid had been invented earlier this would also be a useful term.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s great migration, ((New York City, Random House 2010)) 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.