History is dotted with stories of communities who were forced by people or circumstances to migrate from the land that they inhabited and move to a new place. One such occurrence, a historical event, is The Great Migration as told by Isabel Wilkerson in the book The Warmth of Other Suns. In her book, Wilkerson narrates the exodus of millions of African Americans from the Southern States of the U.S to the North, East and West U.S cities in pursuit of freedom and better living conditions. According to Wilkerson, the African American population in the Southern states had faced a significant challenge as they were subjected to oppression, subservience, inequality, and racism. The oppression of the African Americans in the Southern states made them begin escaping to the North where they hoped to find more job opportunities, less abuse, and better living conditions. The millions of migrants who escaped to the North would, however, realize that life there was not much different from their life in the South. Some of the problems that made these populations escape from the South American towns persist to the present day and include racial discrimination and migration for labor.
The end of the American civil war heralded the end of slavery, which was rampant in the South. Consequently, the white ruling class, in an attempt to maintain a superior status than the colored people, legislated Jim Crow. The Jim Crow was a set of laws that banned all social integration of members of the black population with the whites. The new laws introduced separate streetcars, different library sections for different races, and even separate Bibles for use in courthouses. The Jim Crow spread from Georgia into all the states in the South and has been cited as the cause for the high migration. Between 1891 and the 1960’s more than six million African Americans had moved from the South to the North, West and East cities of Chicago, Network, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Upon migrating to the North, the African Americans faced multiple challenges including lack of shelter, poor working conditions and a rise in xenophobic attacks by the resident populations. Initially, the number of new migrants was low but increased from 1910 to 1920. The black population of Philadelphia rose more than fivefold; Detroit saw a six-fold rise, New York, and Chicago had a 66% and 148% increase respectively. Similarly, the number of black workers in these cities increased significantly. Most of the migrant workers would invite their families from down South to join them leading to the significant rise in black population in the Northern cities.
The rise in the population in the cities caused a strain on the social amenities that were available. The black migrants competed for the available job vacancies with the white residents. The competition resulted in a reduction of the wages offered by the employers. Additionally, there was a shortage of appropriate housing and most of the migrants had to live in substandard shacks. The poor living conditions and the unavailability of affordable health services led to serious health complications for the black population. The black population had fled from harsh living conditions in the South and ended up facing even greater health challenges in the North. The poor health services, combined with poor living conditions and long working hours resulted in many deaths of the black migrants. As more migrants moved to the North, house rent continued to rise and became unaffordable for many blacks.
Another challenge that the black migrants faced was racism and prejudice from the white population. The North was segregation-free, but the black migrants found it difficult to obtain services from the white residents. Firstly, most of the comfortable housing estates were owned or managed by white people. The white house owners deliberately refused to lease their houses to the black population. White people who bought houses in the white neighborhoods also had to commit themselves not to sell the same to the blacks if they were to move. Additionally, there was a rising uneasiness by the white population against the increasing populations of black immigrants that resulted in xenophobia and violence. A white supremacist gang called the Ku Klux Klan began widespread attacks against the black people. The worst violence occurred in Chicago resulting in 38 deaths, 537 injuries and the destruction of more than 1000 houses belonging to black people.
Despite the myriad of challenges that faced the African American immigrants after they moved to the North, Wilkerson opted to tell the story from three different fronts using three separate individuals. Wilkerson describes Ida Mae Gladney’s migration from Mississippi to Chicago and her relative success as a blue-collar worker. Mae and her family had left behind a life of sharecropping in the South and traveled to the North seeking higher quality life and freedom from racial prejudice. She succeeded in finding blue collar work, just like millions of other migrants and lived a communal life in a black dominated neighborhood. Mae’s challenges in the North mirrored those of millions of migrants who could not find well-paying white-collar jobs or afford to buy homes in the expensive areas. Mae’s hometown also changes from a middle class to a low-end ghetto where crime is prevalent as indicated by the high number of drug peddlers in the streets. Mae and her neighbors were able to change the society through their culture, food and music. Similarly, Mae plays a role in the political realignment of the North by voting for Barack Obama as senator for Illinois, and thus setting him on the path to becoming the first black U.S president.
Contrastingly, Wilkerson tells the story of George Starling, who escaped from Florida to Harlem to escape possible lynching for organizing farm workers to boycott work. Starling had dropped out of college after he couldn’t raise enough money. George took the Silver Meteor and went to New York. George could only find a job as a porter at the Silver Meteor despite his good academic background but appreciated that the civil movement would create better opportunities for future generations. For George, however, life in the North was better than he would have expected in Florida.
The final protagonist in Wilkerson’s book is Robert Foster from Louisiana. Foster was born in a middle-class family and educated in the best black college. His parents, however, did not want him to work in the small town and therefore sent him to Los Angeles. Foster became a very successful surgeon but did not want to be associated with the South. His disassociation with his Southern history is so profound that it prevents him from enjoying the opportunities available in his life.
The three main characters in Wilkerson’s book represent the millions of African American migrants who moved to the North during the Great Migration. Firstly, all the three protagonists had reasons that compelled them to migrate. The reasons included the pursuit of better economic opportunities in the case of Foster and an escape from death by George. Mae and her family left the South to escape oppression by the employer. Wilkerson deliberately selected the three characters to represent the multifaceted causes of the Great Migration. Similarly, all the three main characters left the South and headed to the North, West and East for Mae, Foster and George respectively. The three of them also left the South at different times, Mae’s family leaving in 1937, George in 1945 and Foster in 1951.
By carefully selecting a set of different dates for the three main characters, the author manages to depict the conditions that existed in the South at different times during the Great Migration. Similarly, the author selects the participants who were headed to different cities and, therefore, manages to capture the conditions that awaited the African American migrants in the various cities.
The Great Migration caused the introduction of new cultures, foods, religion and political movements in the North. A good example is the rise of Harlem culture in the New York City. The Harlem culture was initiated by the black migrants in the white-dominated New York City residential areas. The Harlem movement introduced new culture and language and became very famous when the population of the blacks in New York City increased to more than 200000 in 1920. The increase in black migrants to the North resulted in their political activism that led to the election of black representatives. The civil rights movement and the election of Barack Obama as the first U.S black president are two significant events that have been attributed to the Great Migration. The Great Migration increased the number of African Americans in the Northern states and hence gave them greater political opportunities. The Southern states have historically practiced white dominance while the rest of the states, especially those in the North are more politically tolerant. The departure of millions of blacks from the South and their subsequent registration as voters in the North denied the South its previous political dominance.
In conclusion, Wilkerson manages to demonstrate that the Great Migration had significant social, economic and political impact on the whole of the U.S despite its limited coverage by the historians. The stories of George, Mae, and Foster also indicate that the migrants achieved different fortunes in the North, some were successful, some failed and yet others just scraped through their lives. The book is a comprehensive representation of the Great Migration and the effects it had on both the migrants and the resident communities. Based on the milestone political achievements of the black population due to the Great Migration their geopolitical influence can be expected to rise further. The U.S is a global superpower that affects economic and political decisions in many of the world’s countries. An increased global political and social influence by the African Americans can be expected as they attain a higher political status in the U.S. Similarly, the increase in the population of the African Americans leads to their occupation of influential military career positions. Considering the rising influence of the black community, and the U.S having already elected a black president, the world might also get its first black pope soon.
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