This may have been the best meeting ever! 19 of us were there. There were several new people who came just because of this wonderful book. Not all had finished it, but all planned to do so. A couple had not yet started, but planned to read it. We all LOVED this book and recommend it highly to everyone.
Our group was very diverse and the stories in this extremely well researched history and the personal stories of three different people who left the South and moved to what was hoped to be a better life, affected us all in their universality.
Isabel Wilkerson, is the first Black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting. She has won many, many other awards for her writing and many for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. This book took fifteen years of research and over 1,000 interviews. Ms. Wilkerson is from Atlanta and involved her parents in her research, even having them accompany her in following the root of Dr. Robert Pershing Foster from the South to California. Dr. Foster's trip is one of the many stories in this book that brought some of us to tears.
Many of us thought we were knowledgeable of Black History, but found that even though many of us were young when major Civil Rights events happened, and, even though many of us had read extensively about Black History, we DIdn't Know Much About The Great Migration!
Two of our group are African American and the children or grandchildren of those who left the South. They learned much they didn't know. The stories of leaving the South and coming to difficult lives in the North or West, are so very personal and many who lived it don't talk about it. It is just too painful to remember. One of these ladies commented that she wished she knew the stories, but some who could tell her have passed on. She plans to ask some remaining members what they knew of those years.
Two women from India, one who has lived in England, Canada and The United States, discussed the prejudice they have endured and/or witnessed everywhere they have lived. One mentioned how college educated professionals have had to go to soup kitchens in Canada, because they could not find jobs. The other woman from India, a medical doctor who worked in rural, white, Appalachia and in the Deep South, spoke of the prejudice all round. It was gratifying to find that she was finally accepted by suspicious white and reluctant Blacks. It was noted also, that in some of the very rural communities, entire enclaves of Blacks disappeared, almost overnight, due to threats to their lives from white neighboring communities. This happened, not that many years ago!
Our leader, for the evening, did a wonderful job telling us about Isabel Wilkerson and getting us started by asking with which of the three migrants, Robert Pershing Foster, Ida Mae Gladney or George Swanson Starling, we most identified or with whom we felt the strongest connection. We went around the table and answered that question and added our general strong impressions of this book. The results of choosing our favorites of the three, were just about even!
People who chose Dr. Robert Foster, the person who seemed to be the most completely drawn by Wilkerson, liked him, because he seemed the most damaged by the rejection by Southern Institutionalized Racism. The Racism continued with even more rejection in the U. S. Army in Germany, where he was not allowed to care for white women, and by the society of California, white AND BLACK, BOTH!! Yet, he NEVER GAVE UP! His was such a human story, filled with horrible emotional pain in the midst of hard won, and socially and financially, upscale life.
People who chose Ida Mae Gladney loved her ability to weather all the adversity with love for everyone and without ever changing who she was. She stayed true to her Southern culture, keeping her accent, her wonderful cooking, raising her children, working long hours, bettering her family, enduring racism around her and the disintegration of her Chicago neighborhood into a dangerous drug dealing area. She is an inspiration to everyone.
The people who chose George Swanson Starling, noted that he would have been killed if he had not escaped from the South! The reason was that he stood up for fair wages for Black field workers. He never stopped working for the rights and safety of others. He was never able to get the education he always wanted, but worked hard his entire life for his family as a Pullman Porter. He helped many from the South, safely escape on the trains where he worked! While he had some flaws, is inner core was strove always for justice. Our knowing of his choices in adversity, encourages us to also step up when others need an advocate.
Every member of our group shared personal experiences. Many included the exact experience when they first understood that something "was not right" with our society. It was as if the scales of innocence fell from our eyes when we found out that an entire population of the United States was not allowed to function as the others.
The white leader of our group, who is from Oakland, shared that she met her African American husband in kindergarten. Her in-laws move to an affluent part of Oakland many years ago from Louisiana. The white community planned protests, but other members of the community joined together to stop the protest. Her in-laws still live in the same home.
Our leader also said that Berkeley schools were integrated when she was 7-years-old. Her family accepted integration and she has always been an activist in equal rights. She thought The Warmth of Other Suns is a masterpiece of history and storytelling. She felt uplifted when she read it. We all did!
People who grew up in Oakland seemed to be more aware of the Great Migration simply, because they met many people who came from many different parts of the South to work at Kaiser or other war factories during WWII and then stayed. The large contingent of Cajun Black people here was mentioned, because of Zydeco music. We noted the Blues and Jazz in Oakland, which are famous and a direct result of the migration to Oakland.
One member mentioned that she met Isabel Wilkerson at the 2010 World Affairs Conference and was most impressed with her. It was also pointed out that Dr. Robert Foster's daughter is a radiologist in Emeryville!
One other member told me after our meeting that our discussion "was one of the most satisfying and personally fulfilling discussions of a work of literature (and, like all great histories, it is definitely that)" he had ever experienced. He said that, "this book, and our discussion, will remain with me the rest of my life." He learned from people, "who speak from the heart about what each reading experience means to them." He said that Wilkerson is such a great story teller that she brought out stories from us.
An example of a few stories are, one member described what it was like as a Jewish family to move to a small town in Maine and feel the culture shock for herself, her family and the town. Another shared that in his "integrated" high school in the early '60s, the Black students were in the basement learning trades, while the white students were upstairs learning college preparatory subjects. Another talked about how the mid-60s were still not integrated in Baltimore. While working for the Social Security Administration, a staff diner deliberately excluded the few Black workers. The angry white friends had a hard time finding a place they could go with the excluded Black friends. One of our African American members mentioned that after her family moved to Oakland, it was many, many years before a Black family could move East of Broadway!
One member pointed out that "Evil is Insidious!" The example was the story where Dr. Foster, during his migration to the West was unable to find a motel which would let him stay. This happened after untold hours on the road without food, bathroom or sleep. In Arizona there was a wife of a motel owner who wanted to let him stay, but the husband pointed out that they would put their own lives/livelihood in danger if anyone from their community ever found out. Truly "no room in the Inn" and not even a barn with hay in which to stay.
We noted that the large migrations ended up at the terminus of a railroad line, one to Chicago, one to Washington, D. C. and others to California, as examples. We marveled that entire families had to actually escape as if they were still slaves! They had to secretly sell and give away their belongings, split up the families and take circuitous routes to a distant town's train station! That was more than 100 years after slavery ended! We noted also that many early Black leaders of social justice ended up murdered. Some such stories were new to us.
We pointed out that some of the very first non-Native American people to this country were Black and we were never taught this! One member who was the last to have a turn, read the final summary of Ms. Wilkerson to us, about the meaning of the three stories she chose to feature in this history. You could hear a pin drop. Many times during our discussion people were fighting back tears. This new history changed our knowledge and perspective for all time.
A Lakeview patron was so unhappy she missed this meeting, she asked if we recorded it, so she could listen to it. We might have to think about that in the future!
We look forward to another ground breaking history from Isabel Wilkerson and we are so thankful we could use this history as a springboard to share and learn from each other!
Lakeview Branch Library