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Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson 2010)

Rating: 4/5

In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities from World War I through 1970. She follows Ida Mae Gladney’s journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the 30’s, George Starling’s journey from Florida to New York in the 40s, and Dr. Robert Foster’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 50s. With these three stories (and some shorter accounts of others), Wilkerson describes the larger movements of a massive and yet relatively-little discussed movement of people.

Five million African-Americans moved north during the Great Migration; the 1850s California Gold Rush drew 100,000 west and the 30s Dust Bowl migration brought 300,000 west. African Americans across the south moved north, drawn by jobs and hope, pushed by discrimination and fear. Detroit went from 1.4% black to 44%; the Great Migration reshaped the racial and cultural landscape of the country, north and south.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I haven’t read a lot of black history. Between the prominent racial stories of St. Louis (my hometown) and the nation in the last few years, it felt like time to do some catch-up. Most of my friends and family have read less black history than me. It’s strange that race relations, a topic that garners so much discussion, is understood with so little depth by so many.

THE GOOD

The Great Migration is a massive amorphous movement of 5 million people from one large region of the country to another across two generations. Wilkerson captures much of the diversity of this movement in her three subjects. They have different education levels and travel to and from different places at different times. The Warmth of Other Suns is a story of people that made tough choice to leave what they knew hoping to improve their lives and their children’s lives. We follow Ida Mae, George, and Robert from childhood to death, and we get to see their successes and failures. Wilkerson augments these anecdotes with the statistics of the other millions.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates the depravity of the Jim Crow south in a way that many histories tend to avoid. Ida Mae describes how young men dangled her over a well when she was five; she knew that, if dropped, she would never have been found. George Starling fled Florida after a friend overheard plans of his murder when he organized the orange pickers. Arrington High was institutionalized in an insane asylum for exposing white politicians that patronized a colored brothel; after two years he was smuggled north in a coffin. Separate but equal was a blatant sham; a Louisiana superintendent said, “the money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children. We have twice as many colored children… as we have white… Colored children are mighty profitable to us.” Wilkerson compares blacks moving north to those that fled the Soviet Union. She notes how the migration ebbed after the Civil Rights movement dismantled the worst of Jim Crow.

Blacks continued to face hardships after moving north. In Chicago, blacks were restricted to tiny portions of the city, whose sub-standard housing grew crowded and expensive. Race riots erupted in many of the northern cities. This passage about Jesse Owens lays bare the hypocrisy quietly hiding in the north:

It made headlines throughout the United Staes that Adolf Hitler, who had watched the races, had refused to shake hands with Owens, as he had with white medalists. But Owens found that in Nazi Germany, he had been able to stay in the same quarters and eat with his white teammates, something he could not do in his home country. Upon his return, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York. Afterward, he was forced to ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still had bussing to enforce desegregation when I attended school. St. Louis went from 6.4% black in the 1910 census to 40.9% in the 1970 census. I never realized that the white flight that created my suburbs was driven by migration. After all, Missouri was a slave state, I assumed blacks had always been a part of the city. Reading about the Great Migration led me to look at my own community differently. Who hasn’t heard political discussion of the ghetto, of black poverty, of wealth inequality and racially disparate criminal justice outcomes? These discussions usually center on northern cities, and the Great Migration and the forces that drove it created those communities. It’s tempting to view black history as separate history, but it obviously isn’t.

When we understand what happened 50 years ago, we are better able to understand what happens today. A black boy was tortured to death in front of his father for sending a girl a Christmas card. The man who publicized this murder, Harry T. Moore, was murdered when his home was bombed in 1951. This is not ancient history. And yet, by the reaction to Black Lives Matters, there are many who bristle at the idea that blacks still face systematic obstacles.

THE BAD

The last hundred pages were weaker. The first part told me about a movement with a scope I didn’t know, driven by evil I hadn’t fully realized. The last hundred pages narrow to cover the last decades of the three subjects. Wilkerson makes fewer connections to the larger world here. Ida Mae, George, and Robert felt so grounded, the representatives of millions in the first 400 pages of the book. In the last 100 pages, they float unconnected from demographics and national forces. As people, well, they’re not that interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect the past and the present.

OVERALL

The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story. It’s the fight for the American Dream; African Americans trekked north in their own country instead of crossing an ocean to a new country. Unlike my Czech ancestors, they couldn’t shed their otherness, either in the north or the south. They weren’t allowed to. This shapes our cities and communities.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates a huge demographic shift through individuals. The Great Migration stirred our national culture. Michelle Obama, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were all children of the Great Migration. It deserves its place in the American legend along with the Oregon Trail, Route 66, pioneers, and other tales of self-determinism and bravery. The Warmth of Other Suns does a good job toward that end.

Book review: Death in the Haymarket (James Green 2007)

Rating: 5/5

James’ Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America tells the tale of the Haymarket Affair. The introduction gives a peek into the morning of May 5, 1886, the day after the eponymous Haymarket Affair, a bombing that killed seven police officers. The first chapter begins after the death of Lincoln in 1865. We follow the labor movement in Chicago for the next twenty-one years, through massive change and upheaval. Chicago more than quadrupled in size during this time period, burned in 1871, and went through two depressions. Immigrants composed more than 40% of the population during this time, and the industrial revolution led to capitalization and massive changes in labor practices.

Death in the Haymarket contains a lot of startlingly relevant themes: police brutality, terrorism, income inequality, xenophobia, protests that sometimes contain violence, political corruption, and economic turmoil. Interpretations of the Haymarket Affair have swung wildly more than once since they occurred 130 years ago. The Haymarket bombing was the first red scare (at this time, referring to anarchists rather than communists); four men were hung for their connections to the event. Green presents a humanizing thought-provoking narrative that suggests his sympathy to the men of the 1880s labor movement, but gives the reader plenty of tools to come to other conclusions.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I didn’t know anything about the labor movement. I certainly like my 40 hour work week and my safe working conditions, but I didn’t know how they came about. Haymarket doesn’t get into those details, but it certainly demonstrates what a long and bloody fight it was.

Between criticisms of teachers unions, passage of right-to-work legislation, and the increase of anti-employee policies like contractor status and cuts to benefits, we are seeing the erosion of some accomplishments of the labor movement. I knew that people were once passionate about these issues. I wanted to step back into that time. Haymarket fulfilled this goal.

THE GOOD

There’s a lot of great stuff to say about Haymarket. It tackles a boatload of complicated topics in a modest 320 pages. It introduces compelling and exciting characters, heros and villains and a lot of in between. It practically follows a novelistic arc; we begin with the optimism of the post Civil War labor movement, followed by political engagement, the suppression of that engagement by monied interests, the radicalization of the movement, the tragedy of police brutalities and slaughters at protests, the retaliation through terrorism, closing with further suppression following the bombing, and regrouping.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through individuals; my favorites were Lucy and Albert Parsons. Albert was orphaned a young age, raised by an enslaved woman, and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War at the age of 15. After the war, he went to Texas as a Republican enacting Reconstruction. There, he married Lucy, who appears and was believed to be African American; she always maintained that she was Native American. Albert worked for a printing press in Texas. Albert lost his job and faced violence numerous times fighting for the rights of freed slaves in Texas. Eventually, he moved to Chicago and fought for the rights of workers. He and Lucy became famed speakers. Lucy continued for over 50 years.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through the immigrant communities; Chicago in the late 1800s was second only to Prague in quantity of Bohemians. My great-grandfather came to this country from Bohemia in the early 1900s and became a coal miner in southern Illinois. These battles affected him. We know nothing of him other than the vague strokes of tragedy that made it to the public records; he was widowed, gave up his children around the time he was declared insane, and died shortly thereafter. Haymarket describes wage earners being slowly squeezed to death in a dehumanizing machine of class warfare. These were the vices that led men to face death for better working conditions.

Haymarket made me wonder how many families suffered tragedies like our family. It made me grateful for what I have today. It was a cautionary tale for how very far there is to fall.

THE BAD

Haymarket introduces a dizzying array of characters. I couldn’t keep track of them all. We meet politicians, police officers, German anarchists, American anarchists, various socialists, wives, rich men, judges, writers and more. Green creates such good characters, and I was annoyed to keep forgetting. A reference would have be really helpful.

Secondly, I found the early chapters spent in the 1860s and 1870s less interesting. They mostly didn’t contain the characters that occupied the later chapters. Although they were really helpful for context later on, they were slow for me.

Finally and most substantially, Green carefully tells how perception of the Haymarket Affair morphed with time, swinging back and forth a couple of times. But although Green is clear about his own contemporary feelings of the events, he does not give voice to other contemporaries. Is Green’s opinion the widely held one? If not, what faults does Green suggest in the evaluations of his contemporaries? We learn that the event is still fraught enough with symbolism that commemoration of the Haymarket Affair remains thorny today. But we also learn that the “Chicago Martyrs,” the men hung for the Haymarket Affair, are still remembered by laborers around the world. Part of understanding an argument is the refutation of counter-arguments; this is absent in Haymarket.

OVERALL

This is a solid, well-written book about a topic you probably don’t know well. As our country debates over the relationship between employer and employee, this glimpse into the past offers insight into today’s arguments. Haymarket is an exciting nonfiction read with a great set of characters and a strong sense of place.