One Book Louisville — a community reading program sponsored by the Louisville Urban League and Louisville Free Public Library — has chosen the book “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. The program is challenging Louisvillians to read and discuss the selected book, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and join in the conversation, or to form their own One Book Louisville book discussion group. Click here for more information.
In Raleigh, N.C., court employees interrupted a trial in the 1940s because they could not find the Bible on which an African-American witness had to place his hand to swear to tell the truth. The Bibles for blacks and whites were exactly the same — but Jim Crow laws made sure whites would not be humiliated by being forced to touch the same Bible used by blacks.
At the same time in Birmingham, Ala., if you were caught playing checkers with a person of a different race you could go to jail — only if you were nonwhite, of course.
Laws in the South also prohibited African-Americans from passing white motorists — no matter how slowly the white motorist was driving.
Author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson said in Louisville recently that learning about these stories of the past can help Americans understand their their present.
This history of migration and the legacy of slavery and segregation continue to bleed into the public’s consciousness and stain race relations in modern America, Wilkerson said recently on the University of Louisville campus in a presentation sponsored by UofL’s Pan-African Studies department, the Center on Race and Inequality and the Louisville Urban League.
Acknowledging the country’s racial transgressions of the past can help Americans understand racial strife today, she said. “Our country is in this karmic moment of reckoning.”
Deaths of black Americans by white police officers — including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner in New York City; Tamir Rice in Cleveland — have prompted nationwide protests and birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. Louisville got drawn into the debate last summer when a white Louisville police officer shot a black Sudanese man who attacked the policeman with a flag pole. Late last year, police descriptions and media reports about youths at the Mall St. Matthews had racial overtones.
Residue from the past
Racial relations today remain stained by the residue of slavery and institutionalized racism, according to Wilkerson.
To a certain extent, that should not be surprising, she said, given slavery and segregation existed for nearly 200 years of the country’s history — and decades before the country’s founding — while equality, at least on paper, has existed for only 50 years.
And equality crept into America not out of the majority’s benevolence, but out of necessity: When Northern states suffered a labor shortage during World War I, they invited African-Americans to move from the South for better economic opportunities.
Before WW1, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, but by the 1970s, half lived elsewhere. Wilkerson said about 6 million African-Americans moved from the South into the North during that period, to escape a caste system that suppressed and suffocated them, made them work without receiving the benefits of their labor, and subjected them to unspeakable violence.
“This was about freedom, and how far people are willing to go to achieve it,” she said.
This migration north was the only time American citizens fled the place of their birth just so they could be recognized as the citizens they had always been.
“It was not a move. It was a defection. It was a seeking of asylum in their own country.”
Unfathomable loss to the country
It also marked the first time that many African-Americans had the opportunity to decide for themselves where they wanted to live and what professions they would pursue. The migration and new freedom affected all parts of society, from labor markets to sports and culture.
Think about the slaves, the workers in those rice and sugar plantations and the tobacco and cotton fields, Wilkerson told the audience of about 100. How many of them, if they had had a choice, would have been accountants, professors, lawyers, architects, surgeons, playwrights or opera singers?
Where would the country be if those people had been able to live according to their innate abilities — rather than their assigned ones?
“It’s almost unfathomable, the loss to our country,” she said.
The loss becomes clear when one follows the stories of the migrants: James Cleveland Owens, named J.C. for short, moved with his family from Oakville, Ala., to Cleveland in the 1920s. When a school teacher in Ohio asked him his name, he said J.C., but because of his Southern accent, she noted his name as “Jesse,” and the name stuck. Owens became a premier athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, significantly undermining Adolf Hitler’s notions of a superior Aryan race.
Without the migration, Ramah and George Wofford would not have moved from Georgia to Ohio, where their daughter Chloe Ardelia was allowed to borrow a book from the library and develop an interest in literature. Chloe Ardelia became known as Toni Morrison, who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, a Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Motown would not exist without the great migration, Wilkerson said. Neither would jazz: Saxophonist John Coltrane moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia in the 1943. Trumpeter and composer Miles Davis’ parents hailed from Arkansas. The family of jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk moved from North Carolina to New York in 1922.
Reactions to the book
Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League — co-sponsor of One Book Louisville — told IL she chose to challenge the community to read Wilkerson’s book because it conveys stories that every American should know.
“Wilkerson educates, moves, inspires and explains America,” Reynolds writes on the website of the Louisville Free Public Library, also a program sponsor. “She doesn’t make excuses, nor does she place blame. She simply tells the stories of real people.”
Ricky L. Jones, chair of Pan-African Studies at U of L, told IL that Wilkerson’s book tells stories that few have heard, and learning more about the struggles of the past can help bring the country together and prevent it from repeating mistakes.
Angelique Johnson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at U of L, said after the presentation that she especially enjoyed how Wilkerson weaves history into storytelling. The book opened her eyes to the complexity of today’s race relations and their far-reaching consequences.
Jalese Stone, a sophomore biology major with a minor in Pan-African studies, said Wilkerson’s determination to to write the book astounded her.
It took Wilkerson 15 years to finish the work, mostly because it took time for her to build trust with her sources, who initially were reluctant to tell their stories.
Kristina Messina, the public library’s programs coordinator, said the book contains a lot of information with which she was unfamiliar — even though she grew up in the South and had read other books on the topic.
Messina did not know, for example, about the migration’s scale and duration.
In particular, Messina enjoyed the author’s approach to telling the larger migration story by relaying personal experiences: “That’s what makes it the most interesting and compelling.”
The effort by One Book Louisville to raise the book’s local profile seems to have worked: All 15 books at the library were checked out late last week, and all 11 audio versions were unavailable as well.
After her presentation, Wilkerson told IL that in many ways the country remains segregated by custom and structure, which reinforces misunderstandings. It also helps explain the disconnect between the struggles of many minorities and some white people’s attitude that the country has moved into a post-racial era in which the only racism that remains is reverse racism.
Many people in the majority do not know people of color, Wilkerson said. That’s one of the great tragedies of the legacy of racism, that people who might have become best friends will never meet because of the country’s continued segregation. Whites, as the majority, are more likely than other races to go through every day without interaction with minorities, she said, in part because most public institutions are run by the majority.
According to Wilkerson, many people who were alive during the migration and who have read her book have told her it describes aspects of society that were unknown to them.
“We don’t have a commonly agreed history of what happened,” she said.
And a lot of research indicates people carry the baggage of the country’s history of racism with them, even subconsciously.
An African-American without a criminal record is less likely to get hired than a white person with a felony, the author said. Even people who say they believe in equality suffer from a subconscious bias. That means even well-meaning people act in ways that belie their beliefs because of the residual programming of the caste system.
“That’s what we’re up against,” she said. “It’s almost an invisible foe.”
However, learning about African-Americans’ struggles through the eyes of the people who went through them imparts a sense of empathy, Wilkerson said.
“It’s a powerful way to connect with another person’s experience.”