Isabel Wilkerson

Because we never grew cotton in this state, because we were admitted to the union 27 years after the 13th Amendment, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (new in paperback) might not seem to have much bearing on Seattle. In Isabel Wilkerson’s sweeping, humane, impeccably researched history, we merit only one passing reference as a city where—along with many others—residents celebrate Juneteenth Day to commemorate the end of the Civil War. But there would be no CD without that migration, no Jimi Hendrix, no Quincy Jones, no Ray Charles playing lonely gigs in a strange, damp land. No Norm Rice or Ron Sims. Nor the rededication of King County to a very different namesake. The forced mobility of African Americans was a direct result, after Lincoln and before LBJ, of a crumbling Southern agricultural “caste system” that sent six million migrants northward to Detroit, Philly, Harlem, and beyond. Wilkerson, a past Pulitzer winner for The New York Times, personalizes her grand project through three individual stories spanning different decades of the exodus. In a sense, she Oprahcizes history, but in a manner I thoroughly recommend. How heavy is a cotton bag? How terrifying is a lynching for a 10-year-old asked to help cut the rope the next morning? How humiliating to drink water run from the same pipe to separate spigots? The book is suffused with such narrative detail (composited from the experiences of many other interviewees), but always grounded in cruel economic logic. To go north was to face hardship, uncertainty, and subtler forms of discrimination. To stay meant subjugating oneself to a system where, a white woman once fretted, “If these Negroes become doctors and merchants or buy their own farms, what shall we do for servants?” BRIAN MILLER

Sun., Oct. 9, 7 p.m., 2011

 
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