As we put a wrap on 2014 and Americans have begin to engage, fitfully and fractiously as always, the black / white racial divide in the country I would like to recommend three books to everyone who lives in the US. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (reviewed here, here and here), James Loewen’s Sundown Towns (reviewed here and here), and the Chicago Tribune Staff’s American Millstone: An Examination of America’s Permanent Underclass (reviewed here).
In brief, I think it is difficult to understand contemporary black / white race relations without some shared understanding of the 20th century, and these three works offer engaging, readable presentations that anyone with a high school reading level can enjoy. I briefly describe each below.
Wilkerson structures her book by focusing on detailed personal accounts of a handful of people she interviewed extensively for the book, making the experience of The Great Migration come to life. Those narratives are supplemented by hundreds of additional interviews she conducted, and she inserts segues that provide the macro-historical circumstances and setting that shape the lives she reports. The book induced in me the full range of human emotions, and though I felt I knew the broad contours of The Great Migration, nonetheless taught me much.
Loewen’s book is one of those that left me thinking “How did I not know about this? How do we not all know about this?” The answer, of course, is that human beings do not celebrate their ignominious moments. Loewen uses the US Census to demonstrate that a few decades after the Civil War African Americans had spread throughout the United State, with black families living in every county. He then documents how, between 1900 and ~1950 white folks used violence and the threat of violence to drive black folks out of most counties in the US (outside of the deep south). The book focuses on the state of Illinois, and documents a number of towns where African Americans have been welcome during the sunlight hours, so that they could work in peoples’ businesses and homes, so long as they did not let “the sun set on their black ass,” as some might phrase it. The book demonstrates that though they did not participate in slavery, the European immigrants who moved into the US during the Twentieth Century brought with them the racist attitudes toward Africans so popular in Europe, and moved seamlessly into the racist culture of post-slavery US. It also demonstrates, along with Wilkerson’s work, that while Jim Crow is strongly associated with the Southern states in the US, the broader attitudes, and especially housing discrimination, occurred nation wide, and throughout the country, absent coordination, white civic leaders created the same “solutions” to the “problem” of racial integration made possible by the end of slavery. Sundown Towns lacks the uplifting stories one finds in Other Suns, and many readers will find they prefer to skim, rather than read it closely. Nevertheless, it is a vitally important book, and I for one feel that discussions about the black / white racial divide cannot reasonably occur among folks unfamiliar with this nationwide phenomenon that helped shaped the United State into which those alive today were born.
I have not read this book. Rather, I read the articles collected within its covers as they were published, throughout 1985, in the Chicago Tribune. I remember thinking, as I read them, that race relations would improve in Chicago: white folks (the Tribune was the white collar newspaper, more widely read in the white suburbs than the tabloid Sun Times) would come to understand that while, yes, in America any given individual’s opportunities are less bound by birth into family X, Y or Z than they are in any other country on earth, there are very real and very large differences between the typical opportunities available to children born to white families in suburban Chicago than to black families in urban Chicago. Life experience led me to learn that a series of articles in the daily newspaper could change a given person’s understanding of social processes, constraints, and life course chances, but not impact the great majority of folks who read that paper.