#5 – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (My Top Ten 2020 Reads)

This book is a brilliant work of history. That said, it is not just an epic history of the Great Migration, it is a heart moving and tear jerking tale of amazing people. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through three who moved from the South to the North: Ida Mae Gladney in the 30s, George Starling in the 40s and Richard Pershing Foster in the 50s. Each story is similar and different. We follow Ida Mae to Chicago, George to New York and Foster to Los Angeles. We experience their triumphs and heartbreaks. By the time we bid them farewell, I almost shed a tear.

One thing I’ve heard a good many people say in the last few months, as our country reckons with its unjust history, is that we didn’t learn about this stuff in school. I never recall learning about the Great Migration. Instead, American history is told as one of constant progress, with high points at the Civil War and Civil Rights. Its more complex, topsy-turvy and sad than that.

It is sad because, as you read along and cheer for these folks, you join them in their own disappointment when the North does not live up to its promise. They all experienced racism in some capacity in the North, reminding us that the line between good and evil was not drawn at the Mason-Dixon Line. That said, none of these characters regretted moving North where they certainly had more opportunity.

Within these stories, Wilkerson masterfully weaves historical points, discussing the obstacles black people faced in housing in the north. As blacks moved in, whites fled to the suburbs. Yet, she also overturns some stereotypes: for example, rather than blacks coming north and ruining the cities (as has been thought over the years), the evidence is that those who moved north were not just more highly educated than those who stayed, but even more highly educated than those already in the north. By the end, there is a generational disconnect as those who were born in the north do not, in the eyes of their parents who migrated, understand or appreciate the courage and sacrifice it took to move.

All that to say, this is both an inspiring and sad story. Its also a necessary story. We need to know the real history of America, not the mythology that has been taught to most of us. Books like this one are brilliant.

Honorable Mention – The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist.

There are lots of myths that float around about slavery in American history. Actually, “float around” is too vague – there are lots of myths that are promoted and believed by way too many people. I have gotten into arguments with people who declare the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather states rights. Yes, I often reply, states’ rights to OWN SLAVES!

One lesson I learned in this fantastic and detailed book is that my reply has often been too vague. It was not merely owning slaves which led to war, it was the desire of the south to expand slavery. I recall first learning this in other books (such as James MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom), but it really clicked as I read here. There was no future for America divided between slave and free. Slave owners wanted their right to property to be ensured wherever they went. This would mean a slave owner could bring his slaves and continue to reduce people to property, in any state.

Ironically, the “states’ rights” argument falls apart when it is realized that actually, it was the rights of northern states to be free that was under attack.

There is a lot more in this dense history of slavery. Baptist shows that, again in contrast to often accepted ideas, slavery was not a more inefficient form of labor than free labor. Slavery would not just have petered out and ended. Instead, slavery is the foundation of the modern capitalist world. Slaves produced the cotton that fed industries on both sides of the Atlantic. Northern factories as well as British ones benefited from the enslavement of humans.

Perhaps a connection could be made to human trafficking and sweatshops that are largely ignored today but which are at the root of our consumerist, capitalist society. That’s another book…

This book, as I said, is dense. There were sections when Baptist got into the weeds of economics where I felt a bit lost. But overall, this seems to be the sort of book that, if you are an amateur interested in history and you want to develop a decent understanding of American history and slavery, you need to read.

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