It’s important to me at all times of the year to be reading about a culture that makes up half of the town I live in here in Arkansas, but especially during Black History month, I try to introduce some new aspect of African-American history at the Chino House.
This year we are looking at Great Migration books.
This fall, my aunt recommended The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is a sweeping history of the many decades that cover the Great Migration told in a beautiful narrative.
Countless personal stories that came from Wilkerson’s personally interviewing over 1200 people make up the shape of the book. They are held together by three main characters whose journeys make up the bulk of the narrative: Ida Mae Gladney, who moves from Mississippi to Chicago, George Starling, who fled Florida for Harlem, and Robert Foster who left Louisiana and ended up in California.
Less than halfway in, I am already deeply invested in where the individual migrations of these three are taking them.
Between 1915 and 1970, it is estimated that 6 million black citizens left the South in search of a better life. The author has set out to give us a broader picture of this historical event.
from the introduction:
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable–what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
These paintings were my first introduction to the Great Migration. I saw them at a special exhibition during the years we lived in Chicago. I remember being captured by them for hours.
So I was excited to see them put into a book for children. The story begins in the South in cotton fields and ends in the city in the North, where, though there is more freedom, life is still not easy for the migrants.
I love the paintings of families gathered to discuss what to do, of groups of people traveling with only what they could carry and of railway stations packed with black Americans full of hope.
And the migrants kept coming.
Theirs is a story of African-American strength and courage. I share it now as my parents told it to me, because their struggles and triumphs ring true today. People all over the world are still on the move, trying to build better lives for themselves and for their families.
God Bless the Child is a picture book interpretation of Billie Holliday’s famous song by the same name. Illustrator Jerry Pinkney tells the story through pictures of a family that moves from the rural South to the urban North during the Great Migration.
Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations are so beautiful.
You can feel the family’s camaraderie through these images.
Isabel Wilkerson refers to Richard Wright as the bard of the Great Migration. She opens her book with this quote from his poem that also gave her the title of her book. These few lines tell so much about this period in our nation’s history.
I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown…
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant in alien soul,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns,
And perhaps, to bloom.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! Every year on this day, I honor in my heart those who have fought to make this country better for African Americans and I grieve the shameful history of the South, a place I have long loved.
Yesterday, at church, our pastor preached the Gospel that is for all people, that in Jesus we would all be reconciled to God and to one another. Every year I hope we get a little closer to that reality.