I finally finished The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson last week and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The Great Migration is such an important (and much overlooked) part of American history. So many individual stories of leaving gathered together into a movement that changed America. Isabel Wilkerson has taken apart the movement and bundled it back together by the individual threads that lead out of the oppressive South. It is a masterful work of storytelling that is also a history lesson.
Since finishing the book, I have started following the author on twitter (@isabelwilkerson) and she frequently tweets about prominent African-Americans whose lives were influenced by the Great Migration. (It’s amazing how she is able to summarize someone’s migration story in 140 characters!)
This poem by him about the violence towards African-Americans in The South is a stunning example of his ability to paint a scene you can’t bear to watch. You want to look away, but you can’t. He doesn’t let you.
I think it’s important to remember that these are the scenes, the dark nights that planted the seeds of The Great Migration in the hearts of men and women alike. How many horror stories does one man have to hear before he says to himself, As for me and mine, we are leaving.
Between the World and Me
by Richard Wright
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….