The Buzz: Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. This vast historical work was one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year.
The Gist: From 1900-1970, 6 million individuals and families left the American South and restarted their lives in northern cities. This exodus of African Americans from the oppressions of civil rights injustices had an immeasurable impact on shaping this country. Wilkerson masterfully tracks this massive migration as historical fact and through the life stories of three brave souls who made the journey. We witness the “immigrants'” desperation to leave an untenable situation and start a new life. We see the sweep of American history from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Jim Crow era, from the swelling of cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles to their subsequent segregation under the strain of rapid growth. Ultimately, we arrive at the Civil Rights era of the 60’s with a much clearer understanding of its genesis.
The Writing: Clear, fluid, engaging. Wilkerson tells this epic story flawlessly. By weaving the lives of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster into the historical context of causes and effects, Wilkerson keeps the reader riveted. She stays away from opinion and analysis and lets the facts and the people speak for themselves. Wilkerson clearly loves her subject, and that makes this book a pleasure to read.
Buy or Borrow?: Buy. This important work is the story of the American experience for 6 million souls who quietly and bravely sought a better life elsewhere. It’s also all of our story, because their migration changed our major cities and, therefore, significantly changed every part of America. For many of us who were taught 20th century history as points on a timeline (wars, movements, inventions, depressions and recessions, etc.), this book provides some necessary and enlightening gap-filling.
But for many of the migrants from the South, the stakes were especially high – there was no place left to go, no other refuge or other suns to search for, in their own country if they failed.