FROM THE ISSUEBUY AS A PRINTE-MAIL THIS
To report that story, Wilkerson became something of a one-woman W.P.A. project. Her research took more than ten years, and is not unlike another chunk of work done by the Federal Writers’ Project: documenting the history of slavery, before its memory faded altogether. In the nineteen-thirties, about a hundred thousand people who had once been owned by other people were still alive. Writers’ Project writers fanned out to find them, and collected two thousand life stories. Before this, all that historians writing about slavery had was a handful of slave narratives by people who had escaped; accounts written, here and there, by travellers to the South; and tottering piles of letters and diaries left by slave-owners. Oral histories are, as evidence, not without problems. Much depends upon the sensitivity, acuity, and fidelity of the interviewer. But without those W.P.A. interviews—firsthand accounts by people who lived, for part of their lives, as slaves—much of the history of slavery would be unrecoverable.
Wilkerson, realizing that the generation of Americans who lived under Jim Crow won’t be around much longer, set out to talk to them. Her own parents left the South: her mother migrated from Georgia, her father from Virginia. She’d heard their stories from childhood. She wanted to hear more. She interviewed more than twelve hundred people, from all over the country. She found them at pensioners’ clubs, senior centers, and funerals, walking with walkers, hair grizzled. (“I hung around playgrounds; I hung around the street, the bars,” Ellison said of his W.P.A. interviews. “I went into hundreds of apartment buildings and just knocked on doors. I would tell some stories to get people going and then I’d sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could. Sometimes you would find people sitting around on Eighth Avenue just dying to talk.”) Wilkerson spoke at length with three dozen people and then chose three, whom she interviewed for hundreds of hours. Her book is the story of those three lives, told, really, as an act of love. She takes her title from a passage in Wright’s “Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth”:
I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, 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.
And her deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book can be read as an elegant homage to Wright’s “12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.” (Wright’s text accompanied photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration.) Wright expressed, in vernacular, an argument of the Chicago School of sociologists, who, beginning in the nineteen-twenties, had been studying the Great Migration, crunching the numbers, calculating averages, compiling reports (presaging Moynihan’s), about black life in the urban North. “Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city,” Wright wrote. In the Chicago School argument, the folk, in the city, crash into modernity; uprooting means loss, especially loss of community, an argument that has long been debated, and that Wilkerson doesn’t so much take on as steer clear of. Her folk don’t crash; they struggle, they study, they strive and even thrive. More to the point, she doesn’t call them folk, and, for all that her work shares with Wright’s, her project has less in common with the documentary populism of the nineteen-thirties, which, like Chicago School sociology, was always about the collective (if you could just talk to enough people, take enough photographs, conduct enough surveys, you could, finally, record what it meant to be human), than with the new narrative journalism of the nineteen-sixties, which was always about the individual (if you could just find the right person to talk to, and it had to be an ordinary person, you could write the story of everyone). Wilkerson’s work, in other words, is more novelistic than documentary, more “Invisible Man” than “12 Million Black Voices,” and less Studs Terkel (another Writers’ Project writer) than J. Anthony Lukas (who, like Wilkerson, spent much of his career at the Times).
Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of. Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd. In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” three lives, three people, three stories, are asked to stand in for six million. Can three people explain six million? Do they have to? Your answers probably depend, mostly, on your intellectual proclivities. You’re reading this magazine; chances are you lean toward thinking that stories, good stories, explain. But if you’re an empiricist the only real way to decide is to see it tried. And so, of six million lives, of three stories, here’s one.
Mae Ida Brandon was born in a wood house in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1913. She was ornery, and a tomboy, and told people to call her Ida Mae—it sounded less old-fashioned—as soon as she could tell anybody what to do. She walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse that went up to the eighth grade, which was as high as you could go, and where she was once whipped with a switch for misspelling Philadelphia, a place she had never heard of. She hated picking cotton, but she liked killing snakes. Once, when she was six or seven—sometime, anyway, before her father died—she rode a horse to the blacksmith’s to get a piece of plow sharpened, and the blacksmith’s two sons, white boys, dangled her over a well to watch her squirm. When she was thirteen, the Carter brothers, two black boys, said something to some white lady, as best she could remember, and were promptly lynched. “If it is necessary, every negro in the state will be lynched,” James. K. Vardaman had said in 1903, the year that he was first elected governor of Mississippi; the year Ida Mae was born was the year that he joined the U.S. Senate. In those years, by one reckoning, someone in the South was hanged or burned alive every four days. The rest of the Carters moved to Milwaukee, which Ida Mae hadn’t heard of, either.
George Gladney came to court Ida Mae Brandon in 1928, when she was fifteen and he was twenty-two, and though her mother, Miss Theenie, thought him too dark and too old (“He’s old enough for your daddy”), he was serious. “He wasn’t no smiling man,” Ida Mae said. In 1929, she married him. They moved to a cabin near the Natchez Trace, becoming sharecroppers for a man named Edd Pearson. They worked all day and all year, and at the end of it they usually broke even, which was considered lucky, because most sharecroppers ended up with nothing but debt to show for their labor, at least by the boss’s accounting. A woman was expected to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day. (“It was like picking a hundred pounds of feathers,” Wilkerson writes, “a hundred pounds of lint dust.” That description takes on more meaning, late in the book, after Wilkerson travels to Chickasaw with Ida Mae, and they pick a few bolls of cotton together.) Ida Mae learned to make blackberry cobbler and tomato pie. She kept chickens and wore a dress made out of a flour sack. Before long, she had her first baby, a girl they named Velma. It felt like thunder: “I could see the pain comin’ down on top of the house and keep comin’.” Another girl came soon enough but she was taken by the flux. The next was a boy, whom they named James, after a white boy in town Ida Mae took care of, thinking that it might bring him luck.
One night in 1937, someone knocked on the door—Mr. Edd and four other white men, with guns. They were looking for George’s cousin Joe Lee, sure that he had stolen some turkeys. They found him, sneaking out the back. They tied him with hog wire and dragged him to the woods and beat him with chains and then drove him to town and left him in jail. The turkeys, which had wandered off, wandered back in the morning. George got Joe Lee out of jail, and used grease to peel his clothes off him, because they were stuck on with blood. He went home and told Ida Mae, “This the last crop we making.” They sold almost everything they owned, piece by piece, on the sly, and told anyone who asked, “We just running out of room.” They got a ride in a truck from Miss Theenie’s house to the depot, carrying quilts and the children and a Bible and a box of fried chicken, and boarded the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. They stopped in Chicago. “What did it look like at that time, Chicago?” Wilkerson asked. “It looked like Heaven to me then,” Ida Mae said.
They got off the train in Milwaukee, where Ida Mae’s sister had gone. Ida Mae had told no one that she was pregnant, and now she wanted to go home to have the baby. She gave birth to a girl, in 1938, in Miss Theenie’s house, and named her Eleanor, for the First Lady. That year, Theodore Bilbo, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, helped filibuster against a bill that would make lynching a federal crime. “If you succeed in the passage of this bill,” Bilbo said, “you will open the floodgates of Hell.” When Ida Mae went back North, she didn’t go to Milwaukee; she went to Chicago, where George had found work as an iceman. In 1940, she went to a firehouse on the South Side of Chicago and voted, for the first time in her life. Roosevelt defeated Willkie. George got a job at the Campbell’s Soup factory. Ida Mae worked at Walther Memorial, as a hospital aide. She liked to watch the babies being born: “They always come out hollering.”
In 1966, when Ida Mae Gladney was fifty-three, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago. “Chicago has not turned out to be the New Jerusalem,” he told the crowd. (“They had him way up on something high,” Ida Mae recalled. “I never did get to see him good.”) The next year, Ida Mae and her family— James and Eleanor had married and had their own children—bought a house together, a three-family in South Shore, for thirty thousand dollars. Soon, every white family on the block had moved out. “Lord, they move quick,” Ida Mae said.
Isabel Wilkerson met Ida Mae Gladney in 1996, when Ida Mae was eighty-three years old. She was still living in the house that her family had bought in 1967, in the second-floor apartment. She sat, and looked out her bay window at the street. Watching her, Wilkerson writes, as if from her notebook:
A man is selling drugs out of a trash can. She can see, plain as day, where he puts them and how he gets them out of the trash can for the white customers in their SUVs with suburban license plates. Another hides his stash in his mouth. And when customers come up, he pulls a piece of inventory from his tongue.
They call Ida Mae “Grandma.” They warn her when not to come out, “because we don’t know what time we gon’ start shootin’.”
Not long after Wilkerson met Ida Mae, she went with her to a neighborhood-watch meeting, in Beat 421, at the South Shore Presbyterian Church. Beat 421 is in District 13, which, in 1997, had a new state senator. When Barack Obama came to Beat 421 to explain what state senators do, Ida Mae listened politely.
The story of Ida Mae Gladney’s life, as told by Wilkerson, makes an argument, or, really, a bunch of arguments. (It is also, of course, a compact history of the twentieth century.) In the Great Migration, initially more men than women left the South. Women went because their husbands decided to go; usually, they didn’t have much choice. People who went North were generally better educated than people who didn’t. Up to a point, their move follows the patterns of other immigrants, although, as Wilkerson writes, nearly everyone she spoke to balked at being called an immigrant. (Wilkerson considers the exodus “an unrecognized immigration.”) The Great Migration was not about the boll weevil, which is what economists often concluded. Cotton was getting harder to grow; the soil was exhausted; the boll weevil had arrived; everyone was broke. But, of the twelve hundred people she interviewed, Wilkerson points out, none of them, when asked why they left the South, mentioned the boll weevil. Instead, they talked about Jim Crow, and about lynching, and about violence and humiliation and misery—Ida Mae being held by the ankles by two white boys over a well, where if she were dropped no one would ever find her. “We cannot fight back,” Wright wrote, “we have no arms; we cannot vote; and the law is white.” There was surely no escaping it, except you did hear stories. Ellison interviewed a man in Harlem named Leo Gurley, who told him a tall tale about a man named Sweet, in Florence, South Carolina. “He was one sucker who didn’t give a damn bout the crackers,” Gurley said. “Sweet could make hisself invisible.”
Leaving the South took extraordinary fortitude. What dreams and disappointments the North and the West held no one could have foreseen. Wilkerson, somewhat too sketchily, considers postwar urban history—white flight, the closing of factories (that Campbell’s Soup factory has been closed for more than two decades), the disappearance of industrial jobs. Now that there’s no more Jim Crow, she observes, there’s “hypersegregation”: in the 2000 census, Detroit’s population was eighty per cent black; Dearborn’s was one per cent. Most often, she outlines debates about what historians call “the second ghetto,” only to dismiss them. “Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations,” she writes, “but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long.”
The questions of social scientists (What is the structure of poverty?) and of policymakers (How can this be fixed?) are not Wilkerson’s questions. “We watch strange moods fill our children, and our hearts swell with pain,” Wright wrote. “The streets, with their noise and flaring lights, the taverns, the automobiles, and the poolrooms claim them, and no voice of ours can call them back.” When Ellison read “12 Million Black Voices,” he fell apart. He wept and wept. He wrote to Wright, “God! It makes you want to write and write and write, or murder.” He wrote and wrote. The people on Ida Mae’s street, Wilkerson tells us, echoing Wright, “are the lost grandchildren of the Migration.” This is narrative nonfiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.
That old man in Eddie’s Bar told Ralph Ellison, in 1939, “Son, if Ah had-a got New York in me Ahd a-been dead a long time ago.” When Ida Mae Gladney visited Mississippi with Isabel Wilkerson, someone asked, “Ida Mae, you gonna be buried down here?” “No,” she said. “I’m gonna be in Chicago.” She lived to be ninety-one. She died in her sleep, in 2004, at home. She had spent years sitting in a baby-blue plastic-covered armchair, looking out at the streets of her city. “The half ain’t been told,” she once said. Wilkerson took that down.
Below: Children at an Easter Sunday matinée in Chicago, 1941. Blacks who left the South hoped to escape from violence and humiliation.
PHOTOGRAPH: EDWIN ROSSKAM/COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS