Not the promised land: Black trek north a bittersweet journey Roots of misfortune
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Their stories start in the Jim Crow South, when black pedestrians had to step off the curb for white pedestrians, when 15,000 people watched a teenager burned alive and when there were separate windows for customers of color at movie theaters, racetracks and post offices.
It was a time and place where Robert Foster "was restless for the basic kind of freedom that was crazy at best and arrogant at worst for a colored man," writes Isabel Wilkerson.
Where Ida Mae Gladney wore flour-sack dresses and killed rabbits with sticks.
Where George Starling surely would have been lynched if he had stayed.
To trace the lives of these three people is a project of astounding ambition. But Ms. Wilkerson, in this epic book --14 years in the making -- goes further. She illuminates, celebrates, interrogates and recasts a six-million person phenomenon -- the migration of black Southerners to Northern cities, which started during World War I and did not slow until the 1970s.
The former Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, Ms. Wilkerson is no stranger to narrative nonfiction, that elastic genre that holds Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a heartbreaking profile of a 10-year-old boy in a Chicago neighborhood pocked by violence.
Narrative nonfiction of this scale is rare.
To write this book, Ms. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people. She dug up long-lost documents. She spent hundreds of hours with her three main characters, unexpected heroes who opened their lives to her.
In doing so, she unearthed nearly a century of African American history, the stories of the "forgotten, aggrieved, wishful generations between the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement," she writes, people for whom change came too late.
This is serious history and serious journalism that offers an intimate account of three journeys.
It follows Ida Mae from her 1912 birth in sharecropping Mississippi to the turn of the next century in Chicago, where the great-grandmother watches a cast of drug dealers and pregnant young girls shuffle beneath her window.
It follows George from the citrus groves of Florida where he brashly stood up to overseers to a basement apartment in Harlem, where he too is surrounded by "a desperate parade" of addicts and soapbox preachers.
And it follows Robert from Louisiana to Los Angeles, where the renowned doctor for whom Ray Charles named a son holds court over a vast, empty estate.
Set between historic moments and accounts of crushing racism are their everyday milestones: marriages and affairs, pregnancies and illnesses, parties and long drives, graduations and funerals.
As such, each chapter feels like a conversation with a beloved grandparent. Sometimes, those grandparents repeat anecdotes, and so does Ms. Wilkerson, which may annoy some readers.
Circling back can be forgiven, though, when the stories have such import.
And while Ms. Wilkerson's glances at the Northern cities of today are cursory, they are nonetheless poignant.
Migrants like George were seeking "a window out of the asylum," she writes. But when they crossed into a new world where they would speak "like melted butter" and their children would speak "like footsteps on pavement," they began lives that did not turn out as anyone expected.
One Pittsburgh man, describing the ache of homesickness for the South, said he would have stayed there if he had been treated "half as well" as in the North.
Within families, these truths are revealed over generations, like "a secret told in syllables," Ms. Wilkerson writes.
Here, she coaxes those secrets to light.
First Published November 21, 2010 12:00 am