I listen to a lot of audiobooks, read a lot of library books and e-books, still somehow never have enough room on my bookshelves.
This is an audiobook where I found myself making complicated French desserts as and excuse to listen to it for just a bit longer. I did the dishes so I could find out what happened to the characters.
I think the thing that impresses me more than the ambition of Wilkerson's project is that she not only completely stuck the landing, but that she made it look effortless. This book was like a figure skater putting in a bit of footwork after a quad, because la-dee-da, it was just no trouble at all. Oh yes, well I did sum up a social movement that lasted sixty years, covered and altered the entire country, and had no clearly defined start or finish, here's some compelling narrative to go with it, would you like a James Baldwin quote with that?
It follows, generally, the movement of blacks from the south to the north, the social conditions in the south, what provoked them to move, what movie was like, what they found when they got to the north, and what the relationship between the people that moved and their new home and their old home was like as time progressed. It includes academic studies, memoirs and newspaper accounts from all points in history, as well as oral histories the author collected herself.
Specifically, it follows the lives of three people who decided to make the move: A cotton picker from Mississippi who left for Chicago in the '30s after a friend was nearly lynched on a false charge, a fruit picker from Florida who left for New York during WWII after he was nearly lynched for labour organising, and a doctor from Louisiana who left for LA after WWII when he realised no hospital in the south would hire him. Each person's life followed a different path, ended up in a different major "receiving station" of the exodus, had happy and sad stories, lived a long time, and was interviewed for hundreds of hours by Wilkerson.
Wilkerson drove the routes they took, went with them to church, social events, community meetings, the South on return trips, and in at least two cases sat with them as they died. (I'm really not kidding about this book being a life's work.) I'm often annoyed at non-fiction writers presuming too much about their subjects' inner lives, but everything in this book felt natural and true. I feel like she really did know these people, and knew what they were feeling.
A major point of the book is to dispel myths about what the Great Migration was, how long it lasted, and what effects it had on the north and south, especially the inner cities of the north. I was new to the topic (more or less), so didn't have many entrenched opinions on any of those points. I therefore found those arguments a bit didactic, in the way that you feel when you walk into a discussion with someone who's defending against something you didn't think in the first place (Okay, sure, I believe you!). However, I'm sure those sections are much more useful to folks in the US, who've been hearing about this their whole lives.
Deeply excellent book, would rec to anyone with the least interest in US history, and to anyone who just wants a good story about people.