My rating: 5 of 5 stars
this review refers to the audiobook version.
it is appalling to discover just how ignorant one can be of events that took place in living memory.
when i went to grade school and high school, there’s no doubt that the history–even the recent history–of blacks in the south was prettified to make it less vomit-inducing. we were told that blacks left the south because of boll weevils, or were automated out of jobs, so they left for the north.
what nobody mentioned was that blacks had been leaving the south by the thousands since WWI, an internal migration forced by Jim Crow laws and the general disgustingness of much southern white behavior.
of course one knows the iconic signs over drinking fountains and in diners. even i knew about those. but there were also white-only parking spaces. yep, the group psychosis of white southerners went that deep. not to mention the violence.
one thing that will stick with me about this book, even though in truth i think it does not dwell on even the tiniest part of the extent of it, is just how endemic violence against blacks was. small violences, big ones, stupid ones, insane ones, inane ones. economic violence–thievery by whites of a black sharecropper family’s entire year’s labor, or of the price for a couple pounds of coffee, all sanctioned by the law. personal violence, also not just overlooked but sanctioned by law. the failure of the white south to apportion taxes fairly, so that, say, a black child’s school year was shorter (and conducted with vastly inferior infrastructure and materials) than a white child’s.
it really does make me rather sick, to think of the reign of terror that black americans lived under. i do not understand how white southerners could live with themselves.
it also makes me rather woozy that i, in general a not-terribly-ignorant person, did not know these things.
the book follows the lives and fortunes of three escapees from the south. their stories are both heartbreaking and deeply inspiring–the courage it took to leave for parts unknown, and to persevere even in the face of northern institutionalized racism, are remarkable. Wilkerson does not do them the injustice of burnishing up their stories, however–each remains a full human being, warts and all, and are unforgettable (for me, particularly the story of George Starling, because i suspect had he not been so held down, he would have been a giant).
the book also contains a sociologist’s history of the migration, laying the smack-down on a number of oft-repeated “truths” about the effect of the southern migrants on the cities to which they traveled. these parts do sometimes drag. (particularly in the audiobook version–quite a bit of data that i suspect was laid out in tables in the print edition was instead read, digit by digit, in one case for like more than five minutes of real-time. i did yell at my iPod for that.) but i do understand the necessity of these sections–without them, the stories become mere anecdotal evidence.
it’s a heartbreaker of a book, and while no doubt things are far from perfect now, i am vastly relieved to say i do not currently live in a nation that sanctions Jim Crow. so, for all the blacks that had the guts to vote with their feet when no other vote (personal, moral, political, or economic) was available to them, i say thank you–you brought my country one step closer to the city on the hill.