I abhor confrontation, whether I'm involved or just a witness. This isn't something about which I am at all proud. Well, except for the fact that this character trait has kept me out of fist fights. I'm the kind of guy who thinks of a snappy comeback well after the fact, or needs to do research to provide back-up to whatever point I was trying to make earlier. I'm just not a good debater. Let's not get into the psychology of this.
Nearly 20 years ago I worked as a proofreader at a Boston accounting firm. The work was extremely dry, the work environment was fairly buttoned down, and my fellow employees were mostly young conservative types. Most days, a bunch of us younger types (the junior accountants, receptionist, interns and me, although I was a few years older than most of them) would eat lunch in the conference room.
Most times, the conversation revolved around clients, or weekend antics or local sports. I spent much of the time hunched over the Boston Globe while I ate. A few of the young dude number crunchers used to fight over my sports pages.
One day the conversation shifted from the usual topics to something more controversial, although I might have been the only person who considered it so. Well, I suspect I wasn't the only one, but certainly nobody spoke up when a few people, especially the receptionist, started bad-mouthing black people.
I don't recall how the subject came up. Could have been a report in the paper about gangs. There have always been gangs in Boston, including the infamous Whitey Bulger and his associates, but in the mid-'90s, as today, many of the gangs are made up of young, black men. In September of 1995, a gang prosecutor was assassinated in broad daylight.
The only comments I recall from this conversation came from our receptionist, a nice woman named Maria, who was, like me, a few years older than the recent college grads who we ate lunch with. I liked Maria. She was easy to talk to, good at her job, if a bit ignorant of world affairs at times.
A proud daughter of Italian immigrants, Maria wondered that day about why black people had such a hard time moving up in the world, when her family and other Italian-Americans managed to find their way in the world and be successful. It was obvious that in her opinion, black people just weren't trying hard enough, or had some deficiency that was holding them back.
Listening to her, I got that feeling that I get when I'm uncomfortable with a conversation or am witnessing an argument or physical confrontation. My nerves jangled, my skin got hot and my brain seethed with disgust. But I didn't say anything, couldn't think of what to say that would get my point across without making Maria feel bad. See, I don't ever want to make people feel bad. Because then they'll say something back, and either I won't have an answer, or I'll get too mad too quickly and end up saying something nasty.
I've thought many times over the years about the things Maria said. I've come up with replies that would've, at the least, made Maria think for a few seconds about what she'd said.
Now, all these years later, I have an answer for her. Sure, it's more than 500 pages long and has taken me weeks to read, but Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration provides irrefutable proof of the misery that black people endured for the 100 years after slavery ended, at the hands of white politicians, lawmakers, law enforcement, employers, everyday people on the street.
"You wanna know why black people have had so much difficulty getting ahead in America?" I would ask Maria now. "Because white people treated them like shit at every possible turn, and that was in the good times. Lynchings, Jim Crow laws, unfair wages and housing opportunities, refusal to allow them to drink from the same fountains or ride in the same train cars (and countless other methods of separate and unequal treatment) -- setting up an entire system designed to keep black people from making anything of themselves."
None of this information is new to people who have any clue about the history of race relations in the United States. But when you read page after page of first-hand accounts of the unimaginable suffering that the descendants of slaves went through, it makes it far too real.
But Wilkerson's book is so much more than just a recounting of terrors and heartbreak. The author interviewed more than 1,200 people in order to get as complete a picture as possible of what people in different parts of the South did to escape North or West and make a new life. Out of all of these folks, she chose three as the "leads" in the story of millions of people who made the brave and sometimes heart-rending choice to leave their homes and take a chance in someplace new.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Mississippi and went to Chicago; George Swanson Starling fled Florida for New York City; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster bolted Louisiana for Los Angeles.
Each had a different reason for leaving: Gladney and her husband escaped after somebody close to them was beaten for committing a crime that turned out never to have occurred; Starling felt threatened after agitating for better wages in the citrus groves; and Foster felt stifled in the Deep South and fulfilled his longtime dream of going to Hollywood.
All of them faced discrimination in their new cities, and hard times getting started and becoming even a little bit successful. And while they missed the people, food, culture and landscapes of their hometowns, they never regretted migrating away from the brutality of the South.
Wilkerson tells their tales with such intimacy and beauty, providing incredible details at every turn of their lives and hardships and triumphs. I felt so connected to each of the three protagonists, and learned so much about a huge chapter of this nation that I knew next to nothing about beforehand.
I have no idea what, if anything, Wilkerson is working on now. I imagine she's got something in the works. Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll read it.
I've gone on too long. Just go read the book.