Updated: November 8, 2013 6:07AM
Isabel Wilkerson visited the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Center last week to talk about her excellent 2010 book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and I stopped by to hear her.
The Winter Garden was packed, an encouraging sign in this era when the future of print books seems so uncertain. Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced her enthusiastically, revealing that not only was her book the obvious choice for the city’s One Book One Chicago program this year, but it was his go-to Hannukah gift to give friends.
And why not? While weighing in at 550 pages, it masterfully weaves together the story of three Southern black Americans — Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster — beginning with their humble origins in Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, following them on their daring escapes northward and their sometimes arduous journeys to become, respectively, a humble Chicago church lady, a dignified New York Pullman porter and a flashy LA doctor.
When you see the enormous effort these daring people took to get the barest chance in life, the hardship they endured, there’s always another shoe to drop, the question: What happened after? Why did succeeding generations, facing declining yet still real barriers, often fail to follow their examples to make that climb to success? Why did they become stuck in the sprawling ghettos that ring Chicago and every other major city?
The mayor touched upon it.
“It reminds all of us of the work that remains ahead of us in order to keep the promise of Chicago alive,” he said.
Toward the end of Wilkerson’s speech, she referred to “all of the lost talent, all of the genius” that was squelched by the brutal apartheid of Southern racism — the jazz musicians, the playwrights the surgeons — who never reached their true potential but spent their lives picking cotton or scrubbing out the kitchens of white ladies.
She talked about how close Jesse Owens — who ran for gold in the 1936 Olympics, sticking an American thumb in the eyes of the Nazis and their pretensions to a master race — came to running errands down South instead of running track. How John Coltrane might have never had a saxophone placed into his calloused hands.
She said one thing that surprised me. As easy as it is to portray the white hierarchy that kept racism in place as mere villains, as cliches, she observed that they, too, paid a price for their domination.
“Their loss was a spiritual loss,” Wilkerson said, generously. “If you are going to hold someone down in a ditch, you have to get down in that ditch with them.”
Or you did then. Our world is much less brutal now, but it also has created distance between the oppressor and the oppressed. The system — deprivation here, over-abundance there — now does the dirty work the field bosses and landowners once did.
A youngster in Englewood might have a slightly better chance of reaching his potential in Chicago today than he would in Alabama in 1913, but still not nearly the chance were he in Wilmette. In a sense, his grandparents had an advantage — they knew the deck was stacked against them and knew where they had to go to find hope. Where should their grandchildren go?
“These people freed themselves,” she said of the first migration. But the task is not finished. “We have been bequeathed a beautiful burden, to make their sacrifices mean something. . . . You can change laws. You can not as easily change hearts.”
That’s it. White society does not hold blacks down in the same way it once did — less force, more finance. But its heart is still hardened. We don’t quite see the kids dying in sharp focus. That’s why Wilkerson’s book is so valuable. It is like a heart-valve transplant, to make the indifferent reader more invested in these fellow citizens or, rather, to know how invested we all are. And to remind the hopeless that their forebears mustered hope in the face of greater odds.
The Pulitzer Prize winner said one more thing, a lovely thought, in regards to her parents coming to Chicago from different states in different years, meeting here, leading to her, an event she is grateful for.
“It’s nice to exist, you know,” she said.
It is, or it should be, if you are free to live life in a manner congruent with your desires. If you can go through your daily routine without fear someone might shoot you or your kids. If you have access to the same opportunities.
“Here in the land of our birth, our work is devalued and our very lives are devalued,” Wilkerson said of the subjects of her book. That was true then. And it’s true now.