Southern Blacks: From Old World to Americanized

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I recommend the book and the audio version in particular.

I’ve had a longtime interest in migration patterns, both to the U.S. and between regions. Reading this book is companion to my reading about the migrations of Southern whites to the same regions Southern blacks headed, mostly the industrial Midwest and California. My previous posts on Southern white migration can be found here and here.

This touches on one of my most favorite blogging themes, the Midwest. I have even more posts about that which I won’t even try to list or link. Where this book touched on the Midwest theme is in contrasting the Northern and Southern cultures. In quoting immigrants, Southern blacks spoke of moving to the North (and other regions of the non-South) as becoming “Americanized”. Others spoke of the South as the “Old World”, as if they had immigrated to the North from a foreign country in some far off continent.

The following are four passages from Wilkerson’s book, the fourth and longest one is Wilkerson speaking of her own experience as the Northern child of Southern black immigrants.

* * * *

It turned out that the old-timers were harder on the new people than most anyone else. “Well, their English was pretty bad,” a colored businessman said of the migrants who flooded Oakland and San Francisco in the forties, as if from a foreign country. To his way of looking at it, they needed eight or nine years “before they seemed to get Americanized.”

As the migrants arrived in the receiving stations of the North and West, the old-timers wrestled with what the influx meant for them, how it would affect the way others saw colored people, and how the flood of black southerners was a reminder of the Jim Crow world they all sought to escape. In the days before Emancipation, as long as slavery existed, no freed black was truly free. Now, as long as Jim Crow and the supremacy behind it existed, no blacks could ever be sure they were beyond its reach.

One day a white friend went up to a longtime Oakland resident named Eleanor Watkins to ask her what she thought about all the newcomers.

“Eleanor,” the woman said , “you colored people must be very disgusted with some of the people who have come here from the South and the way they act.”

“Well, Mrs. S.,” Eleanor Watkins replied. “Yes, some colored people are very disgusted, but as far as I’m concerned, the first thing I give them credit for is getting out of the situation they were in.… Maybe they don’t know how to dress or comb their hair or anything , but their children will and their children will.”

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 5285-5297). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

* * * *

Both men start to lament the changes all around them, the sadder effects of the big city of the North on the people of the South. George waxes on about the days when “people would come down to 135th Street with their house chairs, and they would baptize people in the Harlem River.

“We used to have a boat ride off 125th Street in the Dyckman section,” he says.

“Spread the blankets out. Midsummer, people didn’t have air-conditioning. People would stay up there all night and play card games.

“Things were so much different,” he says. “Drugs wasn’t heard of where I came from. When I came to New York, I didn’t know what a reefer was.”

“We got to being Americanized,” Reverend Harrison is saying. “It got to where we don’t help each other.”

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 8481-8487). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 * * * *

The hierarchy in the North “ called for blacks to remain in their station,” Lieberson wrote, while immigrants were rewarded for “their ability to leave their old world traits” and become American as quickly as possible . Society urged them to leave Poland and Latvia behind and enter the mainstream white world. Not so with their black counterparts like Ida Mae, Robert, and George.

“Although many blacks sought initially to reach an assimilated position in the same way as did the new European immigrants,” Lieberson noted, “the former’s efforts were apt to be interpreted as getting out of their place or were likely to be viewed with mockery.” Ambitious black migrants found that they were not able to get ahead just by following the course taken by immigrants and had to find other routes to survival and hoped-for success.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 7605-7612). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

* * * *

The seeds of this project were sown within me years ago, growing up with parents who had migrated from the South and who sent me to an affluent white grade school that they themselves could never have dreamed of attending. There, classmates told of ancestors coming from Ireland or Scandinavia with little in their pockets and making something of themselves in the New World. Over time , I came to realize that the same could be said of my family and of millions of other black Americans who had journeyed north during the Great Migration.

I gravitated to the children of recent immigrants from Argentina, Nepal, Ecuador, El Salvador, with whom I had so much in common as the children of newcomers: the accents and folkways of overprotective parents suspicious of the libertine mores of the New World and our childish embarrassment at their nervous hovering; the exotic , out-of-step delicacies from the Old Country that our mothers lovingly prepared for our lunchboxes; the visits to my parents’ fellow “immigrant” friends— all just happening to be from the South and exchanging the latest about the people from back home; the gentle attempts at instilling Old World values from their homelands, my father going so far as to nudge me away from city boys and toward potential suitors whose parents he knew from back home in Petersburg, Virginia , who were, to him, upstanding boys by definition and who would make a fine match in his view, which all but guaranteed that I’d have little interest in them.

Thus I grew up the daughter of immigrants, “a southerner once removed,” as the Mississippi-born poet Natasha Trethewey once called me. My parents bore the subtle hallmarks of the immigrant psyche, except they were Americans who had taken part in an internal migration whose reach and nuances are still little understood.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 9802-9815). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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