Thank you for your willingness to participate in a book chat on The Warmth of Other Suns. As some of you know (a migrant myself) I have come to call Eustis, Florida home--the home of George Starling. I was fortunate enough to hear the author, Isabel Wilkerson, speak last spring and fell in love with her style of weaving in a dark era of American History with personal narratives that really touch the inner soul. In many ways she shares the stories of both the average Joe and the great American hero.
Hate him or love him this book was on the president's summer reading list while he vacationed in Martha's Vineyard last year. The message of this book is an important one and I hope that you will have new insights on The Great Migration to share with your students. Lastly, my wish is that you will enjoy this read as much I did. Invite your friends! I look forward to reading your posts.
First Posting: by 2/19 (Part I)--scroll down for questions
Second Posting: by 3/4 (Part II)
Third Posting: by 3/18 (Part III)
Forth Posting: by 4/8 (Part IV)
Fifth Posting: by 4/29 (Part V and Epilogue)
Part I: Reflection Question
1. The term ‘The Great Migration’ has been given by historians to one of the greatest voluntary migrations of all time. However, most who participated in this so called silent pilgrimage never saw their personal decision to leave the American South as anything more than just that—a personal decision. Is the term Great Migration an appropriate one? Why or why not? When did you first learn about The Great Migration?
2. Quote – What is something that sparked your interest, you didn’t understand, something that you identified with or one thing that summed up the section for you?
3. Question – What are you curious about after reading this section?
4. Classroom Connection–How might you connect something that you have read about to your students in the classroom?
This resource via TeachingHistory.org includes many powerful painted images representing The Great Migration (by artist Jacob Lawrence, 1917–2000) and also some lesson plan ideas with thought-provoking questions: http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/website-reviews/22652.
Great resources Mary. Thank you so much for sharing with the group.
1. I first learned of The Great Migration in a grad school history course and became enthralled with the topic after seeing Jacob Lawrence's paintings of the Great Migration. I am fascinated by the photos I have seen of the "colored only" section of the Jacksonville, Fla. train station in the 1920's filled with families preparing to travel north and I've wondered about their experience. I am glad that Wilkerson included a portrait of a Floridian for this reason. Until reading part 1, I had seen the Great Migration as an event that ended with WWII and not one that continued until the 1970's. I think the term "Great Migration" is an appropriate one, both because of its scope and size as well as its impact.
2. Quote: "The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched."
3. With so many leaving the south, what impact did this have on the communities left behind?
4. Most students are unaware of this historical event. We teach the Great Depression and the Great War, why do we often leave out the Great Migration? Certainly there are plenty of ways we could bring it in to the classroom - push/pull factors, art, music, etc.
My first experience with “The Great Migration” was my third year in college. I was studying various books for a professor for material relevant to the book she was writing, in return for independent study credit. She had me read just about every major work on black families in the early 1900s and Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 stands out in my memory as both incredibly fascinating to me but also as introducing the idea of a great sweep out of the South.
I do think the term “Great Migration” is appropriate. We may not have exact numbers, but we have plenty of secondary data and, more importantly, primary memories and experiences, to support the scope and intensity of the impact of millions of internal migrants. Yet from the opening lines, the phrase “domestic migration” seems unfair. Certainly, migration itself it was, but for so many who lived it they may as well have been moving halfway around the world for the differences and challenges they faced in a different region, though the same country.
The quote that really grabbed my attention, besides the concluding, “They left,” was this one from page nine. “It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system.” I do not recall specifically studying the civil rights movement as succeeding because of the Great Migration, so am eager to connect the dots. (I think I just answered question 3 at the same time.)
Wilkerson highlights several prominent Americans and how the Great Migration influenced their artistry. With students, I would want to use excerpts of their works to help students grasp the significance of this time and event to those who directly experienced it and on the collective national identity.
Suzanne, I love your connections for students. It would be such a great lesson for students to analyze song lyrics, art work, poetry, etc. to look for the influence of The South. Love it!
I agree with both of you. I thought the description of picking cotton (p. 98-99) would be helpful for students to read. I always kept a large stalk of a cotton plant with the bolls on it in my classroom. It was passed around my classes for years so students could see what cotton looked like if they didn't know. By feeling the seeds you can't see when you look at the boll, they could understand the need for the cotton gin. Reading Wilerson's description of picking cotton would clarify its backbreaking nature. Reading the part where she describes Pershing's visit to the movie theater (p. 76 & 77) and reading the description of segregation outlined on p. 44 and 45 might make it something palpable for students today who can't imagine such an arcane and soul-killing system.
For those who may not know it, in 2000 James Allen published a book of lynching photography (postcards with photos taken of the crowds who attended lynchings throughout the south). He titled it WITHOUT SANCTUARY. Here is an excerpt from the review in the New York Times:
These images make the past present. They refute the notion that photographs of charged historical subjects lose their power, softening and becoming increasingly aesthetic with time. These images are not going softly into any artistic realm. Instead they send shock waves through the brain, implicating ever larger chunks of American society and in many ways reaching up to the present. They give one a deeper and far sadder understanding of what it has meant to be white and to be black in America. And what it still means. -- New York Times, January 13, 2000
Its web site is located at http://withoutsanctuary.org/
Here is one of Amazon's reader reviews:
By David Sheriff (Anaheim, California)
This review is from: Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Hardcover)
Thanks for the birthday present I suggested, the book "Without Sanctuary," published last month. It arrived yesterday and I sat down and read it from cover to cover. The book is horrifying, fascinating and chastening. You might think it a strange or grotesque request from me. Its not, and I feel compelled to write a little "book report" to show how much I appreciate it.
If you did not know, the book contains photographs and several essays which document the practice of lynching in America, which reached its peak from 1890 through 1930. The victims, three-quarters of them black, were people you might be afraid of just because of the way they looked. We can all identify with that fear. If we had photographs from the Inquisition or a thousand other atrocities they would look much the same. You can always spot the victims in the photographs, but you cannot tell the perpetrators from the bystanders. This particular behavior, lynching, did not take place far away or long ago; that it is so contemporaneous makes it so excruciating. Looking at these pictures, which were taken during the years my grandparents and great-grandparents were in their prime, makes it difficult to view the events as extraordinary. This is America, these are people I could have met in church when I was young. These are people my parents and grandparents must have KNOWN, some of them anyway. I don't think my grandparents would have participated in such events, but I don't really know and they certainly would not have mentioned it to me. The bulk of the terror took place in the South, but the photographs show mob killings everywhere, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, California, everywhere.
After the second word war, historians tried to explain what was so different about Nazi Germany. What was so rotten in one of most advanced cultures that produced the Holocaust? If we could explain why Germany was uniquely cursed, then we would understand why such things could never happen here. Now the remarkable thing is how ordinary the Germans were. This is not to diminish the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. But I think, whether as victims, oppressors or guilty bystanders, horrible things can overtake all of us everywhere.
When I was in my early twenties I interviewed General Lewis Hershey, who headed the military draft during the Viet Nam war. He was a devil to those of us who thought the war was stupid and pointless. We all knew his name and hated him; he personified the arbitrary and complete power of the draft over our lives. I was a really green reporter and he was a folksy, avuncular old pro. I didn't come away with a usable story, but the light came on in my head. I realized that evil people could fuss over their dogs and love children and seem very, very ordinary, just like my neighbors. I had demonized Hershey completely and here he was, human and likeable. Shuddering at my naiveté, I learned that decent, fine people were capable of sending you to die. Not evil at all, by his lights. Thirty years later, when I see the neighbors of some horrible murderer say on TV what a regular fellow he was and how they can't understand how he could have done such a thing, I understand.
I did not appreciate what a festive occasion lawless torture, mutilation and murder could be in the modern world. White people were killed too, but virtually never skinned, mutilated or burned. Usually just black people in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was fully-developed civil terror, calculated to spread fear and keep some people from doing anything which would call attention to themselves. It wasn't open civil war as in Pol Pot's Cambodia, present day Kosovo, or one of the other outrages in the news. But it was here, and it was us, and the attitudes that produced the lynchings aren't very far below the surface of in awful lot of ordinary, upstanding Americans today.
Leon F. Litwak in "Without Sanctuary:"
"The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another. For the men and women who comprised these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves - merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community."
Change a few words and the book might be talking about ordinary Germans in the early 1940's. But its not. It speaks to us, here, now.
If we understand our history, we are not necessarily doomed to repeat it.
You asked me how I would suggest teachers handle primary sources like these. First, I wouldn't shy away from such horrendous images unless my students were too young and perhaps too immature to discuss them seriously. I have passed this on before, I know, but I recommend this essay from the Wisconsin Historical Society on teaching sensitive content: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/primarysources.asp#se... because I agree with most of the points made.
That said, I think that our kids are largely desensitized by violence in film and in other media to the point that serious discussion can be a challenge. What makes your post and its accompanying reprinted letter meaningful is that the "Dad" has turned the book of images into a story. I do think that "story" is a powerful way to help kids understand the deeper meaning of primary sources that have been over-reprinted and their original meaning deadened by overexposure as icons. Any time you can find related stories of real people through oral histories, historic newspaper accounts, or even contemporary YouTube accounts, it helps to personalize the raw history of primary sources.
I was also thinking how well your earlier question about each young person's place in this world (and how they know that place) fits in with this set of primary sources.
Thanks for these suggestions, Mary. They are terrific. If I was still in the classroom, I'd definitely find a way to put them to work.
I actually used those questions that you proposed to apply to a lesson on The French Revolution for teaching class/estates. Thanks for the suggestion.