Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees….
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
And from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
• Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up
Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration, defected to the receiving station of Chicago, via Memphis, in December, 1927, to feel as he put it, “the warmth of other suns.”
I’ve been thinking about Big books vs. small books.
I’m not talking about the size of the book — although, a big book is usually bigger — i.e., more pages. But not always: consider Big Think Strategy: How to leverage bold ideas and leave small thinking behind by Bernd H. Schmitt. This is a big book with fewer than 200 pages.
I’m talking about the ideas, the sweep of the book. And I am a big fan of big books. Books that tie things together over a long haul. Books that point me to connections that are important, connections that I have not thought of. Recently, at the First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This is a big book, with a massive sweep. Other titles come to mind: Collapse by Jared Diamond; The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.
Well, here’s my new “current favorite big book” — The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a Pultizer Prize winner (in 1994: the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in journalism) from her reporting days with the New York Times, and in this massive sweep of a book she tells the epic story of the Great Migration, the years from 1915 to 1970, when over six million African Americans left the American South for the North and West. It is a terrific read, overflowing with insight into people, this country, prejudices, hopes, dreams… I would like to suggest that you add it to your “serious non-fiction book” stack. You will not be disappointed.
Wilkerson follows the journey of three Southern blacks, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. It’s a shrewd storytelling device, because it allows her to highlight two issues often overlooked: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.
People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit; those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York; those in Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West Coast. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way. She notes, for example, that some migrants, unfamiliar with the conductor’s Northern accent, would mistakenly get off at the cry of “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Many decided to stay put, she adds, giving Newark “a good portion of its black population.”
Here is just one paragraph – such a great excerpt:
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
Wilkerson spent fourteen years researching this book (you can tell!), and interviewed over 1000 people. The poignant moments in this book are too numerous to mention. The description of the photograph of her own mother taken in the New World will leave a lump in your throat at the sheer symbolism of this new world “passport.” This is the kind of reading that I wish I had more time to do.
I hope you have your stack of serious, sweeping, big book books to read. They are rich indeed. Add this one to your stack – you will not be disappointed.
Last night, I presented my synopsis of Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. It was a large, opinionated, animated group. The conversations were passionate, and the whole evening really was quite a learning experience.
He observed that Collapse is a book with real implications for the whole oil usage/crisis question. I think he is right.
The message of Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed, written by Pulitzer winner Jared Diamond, is that culture after culture throughout history has “collapsed,” many because they lived only for the day and did not make the right choices for tomorrow. They “used up” what they had, foolishly – tragically. But, because it was then and not now, their collapse was an isolated collapse.
We now are too connected to “collapse” all by ourselves. Diamond wrote:
“Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation… Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote, can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.”
He tells the stories of a number of “collapses,” including modern day Montana, and Easter Island, and the Norse in Greenland, and others.
Diamond presents a five point framework for collapse:
1) Environmental damage.
2) Climate change
3) Hostile neighbors
4) Friendly trade partners
5) The society’s response to its environmental problems
And he asks this perplexing question:
“ How could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect?”
(or – “what were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?”)
I think the participant was correct. It’s a good time to take another, very close look at Collapse.
For a quick read of just one of the stories in Collapse, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s The Vanishing for The New Yorker, his retelling, from the book, of the collapse of the Norse in Greenland. Cultural snobbery was one of the reasons they collapsed. Here’s Gladwell’s concluding paragraph:
When archeologists looked through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of the big wooden objects that were so valuable in Greenland—crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, roof timbers—which meant that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. And, when the archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of newborn calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows, equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.