Isabel Wilkerson – TRANSCRIPT
Imagine with me this scene. It’s a scene that played out in nearly all of our families. It’s a scene in which a young person, somewhere in our family tree, somewhere in our lineage had a heartbreaking decision to make. It was a decision to leave all that they had known. And all of the people that they had loved and to set out for a place far, far away that they had never seen in hopes that life might be better.
Migration is usually a young person’s endeavor. It’s the kind of thing that you do when you’re on the cusp of life. And so, there is, in all of our families, this young person somewhere in our background. That person is standing at a dock, about to board a ship that will cross the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. That person is loading up a truck that will cross the Rio Grande. Or that person is standing at a railroad platform about to board a train that will cross rivers and mountains out of the Jim Crow South to what they hope will be freedom in the North.
And there, with this young person as they are about to board that ship, that boat, that truck, that train, are the people who raised them. Their mother, their father, their aunt, their uncle, their grandparents, whoever it might have been who had gotten them to this point. Those older people were not going to be able to make the crossing with them. And as they looked into the eyes of the people who had raised them, there was no guarantee that they would ever see them alive again.
Remember, there was no Skype, no e-mail, no cell phones not even reliable long-distance telephone service. And even if there had been, many of the people that they were leaving did not even have telephones. This was going to be a complete break from all that they knew and all of the people that they loved. And the very next time that they might hear anything about the people who had raised them might be a telegram saying, “Your father has passed away.” Or, “Your mother is very, very ill. You must return home quickly if you are to see her alive again.”
That is the magnitude of the sacrifice that had to have happened in nearly all of our families just for us to be here. A single decision that changed the course of families and lineages and countries and history to the current day.
One of these migration streams stands out in ways that we may not realize. It was called the Great Migration. It was the outpouring of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West, from the time of World War I until the 1970s. It stands out because this was the first time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens that they had always been. No other group of Americans has had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens.
So this great migration was not a move. It was actually a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country. They were defecting a caste system known as Jim Crow. It was an artificial hierarchy in which everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like. This caste system was so arcane that it was actually against the law for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham.