A long and exhaustively researched book about the great South-to-North migration, this is the story of primarily three people who made the journey from a post slavery Southern state to a Northern state with all of its promises of the American Dream. Some of those dreams came true and many did not for the three individuals Wilkerson profiles: Ida Mae Gladney who travels from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s, George Swanson Starling who travels from Florida to New York in the 1940s, and Robert Joseph Foster Pershing who travels from Georgia to California in the 1950s. The book is a compilation of their stories interspersed with chapters that offer general information about the migration between the years 1915 and 1970 as well as snippets of quotes from some of the great writers of the period such as Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, Nora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin to name a few. I enjoyed and appreciated many aspects of this book, particularly its narrative nonfiction nature. The author extensively researched the facts, statistics, and historically significant events of this period, chronicling how the period unfolded and what its various political, social, religious, and economic ramifications were. But she also chooses to tell much of the story through oral histories of her three characters. So we get their very personal stories which allows us to delve deeply into many of the challenges and to actually see and feel what they saw and felt. While she is a sympathetic author, I think she does try to be objective, and for this objectivity she maintains her credibility. Yet, I’m not sure she can be entirely objective considering her point is to reveal the side of the story told by the participants of the migration rather than by the more educated white authors/researchers that have written about this in various books, textbooks, and reports over the past century. Her point is to bring out the black perspective, so in that sense, she can’t help but be somewhat partial to their experience.
A few aspects of the book that I wasn’t crazy about were the length and its back-and-forth construction. At 500+ pages plus 100 pages of end notes, it’s longer than it needs to be and at times feels repetitive. As well, she jumps from one of the three characters to another so often that it sometimes has a dizzying effect. I would have preferred a more extensive section about each person before transitioning to the next one. At times, she switches every few pages, and even when she devotes 10 or 15 consecutive pages to one of her three subjects, there are still probably 50+ switches. Just when I really get into Ida Mae’s story, we jump to Robert Foster, and when I feel invested in him, we hop to George Starling—and back and forth and back and forth. Still, though it took me well over a month to read this (second semester paper grading pretty much sucked up all of my reading time), I enjoyed it—and perhaps the jumping would have bothered me less if I had read it in a week or two and in a less disjointed manner. (Nonfiction)