how things get done – Isabel Wilkerson

What made you devote so much time and attention to this particular subject matter?

Well, I’m a daughter of the [G]reat [M]igration as, really, the majority of African Americans that you meet in the [N]orth and [W]est are products of the Great Migration. It’s that massive. Many of us owe our very existence to the fact that people migrated.

In my own family’s case, my mother migrated from Georgia, from Rome, Georgia to Washington, D.C., and my father migrated from southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where they met, married and here I am. Had it not been for the Great Migration I wouldn’t exist, and yet I felt that the story wasn’t really being told from the perspective of the people who had lived this.

We didn’t know why they left or how they made the decision to leave. What were their lives like before they left? How’d they get the courage to leave the only place they’d ever known for a place they’d never seen, for an uncertain future in a place that was often cold and forbidding, anonymous and not welcoming to them, and how did they make it once they got there?
Those were the kind of questions that I had, and those are the questions that really help to give us a sense of how the cities came to be and how so many African Americans ended up in these cities – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York.

I actually refer to them as immigrants. I refer to them as having the same kind of immigrant heart and motivations and desires and goals and dreams for themselves as any immigrant, as any person who might have crossed the Atlantic in steerage.

So what I’m looking at is the fact that what is it that propelled them is a human story, a classic American story, and how tragic is it that they ended up having to go to far reaches of their own country in order to find the freedom that they really would have been born to.

So when I use it, I’m using that, in a way, as a provocative term to get us to think about this migration differently. They were doing what so many other groups of people are often lauded for doing. In other words, they came to these cities without really any backup at all.

They lived in neighborhoods where they were confined to. They doubled up and tripled up in homes or apartments or cold water flats. They took multiple jobs and ended up often making more money in the aggregate than the people who were there already.
In other words, they were working very hard in order to survive, which is the classic American story, a classic immigrant story, and yet they had to do that within their own country, within the borders of our own country, and yet they were not immigrants.