This is a story which has not often been told, the story of America’s internal migration of black southerners to the west, midwest, and north-east during the first half of the twentieth century.
Because I got this as an audiobook, it felt very much like an extra-long episode of “This American Life.” Wilkerson chose three separate families and followed their exodus from the southern (Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi) states of their birth. She focused on one particular person from each family, but included how the move impacted their extended family as well.
I did have some trouble following along with the stories, because there seemed to be so many different characters that I couldn’t keep track of who was who. I figured it out mostly by the end of it, but I’d missed out on some of the beginning information because I couldn’t connect the characters. It may have been different if I had been reading it in a chair and concentrating instead of listening to it on my commute.
Because this book deals with race relations in America which–let’s be honest–still aren’t that great, it’s likely to hit your indignation buttons if you’re even a little bit liberal. One example was the story of recent immigrants to American who rioted and destroyed the property of a black family for the crime of legally renting property in their neighborhood. The irony of first and second generation Americans protesting to keep “them” out of their neighborhood, when “them” were people whose families had been in American for hundreds of years, was pointed out by the author. She manages to avoid most melodrama and let the facts speak for themselves.
There are a few demographic facts sprinkled throughout the book, but the bulk of the content involves just the factual and emotional memoirs of these three families. This is a good way to get a feel for the era, and to feel some empathy for the people involved, but those who want something drier and more statistics-based might be disappointed.
I recommend this for people who want an easy way to learn about an important aspect of American culture. If you’re interested in American history at all, this should be on your list.