Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s Timely Visit to Florida Southern

Isabel Wilkerson at the Miller Center Forum

Isabel Wilkerson speaks at the Miller Center Forum, January 17, 2011
Miller Center, Charlottesville, VA

The Great Migration, the mass emigration of black men and women out of the South between roughly 1915 and 1960, is one of the most significant American upheavals of the 20th Century. As an historical development that fundamentally and permanently changed the daily life of the country, I think only World War I, which started the Great Migration, surpasses it. The Great Depression rivals it, and like WWI, is inseparable from it.

And yet, this period, which saw Americans take the same sorts of risks that East Germans took to escape to West Berlin, remains primarily the intellectual property of scholars. Ask 100 people in the general public to define the Great Migration, and I think 95 of them are likely to respond, “What?”

In many ways, I think this represents the general failure of the liberal arts and academic communities, which are far too often cloistered like a priesthood in colleges and universities and behind publications that insist on dullness as a badge of seriousness and bureaucratic standards as a false emblem of rigor. The barriers to entry to “serious” and challenging historical work are high. In fairness, it may be that institutional history and politics make that inevitable. I’ll discuss that in a different post about self-publishing.

But for now, let’s just agree that STEM relentlessly out-markets Literature and History and Social Observation, which are the tools by which we develop human judgement and character. That is every bit as important as learning to work as an engineer for some overbuilt housing subdivision.

But there are exceptions to the liberal arts priesthood. Two of them are conspiring to bring the Great Migration to life right here in Lakeland tomorrow night.

Florida Southern College Prof. Mike Denham runs the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History. For years, his annual Florida Lecture Series has brought a menagerie of fascinating people and important writers and thinkers to engage the Lakeland public. (And personally, Mike has been very supportive of my book, and I’m grateful to him for that.)

With Isabel Wilkerson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns, Denham is bringing the Steve Jobs of the Great Migration to the Hollis Room at 7 p.m. tomorrow. I’ll be there. You should be, too. I say Steve Jobs because of the approach to design that Wilkerson has used to drive her account of a massive social change. Jobs was famous for taking technology, collections of digital 1s and 0s, and making it beautiful. Likewise, the Great Migration reveals itself to us now through giant patterns of data. But all the endless numbers and stats represent the human beings who lived it.

Thus, Wilkerson has set her book up almost like a novel, with three characters at its narrative heart: a working class woman from Mississippi who went to Chicago; a doctor from Louisiana who went to California; and an orange picker from Eustis who emigrated to New York. By explaining it with confounding humanity — none of her people are saints, just as no one else is a saint — she’s made it beautiful. (Full disclosure: I’m not all the way through the book yet, but what I’ve read reveals the Great Migration more fully than all the factual articles and excerpts I read about it in the process of writing my own book.) And that’s the same essential approach I’ve tried to take with Age of Barbarity. I want it to read like a novel.

In telling the story of this last man, Floridian George Starling, Wilkerson briefly touches on some of the same Florida history of the 1920s that I do in Age of Barbarity. But the vast majority of her book focuses on migration post-1928, which is more or less where my book leaves off. So they actually make, I submit, wonderfully complementary narratives. (Are you listening, Ms. Wilkerson? Please read my book. :) Please.)

Nevertheless, as we’ve both plowed the ground of Florida’s racial and vigilante record, we both were moved to write about the Trayvon Martin case and place it some historical context. I wrote mine for Lakeland Local; Wilkerson wrote hers for CNN.

In that effort, I would say we both tried to bring liberal arts into the public sphere in a way that makes it vital to our daily world, to the development of judgement. And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do with my own book. And maybe when I grow up, I can be like Isabel Wilkerson.

For now, I suspect this will make a particularly fascinating moment to spend a little time with her. You really should come.

Creative Commons License image credit: Miller Center