During the Arkansas Literary Festival, Isabel Wilkerson described her efforts to give high school students a sense of the oppressive, invasive restrictions enforcing the racial stratifications that drove many black Americans to seek freer, less confined lives by leaving the South and heading north and west in the Great Migration, the subject of her book The Warmth of Other Suns. Everyone has already heard about separate white and “colored” drinking fountains and whites-only restaurants, she said. For those too young to grasp the full extent of the racist caste system of the past, she sought examples to which those just learning to drive could relate. Some states forbade black motorists from passing white ones, regardless of how slow they might be moving. She sees youngsters’ bafflement over such ridiculous rules as a sign of progress.
Wilkerson provided other illustrations to drive home just how unrelenting – and absurd – Jim Crow legislation was. Speaking at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, she cited a law that required court rooms to have separate bibles for black and white witnesses to place their hands on when swearing to tell the truth; she described a trial’s delay when one of those books could not be found.
To give her audience a sense of how different the world would be if the Great Migration had not occurred, Wilkerson asked listeners to imagine the state of music, and culture generally, if Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk had either never existed or never been able to become the great musicians they did. If those artists’ parents had not moved north, we might never have heard their music, she observed. It probably never would have been made. I’m not sure if this particular thought experiment would resonate with 21st-century teenagers, most of whom probably don’t listen to jazz, but it sure struck a chord in me.