Why I Waited 9 Months to Watch 12 Years A Slave

April 20, 2014

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave (2013) screen shot, January 17, 2014. (http://blog.sfgate.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws -- it illustrates subject of piece.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave (2013) screen shot, January 17, 2014. (http://blog.sfgate.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws — it illustrates subject of piece.

I’m usually late to the game. That’s been a running theme in my life since the early ’80s, when, as a result of my Hebrew-Israelite years, I found myself often years behind on pop culture trends. New books, new music, new dance moves, new colloquialisms, new movies. I might as well declared myself as an adult in April ’81, at least as far as the ’80s were concerned. Yet I did catch up, sometimes taking as long as a decade to get a punchline to a joke that my nemesis and classmate Alex made in seventh grade.

But not following the herd has its benefits, too. For one, I’ve gotten to look at things from a fresh perspective (some would even say as an outsider — that’s accurate as well), without succumbing to hype or groupthink about a piece of culture. Waiting also has meant that I’ve often read reviews of movies but managed to miss content-based details and that I’ve read books without forming an opinion based on its popularity ahead of my read (it’s also true about my path to Christianity). Being forced by circumstance to wait has meant that I am less apt to make sweeping declarations like “I grew up on hip-hop” when I in fact grew up with it, not on it like a drug.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. (http://irvine.wikis.gdc.georgetown.edu). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screenshot's low resolution.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. (http://irvine.wikis.gdc.georgetown.edu). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screenshot’s low resolution.

With 12 Years A Slave (2013), though, I wanted to see it even before it came out here in the DC area in August. I’d heard about this film for months even before it was out in “select cities” in the US. Between Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender — two supreme British actors — I knew the film would be good. And depressing. And sad. And anger-inducing. And stomach churning. It would be an emotional roller-coaster-ride akin to my introduction to Roots on ABC in February ’77, when I was only seven years old.

So what stopped me from seeing it? My ten-year-old son. I wanted him to see the film with me. But I also knew that he would have a lot of questions. Outside of family and his visits to watch me teach my American and World History classes, my son has had little exposure to race in popular culture in an obvious sense. Most of his friends in our suburban, middle-class Silver-Spring-world are White, and his other Black friends have even less exposure to race than our deliberate injections (or inoculations) for our son.

I decided not to take him to see 12 Years A Slave because it would’ve been two hours of questions in a crowded theater, with those sitting around us ready to strangle us for ruining their watching experience. But I did queue it via Netflix weeks before it came out on DVD, with the expectation that we would watch it during his Spring Break, Easter Week.

As soon as I told my son that we were watching 12 Years A Slave last week, he became whiny and upset. Whiny because his time away from anime and Disney shows would be interrupted with parenting. Upset because of the movie title and its implications. As my son said to me when he was upset, “You made me watch Roots last year!” Well, we watched three hours of it, enough for him to see the sequence of kidnapping, the Middle Passage, slave auctions, running away, rape, whippings, and Kunta Kinte’s foot cut off. I guess the message of slavery and history really did stick with him!

Noah trying to look cool at  The Gap store, Chevy Chase, MD, March 28, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Noah trying to look cool at The Gap store, Chevy Chase, MD, March 28, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

We finally sat down and watched 12 Years A Slave Thursday evening. And yes, Noah did have a ton of questions, about Solomon Northrup, about free Blacks, kidnapping, mistreatment and the concept of property, about race, sexual attraction and rape, and about the rule of law. But I was more surprised about two things. One, my son sat through most of the two-and-a-quarter hour film, and only got up twice. Two, he paid serious attention in a way that he hadn’t appeared to in watching serious films before.

Still, my son was more than happy to return to his Nintendo 3DS and the land of Disney shows before bedtime that evening. The fact that he fell asleep right after bedtime, though, made it obvious, at least to me, that we’d given him more thought for food about history, race, and his own heritage.

And though I don’t think the movie was as epic as the hype-meisters have presented it to be, it was a great film, with great acting — I’m not sure if todays American actors could’ve pulled off Ejiofor’s, Fassbender’s or Lupita Nyong’o’s roles. 12 Years A Slave is also an important film, at least in terms of interrogating the meaning of race and inhumanity in this world. I just hope that those messages made it into my son’s conscious thinking. Time will tell, but enlightenment is a journey, not a race.


Boy @ The Window – 1st Anniversary!

April 17, 2014

Nope, no balloons or streamers for this one, the one-year anniversary since I put out the first e-book version of Boy @ The Window on Amazon Kindle. Yay, me! It’s been a pretty good twelve months, one of a few highs and a bunch of lows in selling and promoting the book, in moving forward with a plan, only to have tossed it aside for a new set of plans for the remainder of 2014 and 2015.

The bit of encouraging news — aside from some royalties for Boy @ The Window so far — is that there are a couple of places reviewing it now (finally), and I’m finally moving along with promoting the book. Beyond that, there are few things tougher psychologically than book promotions. This is why folks hire publicists — emotional distance can be helpful in reaching out to friends and strangers.

But, from the feedback (mostly through email and Facebook) I’ve gotten so far, people really like Boy @ The Window. Trust me, when a reader tells you they couldn’t put the book down once they started to read it, that’s an emotional boost! It’s part of what has enabled me to keep going on this venture into the cyclone of the publishing world.

I’ve planned for attending BookExpo America for the first time at the end of next month in New York. It’ll likely be a gigantic sea of authors, publishers, editors and others looking for an edge. I just hope that it’s worth the money I’m about to spend there.

One thing that I should note, though, as I continue to write on my blog and proceed with Boy @ The Window promotions. There are plenty of posts here that aren’t in the memoir, and plenty of stories in Boy @ The Window that I haven’t posted here. You can get some idea of what’s in the book from reading my posts, but it would be far from a complete picture. Buy a copy. Take it for a spin. It’ll make you laugh and cry, angry and hopeful, and all at times in the same paragraph.


Stinking Up The Joint

April 15, 2014

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture's low resolution and related subject matter.

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture’s low resolution and related subject matter.

Puberty is often a confusing and scatterbrained time even for the most well-adjusted of folks. Changes in body chemistry, hair growth, body parts, height, weight and sleep patterns are all part of this excruciating rite of passage. When thrown in with the realities of poverty and the cruelty of Humanities and Mount Vernon High School, puberty was also a long march of embarrassing moments.

One of my last embarrassing moment strictly thanks to puberty came around this time three decades ago. It was an unusually warm early April Tuesday in ’84, one in which I was hardly prepared. I’d just started using deodorant the year before, once spring had sprung in ’83, with basketball and softball as a regular part of gym class. In gym for ninth grade, we were in the swimming pool for March and April.

We just happened to be out of deodorant at 616 while I was in the midst of this class. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem, except for the fact that the cool weather of early spring had given way to a sudden heatwave, bringing temps into the upper seventies the second week in April. On that fateful Tuesday, I tried one of my Mom’s home remedies, and put a baking soda paste on my armpits, hoping to conceal my still new manly smell.

Well, it actually did work, at least from periods one through six. Then it was time for gym. I didn’t count on the fact that the high level of chlorine in the pool would completely wash away my makeshift deodorant. Nor did I consider that the swimming pool area would be about ten degrees warmer than it was outdoors. Nor did I think about the fact that we ordinary students weren’t allowed to shower after swimming or any other gym activity, for that matter. That was reserved for the school’s athletes — equipment must be protected from the “animals,” as some administrators and parents saw fit to describe us.

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

So, no deodorant, in a hot area of an already warm school with the air conditioning turned off, and with no opportunity to rinse off — what do you think happened eighth period? I went to Geometry class, completely unable to conceal my underarm stench. From about the second minute on, my equally sweaty classmates complained about “the smell” and “the stink,” all the while, fanning themselves with manila folders. Even with Mr. Louis Cuglietto’s windows open, it didn’t help — there was no wind to speak of.

But of all the sweat and smells, mine was the one that stood out most. Why? Because, despite it all, I remained an engaged student, and raised my right hand to answer questions. Which meant that I raised my right arm, and anyone within a six-foot radius could smell me. After ten minutes of complaints, I put my arms down, and held them close to my body for the remainder of class, looking forward to the end of the school day.

After class, Cuglietto pulled me aside to tell me, “You’re a man now. You need to get some deodorant,” as if he was offering sage advice or tough love. This wasn’t the first time Cuglietto played his version of poor assumptions about race, class and gender, and it wouldn’t be his last. I ignored him, and went on my way home.

But I didn’t stop there. I went over to Jimme’s on South 10th that evening. It was the middle of the week, a time of hungover sobriety for my father, which meant he would be home early from work. I bummed $20 off him while taking a stick of his surplus Speed Stick with me.

Is there a lesson here? Remember to keep deodorant in stock no matter what? Don’t swim with baking-soda-for-deodorant under your arms? That some teachers and classmates wouldn’t understand a moment of my life even if I passed it onto them like Brandon Lee’s character from the movie The Crow (1994)? That I was poor and in puberty, and things like this sometimes happen? Yeah, sure, I guess. The real lesson here is to remember, not for revenge or retribution, but so that younger others like me know that they’re not alone, so that the story can be told, later and better.


My Christianity at 30

April 8, 2014

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

No, today’s not my thirtieth birthday — I’m still forty-four and twenty months away from entering middle age. But, it has been thirty years since I converted to Christianity, two weeks before Easter Sunday ’84, sometime between 8:55 and 9 am. You could say — and many would — that this marks three full decades since my spiritual rebirth, a milestone as significant as my birthday on the final Saturday of the ’60s at Mount Vernon Hospital.

In many ways, it was a renewal, a reboot, a beginning of sorts. To claim control over my life and my destiny, at least, as much control as I could muster. In the past thirty years, the issues of control and perfection, faith, knowledge and wisdom, and the expectations I have of myself, my God and those who either don’t see God as real or as real to me have remained constants in my life.

Perhaps this has been because of how I became a Christian in the first place, a bit more than three months after an aborted suicide attempt on my fourteenth birthday. With my abusive stepfather Maurice and his insistence that we were Hebrew-Israelites, I couldn’t be open about my conversion or the thought and faith process that led me to Christianity. At least, I didn’t feel strong enough back then to be open about it. I remained a clandestine Christian for five months before I stood up to the idiot after my first day of tenth grade — my first time not wearing my kufi since sixth grade — and dared him to kill me. He didn’t, and it was my first full victory against my stepfather.

As for my classmates, the splits between the denominational Christian, agnostic, atheist and Nation of Islam sets were ones I’d become aware of long before my conversion. And, by tenth grade, it was obvious that many of my immediate Humanities classmates were about as accepting of the spiritual as Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens. Maybe not openly so, but the barrier of intolerance and disdain was there.

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (http://www.flrministry.com).

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (http://www.flrministry.com).

Over the years, my walk with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has grown more complicated, with euphoric highs, quiet lows, and periods of almost evangelical revival along the way. Still, I remain faithful, even as I remain disillusioned, about my life, humanity, the universe and the afterlife. I still pray, and believe that God listens to my prayers, but understand that prayer without action is tantamount to talking to myself. “Faith without works is dead,” is what the good book actually says. Unfortunately, there are way too many alleged Christians in exalted places and in positions of power who practice neither faith nor the works of Jesus. All they do is talk about their Christianity while acting like pagan Roman emperors.

I no longer welcome debate about what and in whom I believe. I find those who smirk and call my walk the equivalent of someone with a mental illness or an imaginary friend about as bigoted as a Christian who believes that all atheists are the sons and daughters of Satan. There’s a certain hubris in claiming the nonexistence of the spiritual because the people whom are representatives of the religious are themselves flawed and full of crap. Then, I guess, there’s a certain hypocrisy in the universe, in evolution, in all life, and I don’t think any of us have enough knowledge to be that cynical and nihilistic.

I no longer regularly attend church. I’ve been to at least a dozen churches in the DC area over the past decade and a half, and combined, I’ve gotten less out of all of those services than in one service I attended at my mother-in-law’s church in Pittsburgh last September. Heck, I’ve found more wisdom and compassion and realness in some of the courses I’ve taught than at most of these churches. Church is a place for fellowship with other Christians, but I have a hard time with my own contradictions, much less those of others.

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (http://izquotes.com).

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (http://izquotes.com).

For my son Noah’s sake, though, I want to find a place or two where we can feel comfortable exposing him to Christianity. Places where the hypocrisy quotient isn’t so high, and with the understanding that this is a long spiritual walk, not a magical carpet ride of infinite miracles and treasure chests full of gold. I’m tired of the megachurches, the Gospel of Prosperity, the overly emotional, the attempts to strangle human behaviors, and the endless predictions of apocalypse based on homophobia, misogyny, Whiteness, and a terrible understanding of history.

But I do have a one-on-one spiritual walk that’s mine, that no one — atheist or evangelical — can take away from me. It’s a walk that has taken me far from the despair and abuse of my youth, warts and all.


On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.


My First Mugging

April 3, 2014

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

This is another story not in Boy @ The Window, though it could’ve been. It was thirty-five years ago this week that a group of my preteen neighbors from the Pearsall Drive projects (now the Vernon Woods co-op community) jumped me on my way home from the store, beat me up and stole a grand total of four dollars. It seems like such a small thing now, getting mugged for the first time, a block from 616 East Lincoln, our apartment building on the eastern edge of Mount Vernon, New York. Still, I learned a few things on that first Saturday in April ’79 about myself, my older brother, my mother and humans in general, things that haven’t changed in the three and a half decades since.

That particular day was definitely a crisp early spring one, windy, partly sunny and cloudy, just warm enough not to need a winter coat. I’d barely been out the house at all since attempting to run away from home some four months earlier. In the months in between, I’d been engrossed in reading everything I could, especially World Book Encyclopedia, not to mention what I hadn’t already read in Charles Schulz’ Peanuts series.

I hadn’t been out the apartment to do much of anything other than go to school or to the store. So little was my time outside that when I had to do a full food shop, I’d forgotten a few basic rules about protecting myself. Like making sure that a group of nine-to-fourteen-year-olds weren’t following us home from the local grocery store. And making sure to take the most direct route home when I could, or a circuitous route home when necessary. Going west on the north side of East Lincoln, making a left on Station Place, then a left on Lafayette Avenue, then a final left on Bradley, walking four short blocks that would’ve left us in front of 616.

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

On this day, the circuitous route would’ve been better. But that would’ve meant me being better, too. I was already not feeling well when I left with Darren for the grocery store. I had a stomach ache, and the diarrhea that came with it. So my best bet was to go to the store at 671 East Lincoln with Darren, cross over to the south side of East Lincoln, and walk as quickly as we could back to 616.

Only, the half-dozen boys trailing me and Darren back home had crossed with us, and immediately tried to surround us near East Lincoln and Pearsall. Darren, to his credit, ran off for home, leaving me alone and holding two paper bags of groceries. Somewhere between “nigga” and “muthafucka” and “giv’ me the money,” I struggled and ran away with the groceries, where after a minute or two, I ended up in the bottom floor of one of the project buildings.

I was jumped again, punched in the face and the mouth until one of the wannabe thugs had busted my lip and left me bleeding down the side of my face. I somehow crapped on myself during the run, but hadn’t noticed because I was too busy trying to not get mugged. After they took the four dollars’ worth of change I had in my right pant pocket, another wannabe said, “Oh shit, the punk dukeyed on hisself!” They laughed and left me there, in this abandoned, junky apartment, garbage and groceries and two ripped grocery bags all over the room, bloodied and soiled.

I picked up all I could from what remained of the groceries and began the long one-block walk home. By the time I walked through the front door, there was my Mom, angry with me about the groceries. “What I’m gonna do with this!” she said. It was afterward that she noticed my condition. “You let them kids scare the shit out of you!,” she gasped with what seemed like a bit of laughter in her voice. I said, very angrily, “I told you before I left that I had diarrhea!,” then went into the bathroom and cried.

Oscar de la Hoya's face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

Oscar de la Hoya’s face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

My Mom came in later to help me wash myself down. In the meantime, I had a bruised left cheek, a busted lip, feces all over my lower body, and soreness all over my ribs and stomach. It took about twenty minutes in all, but by the time I was done and washed, I went into mine and Darren’s bedroom and fell asleep.

It was April 7, ’79, and I already knew that I couldn’t count on my older brother to help whenever there would be a crisis. I knew that my Mom cared about me, but apparently not enough to keep me protected. I knew that the assholes that lived around me wouldn’t have minded it if I’d been run over by a Mack truck, as long as they could get a dollar out of me. I knew, most of all, that I needed to look out for myself as much as I could, since there weren’t any cousins or other family around to look out for me.

So when at the end of ’83, the city had sold the projects at Pearsall Drive to a real estate developer, though I was sad for a few individuals, I wasn’t sad in general. Those wannabes had helped make one relatively small aspect of my life — going to the store, going outside and going to Wilson’s Woods — miserable. And with so much misery in my life already, I was glad to see many of those kids move away.


Bow Down to Isabel Wilkerson

March 27, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

I’ve finally read Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) this month, just as I finished teaching a mini-course in post-1865 African American history. If I ever have the opportunity again to choose my own books for a survey-level course in African American history, this would be one of my cornerstone books. I know I stand at the back of a very long list when I say this, but this is a wonderfully powerful and insightful book, with language and a writing style equally as tender.

This was what I wrote regarding my first impressions on Goodreads.com:

My God – this book is a masterpiece! Wilkerson has done what historians and writers as diverse and groundbreaking as Kenneth Kusmer, David Levering Lewis, Joe William Trotter, Jr., Nicholas Lemann, Thomas Sugrue and James Grossman couldn’t (and in a couple of cases, wouldn’t) do. She put flesh, blood and bones on the Black individuals and families who migrated “up North” and out West throughout the bulk of the twentieth century. She didn’t distract with neo-Marxist, post-modern, post-structural, proletarian, or other overly academic theories for understanding the “hows” and “whys” behind Black migration between 1915 and the 1970s.

Reading Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) was like reading into my own family’s pasts (my mother and father came to New York City — specifically, the Bronx (Pelham Parkway and Wakefield) — during the 1960s from Arkansas and Georgia/Florida before moving to Mount Vernon). She captured so well the aspirations, the inspirations and the trepidations of the people who migrated, and the things they faced upon arrival. Wilkerson, most of all, grounded herself in the scholarly, but weaved it into a story that was nothing less than literary. If you’re a US or African American historian, a Black Studies, Black Women’s Studies or American Studies scholar, you must incorporate in your curriculum if you haven’t already. If you’re a writer who aspires to tell an important story — one that educates as it entertains — then The Warmth of Other Suns is a great place to start and Wilkerson a great writer to emulate.

Wilkerson called the Great Migration one of the great events of the twentieth century. But it was more than that. It was one of the great events in American history, a silent and gradual revolution on par with westward expansion and more significant than the second wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the US between 1870 and 1914. I and millions of others like me should know. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I wasn’t a child of two Black migrants who left farms in the South for New York City.


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