The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson explores the lives of three African-Americans to reveal the larger phenomenon of the decades-long Great (Black) Migration out of the South during the 20th century. In her own snapshot account, “the book is about the migration experiences of three people who become representative of the larger whole which was essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, to the Midwest, and the West from 1915 to 1970.” (C-SPAN Q&A, September 26, 2010)
In the interview from which the quote is taken, Wilkerson also alludes to the larger migration across the Atlantic to the ‘New World’ (of course not ‘new’ to the tens of millions of people already here–from the Taino and Mixtec of the Caribbean and Central America to the Lenape and Aymara of North and South America).
Although the term ‘migrant’ is usually thought of as a voluntary act, the fact is that most of the migration across the Atlantic to the Americas up until the early nineteenth century was forced. At least 80% of the total 12.5 million migrants to the Americas from Europe and Africa between 1502 and 1820 were black captives, with many of the white migrants having come as indentured servants–often indistinguishable in practice from the lives of those who were enslaved.
Of the 10.5 million African migrants that were part of the transatlantic slave trade, about 4% went to what would become the U.S. The vast majority went to different parts of Latin America–nearly 40% (or about 5 million people) to Brazil alone.
What were the experiences of those migrants? Much can and has been written about on the topic of the African Diaspora in the Americas but let’s pan out even wider. What of the migration of Africans within Africa itself (the first migratory experiences)? And into the Mediterranean world (approximately two million)? And what about the Indian Ocean world (at least four million)?
What were the experiences of those African migrants and their descendants? In the Indian Ocean world, for instance, theirs was a combination of free and forced migration; many went on their own volition searching for better economic opportunities, as merchants and sailors; many migrated as soldiers, as in the case of “Abyssinians” in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some of whom rose to significant levels of power as chief ministers (Malik Ambar from Ethiopia being among the most prominent in India).
Migrations, be they of whatever people, African, European, or Asian (and the thousands of ways that one can break each of these categories down or apart) has been part of the human experience ever since we, as a species, began to explore and search for better lives somewhere beyond what we knew … or taken forcibly to places beyond the horizon.
The degree to which one migrated ‘free’ or ‘forced’ is a matter of historical and geographical context.
In the case of African Americans in the Great Migration of the 20th century moving from the rural South to the cities and then North, to the Midwest, and the West, there were ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors: violence, Jim Crow (the legal disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans), and lack of economic opportunities, were among the ‘push’ factors to migrate out of the South; social, economic, and political opportunities were ‘pull’ factors in the migration. To be sure, those who left were looking for greater freedom, but, really, how free were they in their choice and what they came to encounter outside of the rural South? Wilkerson’s book answers this in moving prose.
Richard Wright, from whose own prose the title of Wilkerson’s book is borrowed, is one of the six million testaments of the black migration experience during the Great Migration. The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, he set out on his journey in 1927 to Chicago, then New York, and eventually Paris … forever searching. A little over a century earlier, the enslaved Senegalese Abdul Rahman, whose story as the “Prince Among Slaves” has been well-documented, landed in Natchez, Mississippi, not far from where Wright was born, as part of the transatlantic slave trade.
Rahman was among the few who participated in a reverse migration, back to Africa–in his case back to Futa Jallon, West Africa, after being in America for nearly half a century. A kind of precursor to the reverse migration to the South among African Americans …
In some ways, we are all on the move. Perhaps not in our individual lives, but collectively, historically, and for as many reasons as there are stars that we can see as we search for the warmth of other suns.
Omar H. Ali, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History in the African American & African Diaspora Studies Program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org