These two books about migrations within America and to America have given me a lot to think about. They go beneath the surface and find both heartwarming and unsettling consequences.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Between 1915 and 1970 six million Black Americans fled the South for cities in the North and West. Six million! This book masterfully brings together historical data, sociological analysis, interviews, poetry, song lyrics, and storytelling to create a compelling account of this migration.
The inside cover’s book description provides this overview: “Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to previously untapped data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.”
Wilkerson focuses on three particular individuals, their histories, journeys, tribulations, triumphs, struggles, and their evolving commitments to their choices. Through the stories of Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, I understood and empathized with their difficult decisions, and was horrified by the circumstances that drove them away from the South. I was also very impressed by their hard work and determination in successfully creating new lives for themselves and their families.
Although this is a big book (543 pages) it is a thoroughly engaging read. Through it, I learned a lot about the day-to-day realities of slavery, the terrifying risks of escape, and the difficulties of re-establishing in a strange place. I was surprised by many of the things I learned, but particularly by the rigidity of the social class divisions both within and outside of the Black community. I had not realized how former slaves continued to be discriminated against after they had left slavery, but in less obvious ways that were difficult, and sometimes impossible, to address.
As the migrants moved (usually many times) they also had children, changed jobs, established new communities and, when it became possible, they revisited their hometowns. As these personal changes took place, so did social and political environments. America in 1970 had a very different character from the America of 1915. So different, in fact, that it feels as though the two historical periods could have been hundreds of years and not decades apart.
I thought I knew about slavery and its effects, but through this book I realized how little I really understood. I recommend it to anyone who wants a more nuanced understanding.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
The Eapen family emigrated to America from India in the early 1980s, and this story tells that tale, but it is much, much more than a fictionalized biography. It is a wonderful exploration of character, culture, and echoes from the past.
Thomas Eapen, a neurosurgeon, his wife Kamala, an enthusiastic cook, and their gifted son Akhil arrive in Albuquerque with high hopes. Shortly after arriving they welcome their daughter, Amina, into the world and together they navigate all the expected and unexpected difficulties of adjustment to a different way of life.
We learn their story through the eyes of thirty-year-old Amina who works as a professional photographer in Seattle. She reflects on a family trip back to Salem, in India, when she was a small child and how they left her grandmother’s home earlier than planned. She also recalls the difficulties she and her brother experienced in being social outcasts in their American schools.
Amina’s professional life takes a dramatic turn when she takes a picture that traumatizes her. It is of an Indigenous American activist who deliberately plunges off a bridge, and the fame it brings her causes an unbearable personal conflict.
We also learn that her brother died in a car crash as a young man and then, later, her father begins behaving strangely and she is urged to come home. As she tries to help her father and reassure her mother, Amina provides for the reader a thoughtful bridge between the past and the present, the old country and the new.
This is more than just a slice of immigrant life. It is an engaging study of complex and endearing characters, of familial ties that are stronger than the family members might wish, and messy relationships that endure hardships regardless of all the dysfunctions.
I don’t know why Mira Jacob chose the book’s title, but it may have to do with the ways in which we sometimes sleepwalk through life and all its vicissitudes. The dance, in this context, may be the ways we accommodate the changes in those closest to us. I’m just guessing, but this book describes all those things beautifully. It also describes some delicious food! There is a lot to like in this tender reflection on some uncomfortable realities.