The Great Migration and its lasting legacy

I just finished reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns which is an amazing work of research and writing. The detail and care she takes in relating this most important of stories for African Americans is impressive, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me.  When my mother passed away two years ago, I was determined to learn more about that part of the great migration that had gone from Louisiana to Los Angeles.  My mother moved from New Orleans (she was originally from Opelousas) to Los Angeles in the late 1940s.  I have a large number of relatives in the Los Angeles area who also made that move, but have been unable to find a book or research that looked in any detail at that portion of the great migration which went West. One of the main stories in this book is about Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Monroe Louisiana, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

One of the things that touched me the most in Wilkerson’s book was in the final chapter, when she examined the issue of whether the blacks that had gone to the North and West had actually done better than those that had stayed behind.  She debunks many of the studies that said the migrants brought with them some of the ills that later would infect the inner cities – rather the migrants were more likely to be married, hard working and to have greater family stability.  Many successful politicians like Bill Bradley in Los Angeles, Coleman Young in Detroit and Harold Washington in Chicago were the children of migrants. However, migrants still faced discrimination and many struggled to succeed in places like Chicago, where they had more freedom, but were hemmed into areas where overcrowding and poor housing were the rule.

My parents chose to settle in Spokane, Washington after my father retired from the Air Force.  I often wondered why they chose that place, but now I have a better understanding of their choice.  For one thing, Spokane was similar to the area outside of Pittsburgh where my father grew up (his parents moved there from Virginia and Georgia). I was born in Spokane in 1964 and the next decade would be one of great upheaval in places like Los Angeles and other big cities around the country.  Spokane was a place where time stood still, it felt like growing up in what I imagined the 1950s to be.  The streets were safe, we went to good schools, and issues of discrimination were relatively minor.  My cousins who grew up in Los Angeles during a similar time period face many more challenges than we did on the bucolic streets of Spokane.

Wilkerson’s book has helped me to realize that I am a product of my parent’s choices.  In many ways it is ironic that I now live in Texas, a place that many blacks left to find a better life in places like Los Angeles.  Times have changed and my boys have a good life in Austin, Texas.  However, I cannot discount the impact that growing up in the Northwest had on me and my life path, even though I grew up after much of Jim Crow was dismantled (but my oldest siblings did not).  As Wilkerson writes:

Many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving.  Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves.  It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross […] and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West.  All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears.  Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (p. 535)

Wilkerson’s book is a gift to those of us who want to learn more about the times our parents lived through.  As I grow older and watch my own children grow up, I gain more appreciation of the times my parents lived through, the sacrifices they made for us, and how the decisions that they made defined me as a person. My mother also passed on her love of foods like gumbo and okra that was one of the few ways we managed to maintain a small link to her cultural heritage.  This book has encouraged me to learn more about that heritage, and to gain a better understanding of my own life in the context of a nation that is still grappling with a long history of racial injustice.

Of love and tragedy

It has been a weekend of tragedy and hope.  About a year ago, my nephew, Alfonso, married his long-time boyfriend Joris in the Netherlands in a small ceremony with Joris’ family.  Since most of our family is in Seattle they decided to have a second ceremony and reception this summer with all of the family. Unfortunately, Alfonso’s father succumbed to kidney cancer in January, and for a while the ceremony was in limbo.  However, our family has had to deal with a series of losses over the past two years, and it was felt that it was important to celebrate the love that we all shared and in particular, the love between Alfonso and Joris.

Not everyone in the family has been comfortable with Alfonso coming out of the closet, and then marrying his partner.  Many were worried that Alfonso’s father, Rick, would have a hard time with it, particularly with him getting the news after his cancer diagnosis over three years ago. Rick knew his son better than most.  His love for his son outweighed any concerns he may have had.  Although he wasn’t with us physically on Saturday, he was most definitely with us in spirit and in our hearts.  His example of his love for his son, new son-in-law and family showed in his children as they came together to celebrate.

Losing anyone is difficult, particularly when violence is involved, and my heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and survived the horrendous attack on Friday, in Aurora, Colorado.  Sometimes it feels like shadows hang over us all, having lost so many loved ones in the last few years.  But Saturday’s wedding was an affirmation of love and life, even in the face of hatred and prejudice. On a beautiful sunny day, my nephew was able to celebrate his love for Joris, and the life that they have together.  One can only hope that all states in the U.S. will one day show the tolerance of the Netherlands and allow them to make their union legal in Alfonso’s home state of Washington, just like they ultimately made it legal for interracial marriages like mine.Image

Work, Life and Responsibility

I have been following the deluge of blog posts, tweets, etc…which followed the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article on “Having it All” — I gave my own response on “Having a life” here in my blog, and also tweeted my take, which led her to quote me in her response (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/the-having-it-all-debate-convinced-me-to-stop-saying-having-it-all/259284/#).  The overall consensus seems to be that there is no such thing as “having it all” — neither men nor women really have the time to do all that they want to do.  However, for those in privileged positions life can be about choices. For those less privileged there often aren’t many options. There are always responsibilities that can’t be ignored.

Those of us who have means also have a responsibility, not just to wait for our turn in power, but to push for change in direct and hopefully effective ways.  As a first generation college-goer, I always felt that I had to give something back for everything that I had managed to achieve.  I started my career after college in the nonprofit sector, then decided to go back to graduate school.  Since then I have been very successful, but I have always kept my eye on what needs to be done — this is one area where I truly know that I can’t do it all. As one who lives a rather privileged life, I do my best to give back to the community, both through my work with organizations like the YWCA, Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council, KLRU, Planned Parenthood and my own company Take Back the Trail. I have chosen to focus on a few areas like health, fitness, mental health, and public affairs where I can contribute. I push for women’s rights and policies that help women and minorities in academia and the public sphere. Getting to change takes all of us who have the means to look at what we can do from the bottom up, as well as the top down, but as in almost all areas of life, there has to be balance.  When my personal life has become overwhelming I back off, and I hope that as things settle down I will be able to do more. Sometimes family responsibilities that aren’t expected, like dealing with long term illness and death, have a major impact on my ability to function, let alone do my usual juggling act.  I have also learned to choose my battles — there’s no use banging my head against the wall when change isn’t likely to come.

I hope this discussion continues and that we bring men and people of all backgrounds into the debate.  I’m not sure what will lead to change in the way we approach work, life, and family for all, but I hope to do my small part that will help lead to the kinds of support systems we all need.  I’m skeptical, since we seem to be moving away from providing support structures in an era of cuts to basic programs, but we need to fight this, too.  Government needs to play it’s role in developing those structures (e.g., childcare, equal pay) that would allow more women to have the means to play important roles in our democracy. And we all need to do our part to help make it happen.