Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Great Migration

After the jump is an excerpt from an article in the current New Yorker that describes the experiences of one woman, Mae Ida Brandon, who was part of the Great Migration, a movement of 1.75 million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West between 1910 and 1930.

I've posted it for a few reasons. Not only is the writing is out of this world, but parts of Brandon's experience parallel the Jewish experience: she, like many of us, was driven by the cruelty of the local majority into a diaspora. There are other reasons, but I'll leave them unsaid as an exercise for the reader

Read it now.
Mae Ida Brandon was born in a wood house in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1913. She was ornery, and a tomboy, and told people to call her Ida Mae—it sounded less old-fashioned—as soon as she could tell anybody what to do. She walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse that went up to the eighth grade, which was as high as you could go, and where she was once whipped with a switch for misspelling Philadelphia, a place she had never heard of. She hated picking cotton, but she liked killing snakes. Once, when she was six or seven—sometime, anyway, before her father died—she rode a horse to the blacksmith’s to get a piece of plow sharpened, and the blacksmith’s two sons, white boys, dangled her over a well to watch her squirm. When she was thirteen, the Carter brothers, two black boys, said something to some white lady, as best she could remember, and were promptly lynched. “If it is necessary, every negro in the state will be lynched,” James. K. Vardaman had said in 1903, the year that he was first elected governor of Mississippi; the year Ida Mae was born was the year that he joined the U.S. Senate. In those years, by one reckoning, someone in the South was hanged or burned alive every four days. The rest of the Carters moved to Milwaukee, which Ida Mae hadn’t heard of, either.

George Gladney came to court Ida Mae Brandon in 1928, when she was fifteen and he was twenty-two, and though her mother, Miss Theenie, thought him too dark and too old (“He’s old enough for your daddy”), he was serious. “He wasn’t no smiling man,” Ida Mae said. In 1929, she married him. They moved to a cabin near the Natchez Trace, becoming sharecroppers for a man named Edd Pearson. They worked all day and all year, and at the end of it they usually broke even, which was considered lucky, because most sharecroppers ended up with nothing but debt to show for their labor, at least by the boss’s accounting. A woman was expected to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day. (“It was like picking a hundred pounds of feathers,” Wilkerson writes, “a hundred pounds of lint dust.” That description takes on more meaning, late in the book, after Wilkerson travels to Chickasaw with Ida Mae, and they pick a few bolls of cotton together.) Ida Mae learned to make blackberry cobbler and tomato pie. She kept chickens and wore a dress made out of a flour sack. Before long, she had her first baby, a girl they named Velma. It felt like thunder: “I could see the pain comin’ down on top of the house and keep comin’.” Another girl came soon enough but she was taken by the flux. The next was a boy, whom they named James, after a white boy in town Ida Mae took care of, thinking that it might bring him luck.

One night in 1937, someone knocked on the door—Mr. Edd and four other white men, with guns. They were looking for George’s cousin Joe Lee, sure that he had stolen some turkeys. They found him, sneaking out the back. They tied him with hog wire and dragged him to the woods and beat him with chains and then drove him to town and left him in jail. The turkeys, which had wandered off, wandered back in the morning. George got Joe Lee out of jail, and used grease to peel his clothes off him, because they were stuck on with blood. He went home and told Ida Mae, “This the last crop we making.” They sold almost everything they owned, piece by piece, on the sly, and told anyone who asked, “We just running out of room.” They got a ride in a truck from Miss Theenie’s house to the depot, carrying quilts and the children and a Bible and a box of fried chicken, and boarded the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. They stopped in Chicago. “What did it look like at that time, Chicago?” Wilkerson asked. “It looked like Heaven to me then,” Ida Mae said.

They got off the train in Milwaukee, where Ida Mae’s sister had gone. Ida Mae had told no one that she was pregnant, and now she wanted to go home to have the baby. She gave birth to a girl, in 1938, in Miss Theenie’s house, and named her Eleanor, for the First Lady. That year, Theodore Bilbo, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, helped filibuster against a bill that would make lynching a federal crime. “If you succeed in the passage of this bill,” Bilbo said, “you will open the floodgates of Hell.” When Ida Mae went back North, she didn’t go to Milwaukee; she went to Chicago, where George had found work as an iceman. In 1940, she went to a firehouse on the South Side of Chicago and voted, for the first time in her life. Roosevelt defeated Willkie. George got a job at the Campbell’s Soup factory. Ida Mae worked at Walther Memorial, as a hospital aide. She liked to watch the babies being born: “They always come out hollering.”

In 1966, when Ida Mae Gladney was fifty-three, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago. “Chicago has not turned out to be the New Jerusalem,” he told the crowd. (“They had him way up on something high,” Ida Mae recalled. “I never did get to see him good.”) The next year, Ida Mae and her family— James and Eleanor had married and had their own children—bought a house together, a three-family in South Shore, for thirty thousand dollars. Soon, every white family on the block had moved out. “Lord, they move quick,” Ida Mae said.

Isabel Wilkerson met Ida Mae Gladney in 1996, when Ida Mae was eighty-three years old. She was still living in the house that her family had bought in 1967, in the second-floor apartment. She sat, and looked out her bay window at the street. Watching her, Wilkerson writes, as if from her notebook.

A man is selling drugs out of a trash can. She can see, plain as day, where he puts them and how he gets them out of the trash can for the white customers in their SUVs with suburban license plates. Another hides his stash in his mouth. And when customers come up, he pulls a piece of inventory from his tongue.

They call Ida Mae “Grandma.” They warn her when not to come out, “because we don’t know what time we gon’ start shootin’.”

Not long after Wilkerson met Ida Mae, she went with her to a neighborhood-watch meeting, in Beat 421, at the South Shore Presbyterian Church. Beat 421 is in District 13, which, in 1997, had a new state senator. When Barack Obama came to Beat 421 to explain what state senators do, Ida Mae listened politely.

When Ida Mae Gladney visited Mississippi with Isabel Wilkerson, someone asked, “Ida Mae, you gonna be buried down here?” “No,” she said. “I’m gonna be in Chicago.” She lived to be ninety-one. She died in her sleep, in 2004, at home. She had spent years sitting in a baby-blue plastic-covered armchair, looking out at the streets of her city. “The half ain’t been told,” she once said. Wilkerson took that down.

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