In this historical narrative detailing America’s Great Migration, Wilkerson gives life to the otherwise underresearched and often overlooked movement of Black Americans fleeing the apartheid South in the hopes of finding a more free life in the Northern states. By telling the stories of three individuals — Ida Mae, George Starling, and Robert Foster — who chose to make the life-changing journey, Wilkerson takes the reader on a trip through time and space, traveling from the 1930s to present day; from the expanse of the southern country’s rolling cotton plantations to the concrete structures of the urban North.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wilkerson’s novel is the ongoing theme of individual versus group empowerment; despite partaking in a mass movement, these American protagonists see themselves as individuals making strictly individual choices. Whether out of necessity or in an effort at self-empowerment, each person’s escape from the homicidal, life-threatening realities of the south leads them into an equally violent milieu of racial injustice. While the de jure segregationist policies of the south may have prevented Black americans from achieving socioeconomic independence, the de facto northern regimes of inequality similarly thwarted migrants’ attempts at social progress.
In the face of these racially-dictated regimes of power, the migrants whose stories Wilkerson highlights manage to find a means of empowering themselves and one another, be it via urban community groups or academia. But the worlds in which they find themselves, regardless of their efforts, is one in which opportunities for social and economic growth are increasingly dictated by structural limitations imposed by a society that never addressed the multiple regimes of apartheid and exclusion on which it was built.
Wilkerson’s story, which begins in 1937 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, ends in present day with the inaugural address of President Barack Obama in January of 2009:
The stories of Ida Mae, George Starling, and Robert Foster tell the reader exactly how close we have come to realizing this common humanity. And how much farther we have yet to go.