[Libs-Or] Fwd: Beyond the Margins: A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Max Macias max.macias at gmail.com
Wed Jun 29 07:25:22 PDT 2016


From: Max Macias <mmacias at pcc.edu>
Date: Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 7:22 AM
Subject: Fwd: Beyond the Margins: A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson
To: Max Macias <max.macias at gmail.com>

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Oregon Humanities <k.holt at oregonhumanities.org>
Date: Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 5:40 AM
Subject: Beyond the Margins: A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson
To: mmacias at pcc.edu

We can only publish so many essays in *Oregon Humanities* magazine's three
issues per year. Because we don't want our readers to miss out on great
work by Oregon writers and artists, we email an essay, book excerpt, or
video each month except April, August, and December, when the magazine is
published. A full archive of these pieces, which we call Beyond the
Margins, is available on our website

This month's selection is an excerpt of a conversation between Isabel
Wilkerson and Rukaiyah Adams. Another excerpt from this conversation was
published in the Spring 2016 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine
. Wilkerson and Adams will continue their conversation live at Think &
Drink at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland on Wednesday, July 20. Tickets,
$15, are available at albertarosetheatre.com

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*"I'm Not Staying Here Another Day"*
A conversation with Isabel Wilkerson and Rukaiyah Adams
*Isabel Wilkerson is the author of T*he Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic
Story of America's Great Migration*, which tells the stories of a few of
the nearly six million African Americans who, between 1915 and 1970, fled
the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life.
Rukaiyah Adams is a fourth-generation Oregonian whose family was part of
the Great Migration. They talked about the role of women in the Great
Migration and the resiliency of those who participated in it. The following
is an excerpt from their conversation.*

*Rukaiyah Adams*: Based on my family's story, the women really were the
ones who said, "Okay, we need to figure out something else here." The
stories are told within the male framework, like the male pastors who led
the church and who got jobs. But the real muscle was my great-grandmother
and her friends who basically gathered up four thousand people to show from
Louisiana to Oregon so that men could get work on the railroad and the
women went to work in the garment district. They were the force behind the
transition and really were the force behind the re-rooting in this new
place. What are your observations about the role that women played in
particular in the Great Migration that are distinct from the role that men

*Isabel Wilkerson*: Women were often the ones who were, in our society,
expected to have the primary role of taking care of the children. I have
heard many stories of women who, when they were expecting, and they had
been born and raised in the South, and they saw what was going on around
them, they saw how oppressive and dangerous--there were lynchings and there
were beatings and there were whippings in twentieth century time, meaning
we are not talking [about] enslavement--the women would say, "I do not want
my child raised here."

And the mothers would just say that, "I do not want my child here, period."
Together the husband and the wife would figure out, "We're getting out of
here because we're not raising our children here, we're just not going to
raise our children here." That was a universal, very common concern that
both men and women would express. But very strongly from the women--that
they were the ones who would put their foot down and say, "I'm not staying
here another day."

The other thing is that insecurities and threats against a person based on
gender were different and equally frightening. Women in the South during
that era--and you could say even now, but particularly during that
era--could not be assured of safe passage just going to work, could not be
assured safe passage in their homes by themselves. Anything can happen at
any given time and people in the upper caste--meaning the white
Southerners--could do whatever they wanted and there would be very little
that the men could do. They would attempt to protect their wives and their
women, but there were threats against them and they could lose their lives
even standing up for them. The world was so distorted that there were
reasons why men and women would have a strong urge to escape and to see
what life might be like somewhere else.

It depended on the family. For some families, it would be the man who would
go out first--it's a very common experience that the men go out first to go
and stake out some place in another city that was on the route of the
migration. Then in other cases it would be the women who would set forth. A
lot of it has to do with the circumstances of the individual, the
personality and force of will of that individual.

*Adams*: That's exactly happened to my family. My great-grandmother's
youngest son was killed by a police officer and that was the end for her of
participating in the protests in the South. At that point, she thought,
"For the sake of my unborn descendants, I've got to orchestrate this move."
She was the one who sent seven men out to seven cities around the country.
One of them went to Chicago, one went to Cleveland, one went to Long Beach.
My grandfather was the son she sent to Portland, and a year later he came
back and said, "I think we can make a life there, these are the reasons
why." And off four thousand people went and relocated to Portland. I had
never thought of her maternal drive as the force behind it, but her son had
died and she had seven more who were adults and she was just done with it.
And now here we are. . . .

*Wilkerson*: For the people in [*The Warmth of Other Suns*] there were
three roots, three migration streams. The stream to the West Coast included
your family, as a classic example of Louisiana out to the West Coast. In
the book, it's Los Angeles, because that was one of the biggest singular
receiving stations of the Great Migration out to the west. But African
Americans in the South, they went everywhere. There is no state they did
not go to. They went everywhere. They went to Maine, they went to Alaska,
they went to Hawaii. I actually met a woman who made the furthest possible
migration that you can make in this country­­. She went from Florida to

Portland and Seattle were receiving stations from Texas and Louisiana--and
other parts of the South, but primarily from Louisiana--as people spread
themselves all over the country and reclaimed their status as American
citizens. They were acting upon their birthright as American citizens whose
ancestors had helped to build this country for free. They had every right
to consider any place in the country where they felt there was opportunity
to raise their families and to live out what they hoped would be a version
of the American dream. . . .

Oregon was one of the states that actually prohibited Black people.
California had legislation that had been introduced to prevent Black people
from living in the state. Oregon was one of the states that actually acted
upon that quite some time ago, and you may know more about that than I do. it
is interesting that they took their chances and cast their lot in states
that had been-they may not have known the legislation of them on the books
at the time that they made the migration or that these states had been a
resistance in the past. They cast their lot, ironically, in states that had
a mixed history or a challenged history when it came to welcoming African
Americans to their land, their soil. They took that risk anyway.

*Adams*: The interesting thing and the ironic thing about Oregon--and I
think my great-grandmother was aware of the state's history of excluding
Black people--is that, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, there were
two people on the expedition that interacted with the Native tribes. One
was a woman named Sacagawea whose story most Americans know, but the other
person was a Black man named York. These territories were explored and
settled, in a way, as a result of an African American man who was capable
of speaking many local Indigenous languages.

And so even though there was this legal construct, the social fiber of the
place--it's the frontier--the legal overlay almost seems horrible, but it
couldn't change fundamentally that this is the frontier and intelligent
people thrive if they can tolerate the climate and have the willingness to
just set out and to build something. So that's an interesting tension, I
think, in the history of this place.

*Wilkerson*: Well, I think that is representative of the country as a
whole. People of African descent have been involved in every aspect of the
building of this country. Starting with Crispus Attucks in the
Revolutionary War, for example, and even the settling of Chicago--Chicago
was actually founded by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a man of African
descent. He was Haitian. He was a fur trader before there even was a
Chicago-he founded the place.

You cannot separate African Americans from American history. It's not
knowing the history that kind of erases the role of African Americans. It's
so unfortunate that the history does not include us as a part of the
storytelling of who we are as a nation--the fact that African Americans
have been at every step of the way in creating the country.

What you described is a perfect example of that--even though the laws might
be there to keep African Americans from participating, they're there
anyway. They were often there before the laws were created. It's a reminder
to me that we have a long way to go in the country to begin to reconcile
the role of people who have been forced to the margins, to recognize how
central they actually are. They have been put on the margins and written
out of history and excluded by law, but they still have been central

*Read more from this conversation at oregonhumanities.org
Isabel Wilkerson and Rukaiyah Adams will appear live at Think & Drink at
the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland on July 20. Read more about the event
*Isabel Wilkerson* is a professor of journalism and director of narrative
nonfiction at Boston University. She won the Pulitzer Prize for feature
writing for her work as Chicago bureau chief of the *New York Times* in
1994, making her the first Black woman in the history of American
journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win
for individual reporting.

*Rukaiyah Adams* is chief investment officer of Meyer Memorial Trust.

Cover photo by Jack Delano, 1940, Library of Congress LC-USF34- 040841-D
Oregon Humanities, 921 SW Washington St., #150, Portland, OR 97205
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