Chicago, 1939-1940. To keep her family afloat, Ida Mae needs to find a job. But there are very few options for Black women, who are “literally at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.” Employers even recruit white women from out of town or just remain understaffed instead of accepting Black migrant women, most of whom end up as informal domestic workers. Some assemble in so-called “slave markets” and wait for white women to hire them, while others simply walk around white neighborhoods. They make little more than they did on plantations, while facing similar exploitation, racism, and sexual violence.
Wilkerson is careful to emphasize that, while Black men generally find better economic opportunities in the North, this isn’t necessarily true for Black women. This distinction is important because many narratives about Black history center men’s perspectives, intentionally or otherwise. City life exposes women to new kinds of violence and exploitation, and they have virtually no power as workers because there is so little demand for their labor in the landscape of mid-20th century American society.
Ida Mae finds a job cleaning for a wealthy white family, but when she arrives to start working, the husband asks her to have sex with him. She refuses, and fortunately, he leaves her alone. She’s relieved to be in the North—in the South, the man probably would have assaulted her and gotten away with it. Next, she finds a job putting lids on cans for a steel company. But she quits after she sees a machine cut off her coworker’s fingers. She briefly works with George at Campbell Soup and in a printing press. Then, at last, she finds stable work as a hospital aide sterilizing and organizing medical instruments. With her income, her family can afford a bigger apartment. Their friends and family members from Mississippi start visiting them, and some even stay.
Ida Mae’s cleaning job demonstrates both how much progress Black women make simply by moving North (which gives Ida Mae the power to escape sexual violence) and how much work there is left to be done until they can truly live free, dignified lives. Her fortunes improve when she finds stable work in the formal sector. Her eventual success underlines the fact that migration consistently pays off in the long run, even if it causes growing pains in the short term. And her visits from family again highlight the way that network effects drive the migration. In other words, people do not make the decision to migrate in isolation, but rather because they hear rumors about the North, have family who has migrated, or even visit to check it out for themselves.
New York, 1950s. One day, George Starling gets a drink with a coworker after a long shift, and the bartender smashes their glasses on the ground. This is the New York way of telling Black people that they’re not welcome. At work, the white train conductors also abuse the Black attendants. One conductor makes them run along the moving train to clean it. But when George refuses, the conductor starts hitting him whenever they cross paths. One day, he pushes George onto an elderly white woman. Fortunately, she sees everything, blames the conductor, and formally complains to the company. This gets the conductor suspended, and George switches routes.
Wilkerson carefully puts her protagonists’ experiences in perspective: they face different kinds of obstacles, largely because of the ways they differ in gender and class, but they also consistently have more opportunities in the North than they would have in the South. Compared to Ida Mae, George suffers less from discrimination and limited opportunities based on his city’s informal racial hierarchy (although he still does). Yet he faces much more direct racism than Ida Mae, in part because he is middle class and has more direct contact with white people (especially at work). While readers might find his conflict with his boss disturbing, within the context of the 1950s, it’s also remarkable that the company ultimately takes his side—even if it takes an elderly white woman to make that happen.
Los Angeles, 1961. Robert gets an urgent call from Ray Charles’s wife in the middle of the night. Ray is passing out and losing blood fast; he seriously cut his hand on a glass table after collapsing due to a mix of exhaustion and heroin. Ray’s wife ruses him to Robert’s office, where Robert performs emergency surgery and then transfers Ray to the hospital for a blood transfusion. To recover, Ray shouldn’t use his left hand for six weeks, but he’s going on tour in a few days. Robert decides to follow him on tour to take care of the injury—and have the time of his life. Ray Charles will long consider Robert one of his dearest friends—and even name his next son after him.
While Robert’s perfectionism may cause him trouble in other parts of his life, it makes him excellent at his job. He may not have a close relationship with his family, but he certainly loves his work. Indeed, Wilkerson uses this anecdote to show why he’s such an exemplary doctor: he goes above and beyond in caring for Ray Charles. He cherishes the opportunity to witness Ray’s tour up close and knows that his friendship with Ray will enable him to move in more elite circles in Los Angeles, but this doesn’t make his dedication to his work anything less than sincere.
The North, 1915-1975. Scholars constantly debate the causes, effects, and deeper meaning of the Great Migration. But when the Chicago Commission on Race Relations actually surveys migrants, their responses to these questions are mixed. For the most part, though, they report feeling freer, living without fear, and finding better work for the first time.
Wilkerson again emphasizes the limits of 20th century scholarly research about the Great Migration: it’s often unreliable because much of it is written from a deeply prejudiced perspective, with particular, often exploitative policy goals in mind. In contrast, the Chicago Commission’s report is valuable because—like Wilkerson’s book—it depicts the Great Migration through its participants’ eyes.