Chicago, Late 1938. When Ida Mae first moves to Chicago, she’s isolated and homesick. A neighbor from Mississippi stops by and introduces herself, then shares a bottle of homemade wine with Ida Mae and gives her advice about how to handle the big city. But this angers George—he tells Ida Mae not to drink or let strangers in. Ida Mae feels ashamed of “her innocent country ways.” Migrants like her face judgment from northern-born Black people, earlier migrants, and the Black middle class (such as the successful businesspeople, doctors, and landlords who can’t leave the neighborhood due to the color line). Old-timers and newcomers even go to different churches.
Living in the city means trusting strangers far less than migrants like Ida Mae are used to. Migrants’ “innocent country ways” may contribute to their marginalization within Northern cities, but only because it leads others to discriminate against them—and not, as Wilkerson explained in the last chapter, because it makes them any less capable of succeeding economically. In Northern cities like Chicago, informal neighborhood segregation creates conflict among different groups of Black residents for the same reason as it enables landlords to hike up rents: it forces Black people to fight over an artificially small pool of space, resources, and opportunities.
Most of all, old-timers fear that newcomers will make them look bad and threaten their precarious success in the city. But they also recognize that the new migrants have finally broken free from Jim Crow, and many do their best to help. For instance, The Chicago Defender and Chicago Urban League publish “do’s and don’ts” lists for newcomers. Ida Mae appreciates the advice but doesn’t take all of it: she won’t change her name, shed her Mississippi accent, stop making her food, or forget her Southern songs.
Longtime Black Northerners understand that, in their city’s racist social and economic system, their status will fall if white people start to associate them with the recent migrants and their out-of-place country ways. So they kill two birds with one stone by helping new migrants assimilate: they mitigate this risk while also supporting their community. Yet Ida Mae’s approach shows that Southern culture is also an important part of migrants’ identities. Holding onto it is a crucial way for them to cope with their new lives and maintain connections with their families and communities.
New York, January 1947. George and Inez finally have a child. Meanwhile, George sees the Great Migration firsthand at his job on the Silver Comet, where he helps Black passengers with baggage, directions, and whatever else they need. Often, as soon as they board the northbound train, migrants start acting different—more confident and freer. On southbound trains, the passengers are mostly older migrants visiting family. On the way north, they pack their bags full of all the food they can carry. Once, blood from a butchered animal starts dripping out of someone’s luggage. One woman hides a watermelon in her hatbox. Another man claims that his box is full of clothes, but it’s really sweet potatoes. George drops the box during a wild curve, and the sweet potatoes start rolling around all over the train car. Everyone laughs like crazy.
George’s job gives him a special perspective on the Great Migration. He gets to observe the way it changes over time and, above all, its emotional significance for migrants, who appear comfortable and free from the moment they enter the train. He also sees how the migration creates sustained links between the North and South, as people support their Southern hometowns with their earnings from the North and recreate Southern traditions in the North. The box of sweet potatoes is a playful but fitting metaphor for this process: migrants try to bring the elements of Southern culture that are dearest to them (like their food) to the North. But often, things don’t go entirely according to plan, and they end up transforming that culture in the process of bringing it north.
Los Angeles, 1954. Alice is used to her family’s Atlanta mansion, so the new Los Angeles apartment is a difficult adjustment. She and Robert have never actually lived together, except very briefly in Austria, and they realize that they disagree on many things. Their daughters are used to being spoiled by their wealthy grandparents, and while Robert wants Southern comfort food, Alice and the kids prefer bland, sophisticated dishes like soufflé. Robert hopes to start building a social circle, but Alice is ashamed of their apartment and refuses to make friends until they have a bigger house. Robert still feels like he’s not good enough for the Clement family. He decides to buy a Cadillac to impress them and his patients. Alice is against it, but he does it anyway.
Robert faces the unfortunate truth that his professional ambitions and history of frequent migration have distanced him from his family. Alice and her daughters stick to Dr. Clement’s old-money lifestyle, which clashes with Robert’s personality and new-money vision of success. Robert came to California in pursuit of the freedom to do what he wants with whom he wants—not to spend his time imitating white aristocrats at stodgy high-society functions. So it’s no surprise that he eventually starts trying to free himself from his family, too.