Preserving the Memories of Jim Crow.


Boston University's Isabel Wilkerson has written a new book on the mass migration of African Americans from the South to industrial cities in the North and Midwest:

Ms. Wilkerson makes a case that people who left the South only to create hometown-based communities in new places are more like refugees than migrants: more closely tied to their old friends and families, more apt to form tight expatriate groups, more enduringly attached to the areas they left behind. She argues that these people, among them her Georgia-born mother and Virginia-born father who raised Ms. Wilkerson in Washington, D.C., were better educated and more closely tied to their families than other scholars have assumed.

As someone who comes from a family of black Southerners, albeit one that didn't migrate, I'm excited to read this book, if only to broaden my understanding of what life was like for African Americans in the Jim Crow South. What's more, I just think it's important to highlight any good scholarship that relates to the Jim Crow South.

As the Glenn Beck revival aptly demonstrated, Americans have a piss-poor understanding of history, especially as it relates to the century-long period of anti-black apartheid. As most Americans understand it, Jim Crow consisted of segregated schools, water fountains, and shitty seats on the bus. If there's anything I worry about, it's that whatever public memories we have of the real Jim Crow -- the lynchings, the murders, the economic isolation -- will fade as we lose the men and women who experienced them. It's easy to laugh at Beck's attempt to appropriate the civil-rights movement, but I can easily imagine a near future where the mass of America has no real idea of the evil that prompted black Americans to fight for their rights in a huge, unprecedented way, and it terrifies me.

It's why I value things like the FBI's civil-rights-era Cold Case Initiative; it hasn't been very successful, but that's almost irrelevant. The simple act of documenting racial terrorism is powerful enough. Books like Wilkerson's are important for the same reason; as the survivors of Jim Crow pass on, it's vitally important for our understanding of our country that we document their experiences for posterity.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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