In a recent On Being episode, Krista Tippett interviewed Isabel Wilkerson about her latest book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. In her book, Ms. Wilkerson followed the migration of families from the deep south to the west or further, and how that history shaped their modern offspring.
The great migration in America, she discovered, wasn’t about migration. It was about freedom, and the lengths people will go to find it. In fact, this is behind all human migration.
The young farmer in late 19th century Russia who packs up and leaves with his young family the day he is conscripted into the Russian army, knowing what that means for his life and those he loves.
The child, travelling alone through Europe, sent by her loving parents in the hope that she can find a better life than the one they are forced to live where they are.
The young African American who walks for days out of the deep South, hoping for a decent job and the hope of the freedom to simply be.
It is by no means a story of unfettered success, or even of getting what they were yearning for. For African Americans – and new immigrants – many were greeted with resentment and continued to suffer hardship. It was a huge struggle and it didn’t always end well. And yet, it was also the beginning of a hope that simply didn’t exist without making that move.
Their history what it took to reach their destination, whatever that was – all the roadblocks, the mistakes and failures, all the unexpected successes, kindnesses and support along the way – made them. And it wasn’t only what they did themselves; it also included everything their parents did, and their grandparents, and great-grandparents, and even further into their past. We know now there are epigenetic changes that we inherit from our grandsires. There are also stories.
That young Russian farmer is my great Grandfather. In times of hardship, all I have to do to regain perspective is take a moment to contemplate the courage, resolve and clarity of sight he must have had to leave everything behind in a split second and begin again.
Ms. Wilkinson’s father was a pilot, and being the daughter of a pilot meant to her that, metaphorically, she could fly too.
The indigenous peoples of North America have the belief that whatever we do will impact the next 7 generations, and that we are impacted by the past 7 generations that came before us. It’s humbling to see that whatever I do will impact my nearest and dearest, which will in turn impact their dearest, and so on for the next 7 generations.
I’ll leave the last word to Ms. Wilkerson …
And you don’t know how to react when someone says, “This is the last book that my mother or father read before they died.” But they say it with such joy and gratitude. And they say that it allowed them to come to terms with all that they had endured and to give their suffering some meaning and to recognize that they had not been alone, but that they had been part of something bigger — some connection to immigrants around the world, other people who had come up from the South as they had, and others who had been able to express their freedom and their individuality in the way they had chosen; that it was a peaceful and, in their view, fulfilling and healing way to have left this planet.
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .