That race remains one of our most vexing national issues – from bias in the sharing economy, to the lack of diversity in the executive ranks to the violence that plays out daily between communities and the police – comes as no surprise to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. “There is a direct line between our history and the headlines you see today,” she says. “And nothing will improve until we address that history.”
It took her 15 years and over 1,200 interviews to finish The Warmth of Other Suns, the massive and beautifully rendered account of the slow but steady migration of six million African Americans from the violent repression of the Jim Crow South, to the North and West in search of a better life. The Great Migration lasted between 1916 and 1970 and reshaped America in ways that we are just now starting to understand.
It was a tough road. “The migrants were cast as poor illiterates, who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went,” Wilkerson writes.
Wilkerson’s extraordinary reporting, however, tells a different and more nuanced tale – one of risk, hard work, and achievement despite racial barriers that still exist in some forms. “It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if there was no Great Migration,” she says. “So many aspects of what we view as American culture were affected by this unleashing of pent up, unrecognized talent, creativity and ability, that had been withheld for centuries.”
An astonishing number of prominent African American executives, artists or athletes either are, or are direct descendants of, someone who took that perilous journey.
In a recent conversation, I asked Wilkerson to help explain what we get wrong about the Great Migration, and why it is imperative that business leaders closely study the difficult history that shapes our world in unseen ways.
“If there are disparities in how African Americans are making their way in the business world, and they are encountering barriers and assumptions, it is a direct manifestation of the unaddressed history of the world in which we all live. History can be a tremendous guide, and more of a comfort than people can imagine.”
Read the entire interview here, it has been lightly edited for clarity.