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The Warmth of Other Suns

I don't do book reviews.  For school I've had to do book reports, this is also not that.  I'm finding that I want to jot down notes and thoughts on things that I've read that make me think or open up my mind on topics that change my mind or how I think about specific issues.   This is one of those times.

I've found myself struggling, throughout most of life, to recognize when events are actually happening on a timeline, and that certain events (no matter how unrelated the topics, happened at the same time;) Galileo and Newton having been alive at the same time (seems like Newton happened later in history,) the Brooklyn Bridge was built before the Tower Bridge in London, and that even though John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States (preceding Lincoln at 16th,) he has two living grandson's. 

This last fact is crucial because it leads to the heart of why I'm writing; John Tyler, who was president from 1841-1845, who has two living grandsons, was president before slavery ended.  Almost twenty years after Tyler left office, Lincoln abolished slavery with the emancipation proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865.  The reality is that while slavery ended 153 years ago, generationally it wasn't that long ago. Most likely, there are some (older) people alive today who knew people who were slaves.  Or perhaps their great-grandparents were slaves.  I knew, and remember two of my great-grandparents, and while they were predominately born in the 20th century, my father (who is 68, today, and 28 years older than I) knew several of his great-grandparents.  That means people of my father's generation (at the youngest), and certainly, people of my grandfather's generation knew of people, who may have been old-timers when my grandparents were children, but they knew of people who could have been slaves.  Or known slaveholders.  Or knew of someone who was.  It just wasn't that long ago - people that I know very well could have known of people who were involved with slavery.

Damn, that hits home.

I was born in 1977, went to school in Central Florida in the 1980's and early 90's, and while we were taught about slavery and it's little brother, Jim Crow, it was shown as if it were as distant in the past as the American Revolution.  In all fairness to my teachers, we were moving along at such a high pace that we didn't give any other topics any particular amount of time, either.  We probably spent about the same amount of time on the World War's (combined) as we did the Civil War and slavery.

If you're unaware of what Jim Crow is, I wouldn't be surprised.  I knew it was mostly the segregation laws that existed post-slavery, but I didn't know how deeply it ran.  It went far further than laws of segregation, it was almost more of a mindset of systemic (if that can even begin to describe how rooted it was) racism and segregation that it can really only be described as the little brother to slavery.  It is a system that showed how little value was placed on the word, the value, and the life of African Americans.  It's obvious that throughout this book, it was not just the law of the South, but it was the unwritten code throughout most of the North and West - where the migrants leaving the South fled to.  While segregation may have been against the law in these lands, the long arm of Jim Crow reached the minds and actions of many of the more free states that migrants escaped to.

I wrote all of this so that I can say I went through the best education of my life in regards to Jim Crow from reading Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Son's."  In her book she breaks down the lives of three African Americans who grew up in the South and at some stage of their life decided it was for the best that they leave their home (sometimes in the middle of the night,) and go to a place where they may have known someone, but knew nothing of it beyond that.  The change appears to have almost always been dramatic, as most migrants left small towns in the South and typically ended up in places like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles.  Some people may have gone to smaller cities like Rochester or Milwaukee, but virtually all of the places migrants ended up was far larger than the small town or fields that they left.

I won't ruin the book for you, it's a must-read, but the lives of the three migrants were amazing. Taken in the abstract, their stories are amazing plotlines that will keep you hooked on reading for hours.  But, if you take these stories as the historical documentaries that they really are, they should hit much closer to home.  The reality of how recently these three people (and millions of other African Americans whose stories have not been told) endured the slavery-lite of Jim Crow is painful.

George Starling (left)

Ida Mae Gladney

Dr. (Pershing) Robert Foster

One story hit particularly close to home for me (again, not to ruin the story of these people told by Isabel Wilkerson,) the story of George Starling.  I confront George's story on several fronts for me; the first is the early story of George Starling is told very near my hometown, and my hometown is even mentioned on some occasions, Ocala FL. George grew up picking oranges in and around Eustis, FL., in Lake County, which isn't far from where I live today.  Many of the towns, many of the names, and many of the things that Geoge describes for the book are places that, while I may not know them personally, I know of them or something very similar to them.  I didn't know of Sheriff McCall, but having grown up in the area, I knew of people like him.  I grew up, for the most part, unaware of recently people had subjected to Jim Crow in my own backyard. 

I find myself lucky enough to take my boat from a small ramp on the Ocklawaha River to Leesburg and Lake Griffin, then on to Lake Eustis, the Lake Dora where Tavares is located.  Not far from the Dora Canal that links lakes Eustis and Dora George Starling is buried in the Mount Olive Cemetary; laid to rest in a place he fled by night for fear of getting lynched, on to a life of unrealised potential in New York, and where he eventually was returned to be forever interred in Lake County, FL.

I find myself, at the end of this book, reassessing how people talked, how people thought and addressed each other as I grew up.  Luckily, my parents abhorred this type of behavior and these actions, but having lived here where George Starling lived, it's hard to say who has, and who hasn't walked idly by as people shouted their worst.  I hope the world can realize these mistakes, and do what can be done to right the wrongs of generations past - and generations that still live today.

Hard to see how that is happening today, though.  So much has changed, and yet so much stays the same.


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