The Smithsonian Magazine recently published “Black In America,” in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24th. It is the best single issue of a magazine I’ve encountered in a very long time.
Oprah Winfrey, Congressman John Lewis, Spike Lee, Angela Davis and astronaut Mae Jemmison have all contributed pieces, and a section called Generations asks the children of Civil Rights leaders to share their stories.
And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Although all of it will be rich fodder for the raceAhead crowd, I suggest you start with Isabel Wilkerson’s extraordinary piece on the Great Migration. You don’t need to have read her book The Warmth of Other Suns, to enjoy it, though I recommend it highly. The book is a 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 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,” she wrote.
But Wilkinson’s extraordinary reporting 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.”
And an astonishing number of prominent African American executives, artists or athletes either are, or are direct descendants of, someone who took that perilous journey to a new life.
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,” says Wilkerson. “History can be a tremendous guide, and more of a comfort than people can imagine.”
Click here for the full interview.