I think “Warmth of Other Suns” has affected me so much because it is so easy to see the long-term effects of the great migration in a personal light. I spent the most important part of my professional, clinical, life at Schwab Rehabilitation hospital in Lawndale. Turn one direction down the street from Schwab and the neighborhood appears to be entirely Hispanic, turn down the other side the neighborhood appears to be entirely African-American. The majority of the patients I saw were African-American, some Hispanics, an occasional white person or Eastern European thrown in there. While most of the physical, occupational speech, and speech therapists were white like me they were not exclusively so, the physicians especially the residents were something of an international mix. The majority of the nursing staff and nearly all of the non-professional staff were African-American, with some Hispanic representation.
I am a physical therapist and typically at Schwab I would have a caseload of 6-8 patients, who would be seen for about an hour each. My patients by definition has some kind of physical deficit requiring them to be there—a stroke, a brain injury, a hip fracture etc.—and the session would typically involve strengthening exercises, functional training, ambulation training. When you do physical therapy you get intimate with your patients. This is primarily physical—you are helping a patient get out of bed, to stand get up, to walk. As a physical therapist you are asking this person who barely knows you to trust you with their body. But because the goals to move the patient to independence there develops something of a psychological bond as well. As a physical therapist you are pushing them and challenging them to do things that they don’t think they can do, maybe don’t want to do at least at that moment. You are something of a coach, reminding them of the end-goal and trying to give them the confidence to do it.
In-between the exercises and the walking you talk to each other, about the weather, the neighborhood, about families. It struck me early, that every African-American I talked to was not from Chicago. I heard Alabama and Mississippi the most. I occasionally thought about what it was like to grow up black in the south-I was aware of the struggle for civil rights in the 60s, and I was dimly aware of lynching, although not to the extent it occurred. But, like the vast majority of white people, I didn’t have any real concept of the day-to-day existence of African-Americans in the south or the north in the first half of the century. In the corner of my mind sometimes I wondered what these 60-80 year-old African-Americans thought about this young white woman telling them what to do. Were they used to it—was it expected? Or was it resented? I worked with a variety of personalities, some with more attitudes then others but I can’t ever remember any comments in regards to my whiteness.
I feel I saw so many Ida Maes, (Georges as well) and the descriptions of her experiences brought so many thoughts to mind. Ida was not educated in the traditional sense; her vision was limited by her experiences in the rural south. She was a woman who simply did what needed to be done. In that sense she is representative of so many women, especially African-American women, who have spent their lives working without a second thought. When the hospital workers at the hospital she worked at went on strike Ida did not. To be fair, it’s not clear anybody properly explained to her what the strike was about but I think she would probably have worked anyway, she had never not worked; it was a part of her being. This incident serves as a reminder of the way race was used against organizing for better wages in US labor history—part of the reason African-Americans were recruited to the north was to keep wages down and African-American troops were often brought in to break up strikes.
So while Ida might have not been able to identify with the idea of a union, she had a very strong sense of self—not exactly self-confidence but she knew what she was, what she could do and not do, and what she saw and what it meant. It was this strong sense of self that when asked for sexual favors by a man in a house she was working, she said no, in spite of obvious financial pressure. This sense of self led Ida to accept the reality of homosexuality—even though I’m sure it was foreign to her—noting the strong sense of loss exhibited by a man at his lover’s funeral.
As noted in a Prison Culture post, “we (African-Americans) were not supposed to survive.” That the incredible poverty of sharecropping, the constant threat of violence—physical for African-American sexual for African-American women—did not kill off the descendents of slavery is kind of amazing. They came to the north for a better life—and on a certain level the north was better. Ida herself noted that if she had denied a white male sexual favors in the south, she probably would have been killed. There were no “whites” only signs in the north but as Robert and George learned, there were plenty of boundaries and you might learn them the hard way. Comparing the south and the north this way reminds me of our current political system--we are frequently told one political party is better then the alternative, on closer examination it is clear that both parties are for the status quo that leaves many in poverty and favors the few.
Like anybody who has lived in Chicago for any amount of time I am aware of the severe segragation of the city. But until reading “Warmth” some logical outcomes of that never occurred to me. For one, there was simply not enough room in the area deemed acceptable for African-Americans for all the African-Americans who were coming. People did try to stop the migration but this was a successful as attempts to limit migration from Mexico have been. If people are insistent on coming, if they think their lives and their children's lives depend on it, they will come. The restriction of the migrants resulted in some incredibly dense poor populations of African-Americans who had no chance to develop any kind of wealth, as their best hope was to rent whatever small, overpriced, places they could get. These communities would never really change, they would never get any real chances at the wealth of the city and these same communities are now racked by violence as a result of years of neglect and poverty.
The African-American experience speaks to the incredible will of survival of a group of people and it made me think of another disadvantaged brown group, Palestinians. Like African-Americans the Palestinians have been forced to live on too-small of an area, forced to take the least of what jobs are available, and live under a constant threat of violence from the state which does not represent them in any kind of way. Although the processes have been different most Palestinians have had no chance at wealth. Land was taken from them with the founding of the state of Israel, in 1967, or even today where Palestinian have to fight endless court battles for their land, to frequently see it given to Jewish settlers. As what passes for a peace process completely falls to the wayside, it is clear that it is the desire for Israel and her enablers is that the Palestinians will simply disappear.
But they have not, as Palestinians refuse to just leave and the BDS movement gains strength. And of course African-Americans are not going away, the question if we in Chicago are willing to truly invest in these communities in a manner that will make them better.