February happens to be Black History Month, and I happened to read a little book called Suitcase Full of Dreams, a memoir of a girl growing up in the 1940s-50s deep in Jim Crow South—Mobile, Alabama. Author Hoy Kersh tells her stories with the flourish of a poet. Her glorious wording sometimes distracts from the poverty and injustice she and her family and friends endured, but she was a child who could not be pushed down, and reveled in the simple glories of nature and mischief. She became more and more rebellious to the unfairness and meanness she saw in the white people around her, yet she saw that not all were against her; they were just as constricted by the rules as she was. The bravery of the civil rights leaders inspired her, and the call of the northern states pulled her, at age 16, onto a train for Chicago. There the book ends, waiting for Part II to be written.
Suitcase Full of Dreams was a preview to a recent event here featuring Isabel Wilkerson. She was in town to speak of her experiences writing The Warmth of Other Suns, a current best-seller about the great migration of black people from South to North and West over several decades, ending in the 1970s when things in the South started to change. Ms. Wilkerson was a joy to listen to, very articulate and funny. Oh she had stories, from over 1200 interviews with migrants. Her own parents were migrants who met in Washington, D.C. The full-house audience was transfixed at tales of separate Bibles in courthouses, the no-passing-white-folks rule for Negro drivers, and invisible rules that could get a person killed if they failed to obey them. Other Suns follows three different people from three different states in three different decades as they left the South for three different northern cities. Wilkerson discovers they were not much different from immigrants that come to America looking for a better life. Did they find their dreams? Not always.
Wilkerson said, “I had a great job [Chicago Bureau Chief of the New York Times]. Why did I quit and go into a cave for ten years to do this book? Because I wanted to recognize what it took for us to get here… to honor those before us.” And that’s what memoir is all about: honor and respect for those who came before us, and learning where we came from. Wilkerson told us, “Ask the questions. It validates [our elders] and their experiences.” She inadvertently rebuts Neil Genzlinger’s January 28 snarky New York Times op-ed of memoirs where he says, “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir… Unremarkable lives went unremarked, the way God intended.” Wilkerson and Kersh prove with their books that unremarkable lives are well worth remembering, the way God intended.
My book review of Suitcase Full of Dreams is posted on Amazon, but also in The New Book Review, where small and indie press books get reviewed, too. Scroll around to see some of the other books reviewed there.