On Monday evening, I had the opportunity to hear Isabel Wilkerson, author of  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I am currently reading her book so when a friend of mine told me she would be speaking, I was very excited to have the opportunity to hear from her in person.

For a very brief overview of the history of the Great Migration, look here.

I took a lot of notes about things she said, but there is really one thing that has been haunting me since Monday night. The thing that is lingering. The thing that brought an emotional response I didn’t expect when she said it on Monday. And, that was an imagination exercise she led us through as part of her talk.

It went something like this (in my own words, my own recollection):

Picture the tobacco fields, the sugar fields, the cotton fields, the rice fields…

On those fields were opera singers, jazz musicians, playwrights, defense attorneys, surgeons, etc.

This represents 12 generations of slaves followed by decades of life in the Jim Crow south not living out their God-given dreams or talents.

That might be a simple sentence to write or to gloss over and read. But, please take time to think about it.

Consider the GREAT LOSS this represents.

To illustrate her point, Ms. Wilkerson gave examples like how music was changed completely because of the Great Migration – Motown would never have existed otherwise. Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author never would have had her career because in prior decades, an African-American couldn’t even check a book out of the library much less author books.

As if this isn’t enough to think about, she went on to say that not only was this a great loss, but actually the greater loss (a spiritual one) was that of those were putative beneficiaries. If you imagine someone holding another person down in a ditch, both parties are in the ditch – not fulfilling their larger purposes in life. It makes me heartsick to think about that also because I completely agree with the fact is it a spiritual loss.

While the Great Migration hardly fixed everything (a quick glance at current news confirms this and Richard Wright clearly articulates the Great Migration experience in his famous quote about “trading one security to embrace another”), if NOT for the brave six million people who dreamed of a different life, we would be missing incredible inspiration and contribution to our society. Learn more about Motown and the Harlem Renaissance as a start!