At The Dark End Of The Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—A New History Of The Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks To The Rise of Black Power.
Danielle L. McGuire.
352 pp. $27.95.
The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
640 pp. $30.
The white man asked the Black boy to get him a “nice, clean colored girl.” The purpose was clear. The Black boy’s job was to do what the white man said. He didn’t, choosing to give him a few choice words before running away. Running the way two Black male college students did when a group of white men ambushed them and their dates in a field. (Were they just afraid, or afraid of being killed and forgotten while the women were raped anyway? In the 1940s, even public martyrdom was denied Blacks.) One woman got away. The other was gang-raped by the white mob, while the Black boys hid in the bushes.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (now a journalism professor at Boston University) and Danielle L. McGuire, a history professor at Wayne State University, have set American history afire with their respective works, their first. The books are so powerful they will either highly encourage or discourage future would-be history writers. Wilkerson takes more than 1,000 interviews and boils them down into three narratives of the Great Migration, the massive move North made by millions of descendants of enslaved Africans. She debunks theories that those migrants were a drain on the nation. McGuire, meanwhile, moves past the established white-male-liberal narrative of decades of Movement histories, exposing that the historical framework of what is now considered “spontaneous” 1950s and 1960s uprisings was actually anti-rape activism, a movement led by many Black women, including one named Rosa Parks. So, as McGuire boldly states, moving around sacred timelines, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott “was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect Black women” from sexual harassment and overall abuse. Rosa Parks wasn’t (just) a tired seamstress; she was an angry activist, as angry as those who left all they knew and loved to take their chances in the mysterious North.
As great historians do, Wilkerson and McGuire pour over documents and books and ask new questions. They show that more unconventional truths can be found if the explorer is serious. “The facts of their lives unfurled over the generations like an unwrapped present, a secret told in syllables,” waxes Wilkerson of her subjects; the former New York Times Chicago bureau chief could be speaking for McGuire’s work as well as Wilkerson chronicles the hardships that resulted when the races clashed, “the poor at odds with the broke.”
Where Wilkerson and McGuire meet is at the core of the powerlessness of Black people, particularly Black fathers, husbands and boyfriends, to protect their women. (Although McGuire documents in detail the cases of the brave women who actually took their assailants to court, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.) One of Wilkerson’s profiles lists it as a primary reason to make the move, by any means possible: “He would not have to try to protect his daughters from some planter with snuff in his mouth and knew he couldn’t.” It is a helplessness so decades deep, McGuire indirectly suggests, that it might have been behind Rosa Parks voluntarily accepting the saintly (and subservient) role assigned to her by Montgomery’s Black leadership, with historical silence enveloping the women who actually organized the now world-famous bus protest. Did the idea of seeing their men at least—and at last!—attempting to protect them give them permission to step aside from the spotlight as the 20th century was split into two? The fact that the question can now be asked is a testament to McGuire’s efforts.
Wilkerson has created a masterpiece. McGuire has thrown a bomb. Both spaces created by their work glow with brilliance.