Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. This version has been corrected.
Krissah Thompson is a features writer for The Washington Post.
The newspapers at the time largely overlooked the massive movement of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North. The Great Migration, as it would come to be known, began in the early 1900s and lasted decades as more than 6 million blacks left their homes for the seeming promised land of big cities.
Among them were the ancestors of Bruce D. Haynes, who explores the social and cultural implications of the exodus in “Down the Up Staircase,” a family memoir and social history written with his wife and co-author, Syma Solovitch.
Haynes traces his roots from the farming South to bustling Harlem, where his paternal grandparents settled and played important roles in the civil rights movement and broader efforts to uplift their race.
Haynes takes great pride in his family’s story, rifling through old papers to fill in the biography of his grandfather, George Edmund Haynes, a man of significant achievement whom history has nearly forgotten.
George Haynes was mentored and befriended by famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, helped found the National Urban League and was an adviser on race to President Woodrow Wilson. “If W.E.B. DuBois was the great agitator and visionary of the New Negro movement, George Haynes — his protege — was its architect, forging critical partnerships and building the infrastructure to support these new artists,” the authors write.
George died in 1960, 10 months before Bruce Haynes was born, but he remains the pride of the family. More than once, the authors note that George was one of the African Americans included in a series painted by Laura Wheeler Waring called “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” which highlighted important figures in the Harlem Renaissance and was later exhibited at the Smithsonian.
As Isabel Wilkerson did expertly in “The Warmth of Other Suns” — her epic tale of the Great Migration — Haynes and Solovitch follow their relatives through decades, revealing the impact of public policy and social change on the family from generation to generation.
The family memoir serves to underscore the still-tenuous position of black families in the middle class. As a whole, the wealth of African Americans is less solidly established than that of white families and can be swiftly washed away, as seen through the family’s story.
George Haynes — who migrated to New York from Pine Bluff, Ark., and bought a stately home in Harlem — represents an upward leap in class and education, but the family struggles to keep climbing. Bruce Haynes’s father, George Edmund Jr. (known as Edmund), lived in the shadow of his prominent father. Edmund was also college educated and trained as a social worker. He and Bruce’s mother, Daisy, raised three sons in Harlem in the large family home purchased by George Haynes.
The home is a potent symbol of the Haynes family’s social status. While living there, Edmund and Daisy sent their sons to the best schools the city had to offer, including Horace Mann, the Ivy League preparatory school. But while the family’s public face seemed to continue to reflect middle-class respectability, life inside began to fray. Edmund and Daisy’s marriage hit a rocky patch and never quite recovered. She took out her unhappiness by an excessive use of her husband’s credit cards.
Grief and emotional challenges took their toll. Despite excelling at elite private schools, Bruce’s eldest brother, George Haynes, became a drug addict and confronted mental health challenges. The second Haynes son, Alan, was a promising artist before he was shot on the street the outside a bike shop in the Bronx. The murder went unsolved.
The family’s grand home slowly deteriorated. The roof needed patching, old appliances stacked up, the plumbing stopped working and was left unrepaired. Like the house, the neighborhood declined and became rife with crime.
The author and youngest son, Bruce, was caught between his complicated home life and his privileged schooling. The dissonance between the two left him feeling like a man without a community. He graduated from Manhattanville College, then earned a doctorate from the City University of New York and became an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Yale University. The Haynes family migration then took another turn when Bruce moved to what he had always considered the promised land: California, where he is now a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis. Through his studies, Bruce has uncovered more of his family’s story and discovered his own link to his grandfather: His pioneering ancestor George Haynes, like Bruce himself, was trained as a sociologist.
By Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch
200 pp. $30