MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Finally, I've been - like most people - following news of the street protest in the Middle East. And it may seem strange, but my mind keeps going back to a book I read last summer by the great former New York Times reporter Isabel Wilkerson. It is called "The Warmth of Other Suns," and it's about the so-called Great Migration, the mass movement of millions of Southern blacks from the rural Southern United States to the North, Midwest and West in the decades following the First World War up until the beginning of the 1960s.
What would one have to do with the other? Can I just tell you? Both can be summed up in one powerful word: dignity.
Dignity means many things, not least the ability to earn a decent living. In Tunisia, the street protests started after a man set himself on fire when a policewoman went well beyond issuing him a fine for his unlicensed vegetable cart. She also slapped him and took his dignity. For him, it was the last straw.
Dignity also means the right to have both privacy and meaningful participation in the life of one's own country without the iron grip of those who place themselves in charge, whether it's state security apparatus or the Ku Klux Klan.
Isabel Wilkerson's tremendous reporting took us into the lives of three very different people: a doctor, a sharecropper's wife and an orange picker, who each left everything they knew for an uncertain future. One man left because he knew his life was in danger for asking for five cents more per pound on the oranges he'd pick in the hot sun. Another left because even though he wore the uniform of this country and was trained in medicine by his country, he knew he would never be allowed to fulfill his professional destiny in the town in which he grew up.
So it is with those whose protest we see playing out before our eyes: so far away and yet so familiar. Their histories are certainly different, and so are there circumstances. For one thing, they share the skin color of those who oppress them, but they are oppressed in the countries in which they were born, that they call their own. They see their efforts to support their families coming to little or nothing no matter what they do, and they've seen too many brutalized for making the smallest demands of those in power. And they cry out for justice, and those cries are ones that many of us, on a visceral level, understand.
In this country, Black History Month is upon us once again. Here at TELL ME MORE, we plan to observe it with a series of 28 small essays, one for every day of the month by our colleagues at NPR and guests on this program. We're asking them to tell us which figure from so-called black history they most adore and why. I already know we're going to hear some fascinating stories - some well-known, many less well-known.
If I were to write one, I would pick a woman I learned about only a few years ago. Her name is Harriet Jacobs, and she was an enslaved American who hid in an attic for seven years to avoid being sold away from her two children. She did eventually win her freedom and her children's freedom, and not only that, at a time when most enslaved Americans were not allowed to read or write, she did and went on to write a powerful account of her amazing life. It's called "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," and it was published in 1861.
Not only that, she used the platform of the book to organize relief for other runaways who'd fled behind Northern lines during the Civil War. For a century, it was assumed that her story was a fictional account penned by a white abolitionist to win sympathy for the cause. But in a beautiful twist of fate, Harriet's story was authenticated as a true account by a woman, a white scholar named Jean Fagan Yellin, for whom it was also a journey of many years' labor and love.
Too often, we act as if history is something that lives in the calendar on the wall, or is stuffed behind the glass in museums, but it is alive happening around us all the time.
February is as good a time as any to remind ourselves of this, as indeed the people across the ocean are reminding us right now.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.