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If you’ve ever felt jittery from staying in one place for too long, or have constantly itchy feet, I have good news for you: it’s just part of human nature. Humans have always been migrants, going all the way back before Homo ergaster first left Africa, probably following their food into unknown lands. Since then, humans have disliked staying in one place for too long, following the herds, moving away from populated areas beginning to collapse under their own weight, and just migrating out for the pleasure of knowing what else there is there. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but contentment brought it back, as these books on migration show. From the Bantu to the Norse to the Polynesian peoples, several cultures have made travel and migration an integral part of their culture, and with good reason. Migrants not only bring themselves, but also their culture and ideas. An influx of new people into a region keeps the culture from stagnating.
But one cannot talk about human migration without acknowledging that people often do not have the choice to stay where they call home. Displacement has become a bigger problem in recent years due to climate change, ethnic cleansing and war, but it’s about as new as our drive to travel. Sure, now you have to leave your home more often because of multiple one-time natural disasters that have happened to you in your home, but having to flee your home because others are forcing you to do so is nothing new. In resource struggles, the less powerful had to give up valuable land to the winners. In times like the Age of Exploration, it wasn’t uncommon for people you’ve never seen before to arrive, say the land was theirs, and tell you to leave… or tie you up and force you on the land work you once called home. Or tie you up, throw you in a boat and take you far from home. The house you will never see again, and likely never to be seen by your descendants either.
Many of these books about migration are such stories. Migration is a massive global problem and has been for generations. So many people have fled their country only to encounter hostility in the place where they need to build a new home. Where once the flow of population was able to move naturally across the country (some are still never quite welcome: just look at how Jews and Roma have been accommodated throughout history), strict limits and regulations have hampered the search for a new one Land to call home made a problem for some a nightmare for others.
But remember, no matter what your reason for travelling, in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Thi Bui’s family fled Vietnam by boat in the 1970s after South Vietnam fell and made their way to the United States to make a new home for themselves. Thi Bui was three years old. This is where this vivid memoir begins, as it continues to explore the struggles her family had in a new home, and the struggles she and her mother had over the years as cultural differences exacerbated family feuds. The book goes beyond that, laying out exactly what life was like in Vietnam during the war, in a way not often discussed in American classrooms or the media.
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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
In the 1910s, an event historically known as the Great Migration began in the United States. Sparked by oppressive Jim Crow laws and hopes for better economic and educational opportunities elsewhere, black populations throughout the South began moving to northern and western cities. An estimated six million Blacks immigrated from the South over nearly 60 years, changing the face of states and leading to cultural revolutions such as the Harlem Renaissance. This book tells the story of three of those six million: a woman who went to Chicago from Mississippi in 1937, a man who traveled to Harlem from Florida in 1945, and a man who left Louisiana in 1953 to get his medical degree.
Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings Edited by Reyna Grande and Sonia Guiñansaca
A collection of 35 different essays, poems, and artworks created by 35 different refugees, migrants, and dreamers across the United States, this book puts a human face on people who are usually discussed in abstract or derogatory terms about immigration. It looks beyond the migrant status of the various authors and allows them to tell their story as they please, at the intersection of gender, nationality, sexuality, the pain of leaving their homes and the hope they have for a better future for themselves and for others have their family.
Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt
With Thanksgiving comes the continuation of the bourgeois myth of the first kumbayah-style celebration. A myth that sets the tone as we grapple with what the United States government has done in the name of westward expansion and manifest destiny, including the first state-sponsored mass deportation of modern times that killed 80,000 Indigenous men, women and Children lose their homes and countless die on the way west. This book describes the historical record of the history of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, including first-hand accounts, and shows that it need not have happened. You get angry at how we’ve treated tribal peoples over the centuries if you haven’t already.
Atlas of Human Migration edited by Russell King
If you were looking for a book about the history of migration, its causes and the obstacles migrants can face, then you’ve come to the right place. Admittedly more of a reference book than one to pick up for pleasure, it is still a good read if you are interested in migration. It dates back to the prehistoric migrations of the Indo-European peoples to the Indo-Pakistani partition and the recent African civil wars. It has pretty much everything you need, and if it doesn’t have exactly what you’re looking for, at least it has a good starting point.
The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan
The Great Irish Potato Famine was one of the worst disasters of the 19th century, and it was entirely artificial…and not even a real famine. Ireland still produced more than enough food to feed everyone on the island; it has just been collected and shipped to England, as all the landowners were British and the Irish workers were essentially left with nothing but potatoes to eat. If you read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in school and don’t mind a deeper context than what you probably got in class, this is the book to get your hands on. A full quarter of the population died or emigrated due to the famine, and that is why there is such a large Irish-American population today: an estimated two million Irish made their way to America in search of refuge.
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nyugen
This book was created in response to then-President Trump’s refugee caps in 2017. In it you will read stories from various well-known authors about their own refugee stories, where they came from and why they had to leave or in some cases why they cannot leave and feel like a stranger in their own home. Twenty powerful essays are revealed, all of which inspire empathy and remind us that while these types of crises are often spoken of in abstract terms, there are people who are going through terror and loss and need all the support they can get.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
Another anthology chronicling the four hundred years of Black American experience beginning in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought into the United States against their will. It is divided into 80 chapters, each covering a major point in Black American slavery, including their forced migration and the bondage of the Great Migration during World War I, and even discussing why the Back to Africa movement was such a failure.
If you’re looking for more immigration books, including fictional stories and books aimed at children, I recommend checking out this list of what we think are the best immigration books.