The Warmth of Other Suns
I am a naturally eclectic reader. How fun it is to browse: to go on vacation in a rented house and randomly pick out a book from the ever-changing bookcase in the living room, or find an unexpected steal in the books on discount trolleys outside a used bookstore. Lately I have been looking for amusement or lightheartedness, however, and the “serious” books just sit there. I know I should get to them, but somehow they don’t make it into my hands.
On a recent weekend, I traveled a different route and picked out The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Nonfiction in 2010. It had sat on my bookshelf for some time. I started it early one Saturday, and finished it one day later without sleep. It may be the best and most absorbing book I will read this year. It is certainly one of the best histories I have ever read.
Wilkerson is a former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times—in 1994 the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting. The child of migrants, she started doing research in the 1990s on an underreported subject, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern or western cities from about 1915 to 1970. Over time she interviewed thousands of subjects who had either escaped from the difficulties of the Jim Crow South or had descended from those who did. This astounding work is the tiny tip of a colossal iceberg of research: time spent criss-crossing the country and talking to social groups, church members, members of senior centers, the children and grandchildren of African-American migrants. In the process she examines the interwoven ideas and movements that have created the America we live in today, along with some of our most distinctly American forms of artistic expression.
Isabel Wilkerson’s exceptional journalistic abilities combined with her exhaustive research make The Great Migration such a vivid and truthful historical work. Many respected academics write poorly despite their knowledge. They can drain exciting stories until they are Sahara dry. Instead, Wilkerson makes this history book about millions of people and their travels through the twentieth century to a new American life deeply personal by focusing on the biographies of three select subjects. One, a sharecropper named Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, leaves a tiny town in Mississippi to travel with her husband to the dizzyingly large city of Chicago in 1937. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, an independent-minded citrus picker and one-time college attendee escapes Wildwood, Florida, to head to an unknown future in Harlem and away from a potential lynching. A flashy, aspirational doctor and military vet named Robert Joseph Pershing Foster departs his Monroe, Louisiana country roots and marital connections to Atlanta’s notable academic black community in 1953. Like many Americans before him, he points his car towards California and ultimately Los Angeles, a place where he hopes to find the gold in Tinsel Town: an America that will let him exercise his exceptional abilities and oversized personality.
As Wilkerson tells these three individual stories, one of which lasts through the 2000s, she intersperses other oral histories: people who made similar courageous journeys to other northern towns, people who could no longer accept their dangerous and straitened circumstances as second-class citizens in poor southern counties where the so-called War of Northern Aggression had changed few of their civil rights. Also, she draws conclusions about the Great Migration’s trends and effects, such as discussing the way urban descendants of those migrants, like children of immigrants, were culturally somewhat distant from their transplanted country-bred parents. Many of the great twentieth-century African-American writers, artists, musicians, and dancers bloomed in soil far from the rows hoed by their slave ancestors.
Rarely do you find a history book so hard to put aside. I relished every succinct, diamond-cut sentence. This work feels completely genuine as Wilkerson discusses the difficulties experienced when migrants arrived in their “Promised Lands.” Its veracity makes it deeply moving—there are no ploys for sentiment, no music swelling up in certain places to tell you how to feel. Instead, I entered the text and lived within it, experiencing its pain, pride, humility, work ethic, and beauty as it became part of my own American sense of history.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer