My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Warmth of Other Suns is a transformative book, one that can profoundly change and shape the way we view American history. The list of awards and accolades is so long the book does not need my imprimatur, but I will echo each by saying, “Read this.”
From 1915 to 1970, thousands of black Americans undertook a pilgrimage of hope and determination that led them from cotton fields, rice and tobacco plantations, from villages and towns in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to a new world in the north. They followed the trails and tracks of the Underground Railroad laid down by generations of escaped slaves and abolitionists before them, settling primarily in Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, IN, New York, Newark and Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Oakland. It was, as the author states, “…the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in the country far longer than they have been free.” (p. 10) It was an act of individuals and families – breaking free of the cruel grip of Jim Crow – that grew into an extended social revolution. It was perhaps the most significant event of 20th century America and few of us know anything about it.
That Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist is evident in her intense, encompassing and rigorous research. She conducted over twelve hundred interviews and spent several years examining primary source documents, scholarly and literary works that witness, analyze and recount the beginnings of Jim Crow South in the 1880’s, through the end of the Great Migration in the 1970’s.
But Ms. Wilkerson is also a consummate story-teller. The Warmth of Other Sons is one of the finest pieces of narrative non-fiction I have read. She takes the very difficult subject of Jim Crow – one that is so horrifying it is hard to absorb and accept – and humanizes it by telling the stories of three participants in the Great Migration. We ride a train north in the late 1930’s from Mississippi to Milwaukee with pregnant Ida Mae Gladney, her husband and two small children, who abandon their lives as cotton sharecroppers and eventually make a home in Chicago’s South Side. We escape from Florida’s citrus groves to Harlem in 1945 with George Swanson Starling, who risks lynching by organizing his fellow fruit pickers to strike for higher wages. We travel the long highway miles between Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California with Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster in 1953 and imagine a life of respect and glamour that surely awaits an educated, handsome, well-spoken black man – in diverse, liberal Southern California.
Wilkerson weaves these narratives along parallel lines, taking us through each stage of the migrants’ journeys concurrently, pausing to describe the social and political conditions that existed in the region or the era. Rarely have I read a non-fiction work that provides so complete a foundation and builds a structure without overwhelming the narrative in detail.
The author tells these migrants’ stories with grace and empathy, but does not sentimentalize or over-dramatize history. She presents the ugliness and horror of Jim Crow and the racism that existed in the North – where discrimination could not be identified by a set of written rules and laws, but was nearly as prevalent and cruel as in the South – without making caricatures of its heroes and villains, as too often happens in literary works.
One of the vital outcomes of studying history is compassion developed through greater understanding and knowledge. Although the Great Migration nominally ended in the 1970’s, after the Civil Rights Movement of the previous decade tore away the Jim Crow curtain from the South, it is a story without end. We are a nation of immigrants, celebrating the American promise of life, liberty, and happiness, yet we remain divided by class, color, economics, education and vision. We are largely integrated, but not always comfortably. Isabel Wilkerson offers a transcendent work that is epic in scope but relayed in the most personal, relevant way. It is the quintessential American story: perseverance and hope in the face of injustice and hate. With works as fine as Isabel Wilkerson’s, it is my hope that history can light a way to a better future for all.