The Warmth of Other Suns – The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) by Isabel Wilkerson – Nonfiction
An epic story. “Epic” is the best word to describe this 500-plus page book. It is a book that chronicles almost a century of time in American history and an event that is probably one of the least discussed but one of the most influential of stories.
The Great Migration is a term used for the exodus of Black Americans from the South to the North, Midwest, and West of the United States. Spanning from around 1915 to 1970, the Great Migration is the reason major cities of Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and others hold the ancestors of those migrants who journeyed for a variety of reasons from the South.
Poor wages, lynchings, backbreaking work, segregation, lack of quality education, fear. All of these factors and more influenced the decisions of over 6 million Black Americans to leave their homes in the South of America and journey to a new land and new culture of the North, Midwest, and West of America. Opportunity called to them that their home states did not provide.
The Warmth of Other Suns chronicles this time period by illustrating the lives of three individuals who made the trek: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Ida Mae hailed from Mississippi and migrated to Chicago. George sweltered under the Florida heat, picking oranges, until he was forced to make the journey to New York City. Dr. Foster dreamed of the glitter and opportunity of California and moved as fast as he could from Louisiana.
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life becomes untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scots-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, relevant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.
Wilkerson is able to to transform a nonfiction book into a narrative – bringing the reader so close to the lives of these three individuals that you feel like they are your own family. You journey with them as they face fear and oppression in the South and root for them as they make their way to a different, and hopefully more tolerant, land. They are ordinary people. While Dr. Foster has a brush with fame in California, none of them are well-known or famous. They lived ordinary lives, only wanting the best for their families and to not live in fear.
The Jim Crow South seems so far from many of us in 2020, but 1970 wasn’t that long ago. The Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made segregation in public places illegal is also not that long ago. People reference this monumental piece of legislation, but never remember that just because a law changed, does not mean the people’s minds changed as well. A perfect example is the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865 and abolished slavery. While the law came into effect, we know the history of the South – of the promise of the Reconstruction Era and the end result of Jim Crow laws that did not legally get changed until the 1950s and 1960s.
This is an epic book and something that I hope does not scare people away from reading. It is even more important to take the time and dive into this history and these real people in the moment and climate that we currently live in 2020.
The Warmth of Other Suns made The New York Times list for Best Books of the Year and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Lover of the written word.