Revisited Review: THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, by Isabel Wilkerson #NonFicNov

As part of my participation in Nonfiction November, I’m digging into the blog archives and re-posting my thoughts on some of the notable nonfiction I’ve read during the last few years…and if I’m talking about it again, it’s nonfiction I think you should read, too.

Nonfiction November book discussion repost on The 3 Rs Blog: THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson
Random House (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0679444327 / 9780679444329)
Nonfiction/History, 640 pages
Source: purchased (e-book for Amazon Kindle: ASIN B003EY7JGM)

(originally reviewed February 9, 2011)

I am the grandchild and great-grandchild of white immigrants to America who came from southern and eastern Europe. This is not my ancestors’ story. But it is a story of moving from one homeland to another seeking a better life for oneself and one’s children, and of how the “old country” is never truly left behind – and in that respect, it has elements in common with an immigrant story. However, the people Isabel Wilkerson writes about in The Warmth of Other Suns probably wouldn’t call themselves immigrants; they moved from one part of their own country to another in hopes of more fully experiencing the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

When we talk about the mid-20th-century civil-rights movement, we’re usually thinking of the struggles to end legal segregation in the American South. But Wilkerson’s book demonstrates the ways that black people who left the South and its Jim Crow system for city life in the North and West changed that system from the outside – not by political means, but by the very fact of making lives away from it. It also illustrates that racist systems are more than capable of developing on their own, via cultural forces rather than force of law.

The subtitle of this book, “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” is entirely accurate, but Wilkerson scales it to an approachable level by conveying it through the experiences of three individual migrants:

  • Ida Mae Gladney, with her husband and children, made a stealthy departure from the Mississippi cotton fields during the heart of the Great Depression, going first to Milwaukee and then to Chicago, where many Mississippi migrants had landed already. Uneducated sharecroppers willing to work hard, the Gladneys both eventually found long-term blue-collar jobs and established their family on Chicago’s South Side. 
  • George Starling came from the citrus groves of central Florida, and was thwarted in his efforts to complete a college education by his own father and a culture that didn’t see its value. But he learned enough to try to organize and get better pay for his fellow grove workers, and knew enough to slip out of state when his efforts became dangerous. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever considered Florida as “not really the South” – something I heard a lot growing up as a transplant to the state – this section will correct your perceptions.) George made it to New York in 1945, finding a home in Harlem and work on the railroad, attending to passengers on the north-south routes between New York and Florida and effectively living between both his worlds. 
  • Robert Pershing Foster grew up as the youngest son of two teachers in Monroe, Louisiana and always envisioned something more  – college, medical school, a well-established family and career of his own, and life without the restrictions of Jim Crow. In 1953, he set out to find it in the Promised Land – Los Angeles – but never quite left behind everything he thought he did.

The stories of these three individuals are more than effective vehicles for illustrating the Great Migration via anecdote – they are riveting reading in their own right. I found the chapters leading up to and including each of their departures from the South particularly engrossing and suspenseful. However, the real achievement of the book is in making the context of these stories – the socio-economic, cultural, and legal climate surrounding them – equally compelling. The Warmth of Other Suns is a well-researched work that blends oral and academic history in a thoroughly accessible manner.

The Warmth of Other Suns does not tell my story – but it tells a story I really didn’t know, and one that I think I needed to know. It’s a story that I suspect most Americans don’t know nearly enough about – and we need to know it. The story is an essential piece of contemporary history, and one that we need to understand better. As told in this book, it’s eye-opening, enlightening, frightening, inspiring, and provocative in the best way. Please don’t be intimidated by that 600-plus page count – it moves quickly, and it’s hard not to get swept up in it. This is a must-read.

Rating: 4.25/5

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.

Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

Wilkerson captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. The Warmth of Other Suns is a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land.

Opening Lines: “The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her.”

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