'The Warmth of Other Suns': The great African American migration out of the South
A review of Isabel Wilkerson's masterful "The Warmth of Other Suns," an epic account of the migration of six million African Americans who left the American South for points east, north and west between World War I and the 1970s. Wilkerson discusses her book Friday, Sept. 24, at Seattle's Northwest African American Museum.
Special to The Seattle Times
Isabel WilkersonThe author of "The Warmth of Other Suns" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Friday at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the museum and the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration'
by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 622 pp., $30
Many of us see the history of African Americans as bracketed by slavery and the televised moments of the 1950s-'60s civil-rights movement. Coverage of Barack Obama's historic election replayed those midcentury milestones: cruel, brave, jubilant, violent moments. The past unrolled in footage of powerful speeches; attack dogs and fire hoses; a dignified, unblinking dark-skinned girl walking into a Southern school with white adults screaming abuse all around her.
Isabel Wilkerson's exceptional book, "The Warmth of Other Suns," moves the story to a much larger screen, as she chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book.
Wilkerson, who teaches at Boston University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times writer. She spent more than a decade on the book, which is framed by the migration of three very different people in this revolutionary exodus out of Jim Crow segregation.
Her principal characters were chosen with care. Mississippian Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who moved from sharecropping to Chicago in 1937; George Swanson Starling, who left the citrus fields of Florida in the mid-1940s and landed in Harlem; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor escaping small-town Louisiana for the glitter of Los Angeles in 1951.
Wilkerson's interviews were extended and personal. She walked the same streets the three had walked, read the same newspapers, shared their food. Accompanied by her parents (migrants themselves from the South to Washington, D.C.), she recreated a cross-country drive made by Foster, coming to understand what it had meant to travel when accommodations were scarce, and the roads unsafe.
"There developed a code of the road among colored people making the crossing. When you got sleepy, there were places you stopped and places you didn't ... You tried to stay awake until you found such a place ... Before stopping, you ran your eyes over the resting car's bumper and rear windshield, checked for a Confederate flag. You would be crazy to pull up behind one of those. If you saw a pack of cars, you were wary."
One family interviewed drove across Texas in the late 1940s, and told of driving for three solid days, stopping one night in El Paso, eating lunchmeat sandwiches the whole way.
"They carried with them twenty-five pounds of ice in a lard bucket as a makeshift air conditioner — or for the radiator if it overheated ... along with a copy of the 121st Psalm: '... God will not allow your foot to slip; your guardian does not sleep ... ' "
In between the personal narratives, Wilkerson takes on stereotypes of this era of poor blacks who contributed little and strained cities' capacities. The myths she sweeps aside resemble those leveled at European immigrants who came in the late 19th century, at Asians who came later, and at Mexicans caught up in border wars now.
For all its impressive journalism, I suspect that the book's real worth won't be evident for a long time. It will change lives of a new generation, as did "The World of Our Fathers" by Irving Howe, "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn or the transporting histories of William Manchester.
The teenaged bookworm who picks it up (yes, even those who flip ahead to see what happens) won't look at her country the same way. The young man who thinks history is static and about "other" people; the future novelist, reporter, historian, activist, informed citizen — all will come under the spell of personal narrative and see the need to dig deep and find history.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a Portland writer who blogs at www.TypeLikeTheWind.com