By Laura L. Klure
This well-researched book tells about the migration of Black people out of the southern states and into other parts of the U.S. Although many African-American people left the south around the time of the Civil War, most of the migration happened later, in the 20th Century, 1915-1970. Writer Isabel Wilkerson states, “Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history.” A Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson was a bureau chief for the New York Times. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards, and has taught at various universities. She is currently Professor of Journalism at Boston University. She shares some bits of her own family’s history in this book.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” chronicles the national saga of the Black migration, but it also focuses on the true individual tales of three real people. George Swanson Starling moved from the orange groves of Florida to work as a “coach attendant” on trains traveling out of New York. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Mississippi to find a new life and various jobs in Chicago. Originally from Louisiana, Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was educated in the south, but he chose to practice medicine in Los Angeles. By following the stories of these three Black Americans, Wilkerson illustrates how difficult the migration was, even though they gained some greater freedoms in their new homes. In some respects, the relocation of these American citizens was more challenging than the migration to the U.S. of people from various European countries.
The terrible treatment of Blacks in the south definitely did not end with the Civil War, as was told in a recent PBS program, “Slavery by Another Name,” based on the book with that title by Douglas Blackmon. As share-croppers, laborers, and servants, southern Blacks were still underpaid and gravely mistreated, well into the 1900s. But if they expected to be completely treated as equals in other parts of the U.S., they quickly learned that was not the case. Wilkerson documents the many barriers and prejudices that impacted the migrants in the northern and western states. Blacks who left the south might earn enough money to buy a house, but then they would discover that only certain neighborhoods were open to them. Blacks were not even considered for various jobs, and in some instances they earned less than whites working beside them. Wilkerson describes hostile, racist actions occurring in many situations outside the south. These ranged from unspoken shunning, to a bartender breaking the glass used by a Black man, and to extremes such as a Black boy in Chicago drowning after being pelted by rocks thrown by white boys.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” is not an easy book to read for several reasons, including the fact that it tells about numerous true, but horrific incidents, such as lynchings. It is also long, because it’s about a big saga. The main text is 538 pages, and then Wilkerson admirably details her methods and sources, and provides an index, adding over 80 more pages. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people for this project, and the three special stories were based on numerous interviews. If someone becomes particularly interested in the story of one of the three central migrants, following just that tale would require skipping through the sections of the book. Wilkerson stayed in touch with all three until they died, and their stories are told eloquently. The book does talk briefly about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, but that is not its central focus.
Most reviews of the book have been very positive, but some readers have considered it too long. A critic might not understand the significance of chronicling ordinary lives in such detail. For people who know just the barest outlines of their own family’s migrations, this book may provide some pertinent details and insights. It can help young-adult readers come to a better understanding of what their grandparents and earlier generations went through. White readers or those unfamiliar with the south are almost guaranteed to learn many things. For example, even though I had traveled through parts of the south in the 1950s and 1960s, this writer had very limited experiences from a Caucasian perspective, and I also did not know anything about how bad conditions were for Blacks in Florida.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” came out in hard-back in 2010, but paperback and Kindle versions are now available. The book is listed for sale and is reviewed on various websites, such as Amazon (also see online listings for Blackmon’s book).