The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Published: 2010 by Random House
Source: Received as a gift
I cannot give this book a proper review. Reading it made me mad, it upset me, it made me cry, but at times it also made me smile. And I don’t know if I have the right to any of those emotions.
The Warmth of Other Suns is about the migration of thousands of black citizens from the segregated Jim Crow South to cities in the officially (though not always in practice) desegregated North. The general migration story is explained, but Isabel Wilkerson, herself the daughter of such migrants, specifically tells the story of three people:
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney: A sharecropper’s wife in Mississippi who, with her husband and young children leave the cotton plantation to join her sister in Milwaukee, but who eventually settles in Chicago
George Swanson Starling: An agitator for better wages for orange grove pickers in Florida, he flees just ahead of the lynch mobs for New York City
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster: The son of the principal of the colored school in Monroe, Louisiana, he becomes a doctor and – not wanting to be merely a country doctor for the colored people – heads to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.
We see their stories almost in their entirety: The demeaning existence they had to endure in their hometowns (though it must be said there seemed to be an incredible sense of community within the black population which must have been what got some of them through such difficulties); the struggle to leave, the difficulties of life in a completely new environment up North. What was extremely surprising to me is how much discrimination they had to put up with even once they were settled in these large metropolises, and this is where I started feeling outrage and shame; neither myself nor my immediate ancestors had any part of this injustice but I kept wanting to just look up some of these people and apologize.
The three stories are similar, yet very different at the same time. Ms Wilkerson tells the three stories so well that they read like fiction. I wish that some of the events described were fiction, but sadly ……
It’s a fairly long book, but it is definitely worth the effort.
I started this book just after Christmas, and finished it on January 3, so I just might make this one of my favorite books for 2011 and 2012. Highly recommended.