Put it down now.
The Warmth of Other Suns will be on my fourth annual list of top books for the year.
Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to research, report and write this work, and it’s an absolute gem of a book that I raced through and was saddened to see end.
Wilkerson used her childhood experience of being the daughter of parents who migrated from the South and settled in the Washington, DC area as the experiential basis for the work, which tells the stories of three migrants from different parts of the South to different parts of the country. In so doing, she tells beautiful and at times wrenching stories of courage, loss and life choices while also making a strong argument for a fundamentally different understanding of The Great Migration than I had previously known.
Wilkerson focuses on Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who migrated from Mississippi to Milwaukee before settling in Chicago, George Starling, who moved from Florida to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, and Robert Pershing Foster, who left his home in Louisiana and headed West to California.
Each character’s story is gripping in its own right.
All mustered within the courage and resourcefulness to plot their departure to leave a Southern that was both potentially lethal and in which they could not act in basic ways as free people.
Yet, as much as they gained by leaving in what Wilkerson argues is an internal immigration, they also lost a profound connection with the region and people in which they were raised. Some of the book’s most poignant moments come when the three characters return to their home communities and recognize the irreversibility of their choices.
And the North and West were hardly the paradises that some had depicted. Foster in particular faced all manners of setbacks and difficulties in his efforts to set up a viable medical practice with which to support his wife, a socialite daughter of a university president, and two daughters.
Wilkerson does a fabulous job of presenting rich, full, flawed yet sympathetic and ultimately human characters. Starling shows tremendous courage fighting for justice as an organizer in the orange groves of Florida, but marries for spite and never gets the college education he always imagined he would have. Foster leaves his native region and, in some ways, denies part of himself, and, despite a high degree of professional success, never stops striving for others’ approval.
Gladney comes across as the most balanced, satisfied, and content character in the work, yet she also appears to have misgivings at times at unfailingly serving her husband George’s needs over her own for the 47 years they were married.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing, Wilkerson does a masterful job in conveying in intimate and often painful detail her characters’ life journeys. This alone would make Warmth a book well worth reading.
Yet she also encases these stories, which she chose to be representative of larger trends, within a strongly revisionist assessment of The Great Migration’s time frame, geographic scope and impact.
To begin, she extends the period of the migration from the standard World War I to World War II, with a second wave after the Second World War, to asserting that the movement continued into the 70s. Rather than being primarily a rural South to industrial urban North phenomenon, she writes about the thousands of people like Robert Foster and George Starling who went West and to the Northeast, respectively. And she disputes conventional wisdom that holds that these newcomers were on balance a drain of available resources, asserting without a lot of documentary support that the Southern arrivals were employed at higher rates, and made more money than, the people who were already there.
As another way of looking at impact, Wilkerson also drops in throughout the book examples of black people who made the move and ended up changing the United States through their actions and lives. She writes about athletes like the Williams Sisters, who grew up in Southern California, or Jesse Owens, whose family settled in Ohio. She cites blues legends like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and she refers to media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who hailed from Mississippi.
Wilkerson writes about these people not only to counter other analyses about black Southern migrants’ contribution to American life, but to illustrate both the resourcefulness of the people who left and the devastating toll the brutal Jim Crow system exacted on the people it oppressed and the nation it robbed by thwarting many of those people from fully sharing their gifts with their families, their communities and the nation at large.
This is a sober message, and one that comes directly out of Wilkerson’s own experience. She inserts her family directly at one point in the work, and her family’s journey animates, and, I imagine, was the driving force for, the project that took 15 years and saw all of the major characters die years before its completion.
We are the fortunate beneficiaries of Wilkerson’s labor. I have contacted her publicity people and hope to have her be the subject of the site’s first podcast. In the meantime, please read and learn from this remarkable book.