Inspiration in A Title
The book title ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ is a line written by the novelist Richard Wright (1908-1960) who wrote about the plight of being African-American, most notably in his novel Native Son (1940) and autobiography Black Boy (1945). It provides the opening to this book. A migrant from Mississippi, he set out on his journey in 1927 for Chicago.
“I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom”
Isabel Wilkerson is an American journalist and the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Both her parents were part of the migration North, as were many in the neighbourhood where she grew up. As a journalist she heard many stories of similar journeys and began to join the dots and see the bigger picture, which lead to the premise of this book.
Non-Fiction Personal Narrative
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow* Southern states of America, beginning after WW1 in 1915 continuing until the 1970’s, a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old.
Who or what is Jim Crow?
Jim Crow is an adjective used to describe a set of laws that southern states devised regulating every aspect of black people’s lives, solidifying the southern caste system, prohibiting even the most casual and incidental contact between the races. They would come to be known as the Jim Crow laws, though it is unknown who precisely Jim Crow was or if anyone by that name even existed.
One Woman’s Personal Journey to Accumulate & Document History
After fifteen years of research, studying many reports and papers and archives and conducting hundreds of interviews and journeys, Isabel Wilkerson decided to focus the narrative of this great flux of humanity, choosing three people who left over three decades, for different destinations. Their stories provide specific and heart felt accounts of their journey’s and the life they created.
Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become the biggest under-reported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was underway.
The result of that research is this book documenting the experiences of those who are representative of the larger whole, essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, the Midwest and the West, from 1915, World War I, until 1970 when the South began truly to change.
What binds these stories together was the back-to-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
A Historical Study
Intertwined with these personal narratives, Wilkerson shares historical facts, bringing together a history of the struggle of a vast group of American citizens who left their homes, their ancestral roots and memories for another part of the country where they hoped to find freedom and be treated as equals.
Though they would find opportunity, the search for equality would be somewhat illusory, the oppression taking a different form, the discrimination more clandestine, eventually erupting into the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Three People from the South, Three Decades, Three Destinations
Of the three whose lives unfold in this gripping narrative, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney would leave first in the 1930’s and ultimately end up in Chicago; George Swanson Starling left in the 1940’s to live in New York and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster departed in the 1950’s headed for California.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney
We meet Ida Mae in her hometown of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1937, the wife of a sharecropper, working the land of a planter picking cotton. They were a young couple who worked hard and stayed out of trouble, who decide to leave after witnessing the terrible beating of a cousin, in a case of mistaken identity. Their vulnerability to false accusation was a catalyst to their decision to leave. The North was facing a labour shortage and actively recruiting workers from the South.
Oftentimes, just to go away, is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put. John Dollard, Yale Scholar
Ida Mae and her husband struggled initially to find work, reminding me of the many who waited, Bernice McFadden’s Harlan raised by his grandmother while his parents sought their fortunes in the North and in Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes and his mother waited for his father to send for them.
Competing with other immigrant groups, the increased cost of living, raising a family, they persevered in continual determination to keep bettering their situation.
She was the matriarch of her family. She was one of the wisest and most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life. Doing this book changed me in so many ways. She had a way of – a kind of Zen perspective, if you can say – if you can imagine it, of accepting what was and recognizing what she couldn’t change, and moving on and not living in the past. And she was beloved by everyone who knew her.
George Swanson Starling
George held aspirations to further his education, doing well in school, but there was pressure on him to work in the orange groves like everyone else. He made a mistake that altered the course of his life, though not his underlying essence and ambition. Working in the fruit groves using his intelligence and ability to bring people together to collectively try and improve their wage, made his existence dangerous accelerating the need for him to leave.
Jim Crow had a way of turning everyone against one another, not just white against black or landed against lowly, but poor against poorer and black against black for an extra scrap of privilege. George Starling left all he knew because he would have died if he had stayed.
He would leave Eustis, the interior citrus belt of Florida and take the twenty-three hour train ride up the Atlantic coast to New York alone, not knowing when he’d be able to send for his wife Inez. That set something of a precedent for their relationship, though it was a wound that went back further than her marriage, for ironically George would spend his working life away from home, riding the rails up and down the East Coast as a railway attendant.
Robert Pershing Foster
Robert was the youngest son in a family of high achievers from Monroe, Louisiana, his brother Madison a doctor, encouraged him to go into partnership, but Robert had other aspirations.
The only way that someone as proud and particular as Pershing could survive in the time and place he was in was to put his mind somewhere else. He grew up watching his parents exercise exquisite control over the few things they were permitted to preside over in life.
Through marriage and his profession he aimed higher and further than most and had high expectations of himself and others in consequence. A proud man, he drove his way to California in his Buick Roadmaster, taking a circuitous route to Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican border, satisfying his craving for adventure and for doing what he did in grandiose style. Unsure whether he could make it in Los Angeles, he drove to Oakland before making his decision.
It was looking like Monroe, which was perhaps one reason why people from Monroe had gravitated there in the first place and made a colony for themselves. It was precisely what Robert was looking to get away from. It was not living up to his glamour vision of California. It felt as if he had driven all this way for the same place he had left. Los Angeles had seduced him. Oakland didn’t stand a chance.
The Structure, The Decades, The Fear, The Exodus, The Dream, The Reality
Though they leave in different decades, the narrative has been beautifully orchestrated to allow their stories to be read concurrently, so we learn about their circumstances in the South first, discover their personal motivations for leaving, their plans and then their departure. Each new section tells their three stories.
It’s a brilliant way to join the stories and see the mass migration for the terrifying, courageous yet exciting act it was. The departures, no matter which decade they were in, all carry within them an undercurrent of fear of the unknown, and it is with some relief that I recall I’m reading about people who will survive into old age, the danger surrounding their life-changing departure palpable nevertheless.
The stories are rich with detail and anecdote, the historical references are eye-opening and important to acknowledge. It is an excellent book, a thorough examination of the movement of people out of oppression towards equality, rights that continue to be fought for today. It’s impossible to do justice to the book, both it’s humanity and history, it’s an astounding accomplishment and well worth reading.
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we might try, those origins contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is published on August 11.
Have you read any novels that incorporate a character making this migration out of the South? Do let me know in the comments below.
TED Talk by Isabel Wilkerson: The Great Migration and the Power of A Single Decision
New York Times: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is an instant American Classic about our abiding sin by Dwight Garner
Chicago Tribune: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is is about the strict lines that keep us apart — lines that are more than race or class