The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

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

Isabel Wilkerson Caste The Warmth of Other Suns Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson, Author

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

Photo by julie aagaard on Pexels.com

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 

Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

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.

Further Reading

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

The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

I absolutely loved this book, it was such an immersive experience, I could feel myself slowing it right down not wanting it to end.

I read it over a weekend and what a memorable Sunday I spent reading through the 1930’s, every time a singer, song or musician was mentioned I could easily look them up, so I played Bessie Smith’s blues, watched Cab Calloway sing and dance Minnie the Moocher, listened to Lucille Hegamin and admired Bill Robinson’s stair dance.

What makes this work of historical fiction even more interesting, is that it was inspired by a number of the author’s own family and ancestors. With an interest in geneaolgy that has seen her collecting bits and pieces of their stories for over 20 years and an interest in the little known dark history of black people in Europe who were snatched by the Nazis and thrown into camps, she weaves the thread of a what had been a developing story into that of her own family, with a version of her mysterious grandfather Harold (who becomes Harlan) in the lead.

I love stories. I love backstories. I don’t want to just give you character and not give you the background of the character, for me a story is like a tree, where you have the bark, the limbs and the roots and I need to be able to put all that down on paper. Bernice McFadden

McFadden writes short three page chapters and doesn’t waste words, she’s descriptive, informative, atmospheric and knows how to move a story along through time with sufficient essential and sensory detail to create well formed characters and a sense of place.

Emma is the youngest child and only daughter of the Reverend, who installed her as lead organist in the church from the age of seven. She and Lucille, her choir singing best friend secretly love another type of music, demonized by the Reverend.

On the outside, Emma didn’t seem to want for anything, but let’s be clear – she was starving on the inside. Not the coal-burning-belly type of hunger of the destitute, but the agonizing longing of a free spirit, caged.

Harlan is her son, an only child his story begins in 1917 Macon, Georgia where he will spend his formative years with his grandparents while his parents seek their fortune elsewhere, intending to send for him. By they time that happens he doesn’t want to leave, but the bright lights of New York and an introduction to the musical world of his mother’s friend Lucille, help him adjust.

Lucille’s choir singing pays off, she becomes the second African-American blues singer to record; when Harlan drops out of school at 16 she proposes to his concerned mother that she take him on tour, with his guitar. Being on the road changes him, exposing him to things that seduce and overwhelm him that he indulges anyway, though shocked to find Lucille has her limits to her tolerance, and packs him off home.

When Sam comes home and finds his wife in tears, we learn it is September 1937 and Bessie Smith (43), Empress of the Blues, has sung her last lament.

At this point the story line swerves and introduces us to another family, we meet sisters Gwen and Irene, their mother Ethel and father Aubrey, fresh off the boat from Barbados.

The memories of the crossing, those first hard years, were still fresh in Ethel’s mind; she could recall them with ease, as if she’d just stepped off the ship last week.

Gwen takes classes at the Mary Bruce School of Dance and after a short while her parents receive a letter suggesting that she might better suited to tap dancing than ballet, which delights her, as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was her hero.

Gwen had gone to see the movie The Little Colonel four times, committing to memory Robinson’s famous step dance, which she then reenacted for her parents, Mary Bruce, and anyone else willing to sit and watch.

We come to know the family and observe Gwen resist and then fall for Harlan’s charms.

Harlan meets Leo, a musician everyone calls Lizard and they start a band together, his life gets back on track, even if his habits don’t change much. Lizard’s story is unique, he and Harlan are bound together by some strange twist of fate, a connection that will run deep and silent within Harlan his entire life, until finally he is released from the pain of it.

When Harlan and Lizard respond to an invitation from Eugène Jacques Bullard to come to Paris and play in his club in Montmartre, it’s like a dream come true, except that it was the wrong time in history (1942) to be hanging around a city that was about to come under occupation. Paris became a life changing moment for both of them.

With the arrival of Harlan’s band and others, Montmartre came alive again. For a while, the threat of war between Germany and Great Britain had scattered the musicians like ants.
The Zazous took their name after Cab Calloway’s hit “Zaz Zuh Zaz.” They’d thoroughly immersed themselves in swing culture, going so far as adopting Calloway’s style of dress, gliding back-step dance moves, and hep language.

A Little Historical Diversion

Black American singers, dancers, entertainers and jazz musicians found Europe in general and Paris in particular, a congenial place to live and work, settling there for much of the interwar years, developing a thriving expat cultural community in Montmartre. It is towards this ideal that Harlan is drawn, convincing his more reticent friend to follow.

Eugène Jacques Bullard left America for France at a young age, inspired by the words of his father (from Martinique, enslaved in Haiti, he took refuge with and married a Native American of the Creek tribe) who said to his son « un homme y était jugé par son mérite et non pas par la couleur de sa peau » that a man was judged there by his merit and not by the colour of his skin.

A French foreign legionnaire, he became the world’s first black fighter pilot, fighting with the French Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI. After the war, inspired by his love of music, he founded the nightclub l’Escadrille in Montmartre, a beacon for artists and musicians who discovered an established black community in a part of Paris similar to the population of Harlem, a village within a village.

By the time Harlan returns to New York, he is a shadow of his former self due to what he endured. McFadden adeptly takes us through the following years referencing significant moments of the collective history, bringing Harlan’s story full circle.

Bernice L. McFadden’s ancestors are named at the back of the book as are some of the musicians, dancers and singers who make an appearance. By the end, I just wanted Harlan to be safe and it was with some relief that I read the closing chapters and wondered if that was the true version of events or the life-saving imagination of Ms McFadden.

It left me wanting to know more about some of the characters, as some threads are left hanging, but in all it is a wonderful tribute to a family history and a remarkable capturing of the period of time they lived through. A brilliant, entertaining, informative story and a unique reading experience, accompanied as it was for me by all that music and dance.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My Review of Praise Song For the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler

Our History, Our Future

This is a book I’ve been fascinated by and slow reading over the past couple of months. Today, somewhat reluctantly, as it’s a large and in-depth work that can’t really be summarised, I decided I needed to write about it, especially as the sequel is due out and I’ve pre-ordered it, so I wanted to share my thoughts on this first. And because it’s brilliant and deserves a much wider readership.

Riane Eisler was born in Vienna, Austria. When she was a child she and her parents fled for their lives from the Nazis, first to Cuba and finally to the United States, thus she experienced three different cultures, each with their own version of truth and reality.

Very early in my life I saw that what people in different cultures consider given – just the way things are – is not the same everywhere. I also very early developed a passionate concern about the human situation.

She began to ask herself many questions:

Why do we hunt and persecute each other? Why is our world so full of man’s infamous inhumanity to man – and woman? How can humans be so brutal to their own kind? What is it that chronically tilts us toward cruelty rather than kindness, toward war rather than peace, toward destruction rather than actualization?

These and other questions lead her to re-examine the past, present and future, captured here in The Chalice and the Blade, looking at human history and pre-history and at both male and female aspects of humanity and in particular, those societies where the feminine aspect was revered.

This work gave rise to what she termed:
– the dominator model (popularly referred to as patriarchy or matriarchy) – the ranking of one half of humanity over another and
– the partnership model  – based on the principle of linking, affiliation and cooperation

Her work further suggested that:

the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution was toward partnership but that, following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption, there occurred a fundamental shift.

Hence the title The Chalice (the life-generating and nurturing powers of the universe – in our time symbolized by the ancient chalice or grail) and the Blade the power to take rather than give life that is the ultimate power to establish and enforce domination.

She reevaluates the past and present, sharing insights from research that has often been ignored or misinterpreted.

The chapters tell a story that begins thousands of years before our recorded (or written history). Of how the original partnership direction of Western culture veered off into a bloody 5,000 year dominator detour.

showing that our mounting global problems are in large part the logical consequences of a dominator model of social organisation and that there is another course which, as co-creators of our own future experience, is still ours to choose.

Both the mythical and archaeological evidence indicate that perhaps the most notable quality of the pre-dominator mind was its recognition of our oneness with all of nature,which lies at the heart of both Neolithic and the Cretan worship of the Goddess. Increasingly, the work of modern ecologists indicates that this earlier quality of mind, in our time often associated with some types of Eastern spirituality, was far advanced beyond today’s environmentally destructive ideology.

From the paleolithic, the neolithic, Old Europe, Goddess worship and the unique long lasting civilization of Crete to the invaders, the colonizers, warfare, slavery and sacrifice, we see the world and our reality through a different lens and yet once you’ve seen it, you recognize it, without realizing how it acts on us, in our homes, our workplaces, ours schools, institutions, governments.

It is so interesting to read this, originally written in 1987, over 30 years ago, in the context of our reality today. It provides a unique perspective on our history and analyzes it rigorously and yet in an easily understandable and accessible way, synthesizing information from a varieties of sources and disciplines to give us this helpful view of the influences that have been directing our progress (or lack of) suggesting the greater role that a more feminine (yin) collaborative, partnership approach might bring.

It is a seminal work in understanding the impact of repressing the positive characteristics of the feminine and demonstrating that a more partnership oriented model can reap rewards that benefit not just the individual, but the community. Despite the fact that our media is full of much doom and gloom, it is possible to look a little closer to home and see examples of people working in partnership and collaboration, of people leaving behind corporations and institutions and choosing ways of living and working that allow for greater creative expression.

She continues to ask questions, and these two that she mentions, seem fitting to what will follow:

Is a shift from a system leading to chronic wars,  social injustice, and ecological imbalance to one of peace, social justice and ecological balance a realistic possibility? Most important, what changes in social structure would make such a transformation possible?

Though this was written 30 years ago, there is a sequel due to be published in August 2019, in collaboration with peace anthropologist Douglas P. Fry Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future exploring how behaviors, values, and socio-economic institutions develop differently in these two environments, revealing connections between disturbing trends like climate change denial and regressions to strongman rule. It combines Eisler’s partnership-domination social scale with extensive evidence from neuroscience and other fields.

It shows that, contrary to popular beliefs about “selfish genes” driving human behavior, how people think and feel is heavily influenced by whether they grow up in partnership or domination oriented environments. It also documents that in reality humans in the course of evolution developed a propensity for empathy, caring, and creativity, which is, however, inhibited in domination systems. It further points to interventions that can accelerate the contemporary movement toward partnership and prevent further regressions to domination.

About the Author
Riane Eisler, JD, PhD (hon), is President of the Center for Partnership Studies, Editor-in-Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, internationally known as a systems scientist, cultural historian, pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and recipient of many awards. Her groundbreaking books include The Chalice and the Blade, Tomorrow’s Children, and The Real Wealth of Nations. She lectures worldwide, keynoting conferences, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. State Department, corporations, and universities. Her website is https://rianeeisler.com/.