Title: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
One Sentence Summary: Between 1915 and 1970 almost six million African American migrated from the South to escape Jim Crow laws, and this Great Migration changed the entire face of the United States.
One Sentence Review: Wilkerson’s book manages to be both epic and deeply personal at the same time, and is the kind of nonfiction that changed the way I think about the world.
Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I am a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.
Long Review: At first glance, The Warmth of Other Suns seems like an intimidating book. It’s more than 600 pages long. There are three main characters, but the story Wilkerson is trying to tell seems overwhelming to even think about. How does one even go about telling the stories of more than six million people over a span of nearly 60 years?
But Wilkerson had me hooked within the first 15 pages of them book, in part because of paragraphs like this one at the end of her introduction:
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-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.
I just love that, and I loved every moment of reading this book.
To give the story some emotional weight, Wilkerson chose three people to serve as examples and the ongoing narrative of the story: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who left Mississippi in 1937 to move to Chicago for a blue-collar life; George Starling, a quick-tempered youth who fled Florida for Harlem in 1945 and worked on the trains for most of his life; and Robert Foster, an educated doctor who left Louisiana in 1953 to practice medicine in California. The three of them have amazing personal stories, and Wilkerson does a commendable job of telling about them and using their experiences as starting points for her extensive research on the Great Migration.
Although brutality and overt racism evident in the South after the Civil War is relatively well-documented, Wilkerson made it hit home again for me. It’s always hard to imagine how we as a society could ever have been so cruel — even just a few terrible cases that stand out in a general sea of ignorance and fear. But, Wilkerson does make a good point about the societal impact of this system:
What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared to admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wold as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability.
While that doesn’t excuse anything — not by a long shot — I appreciated that Wilkerson was able to acknowledge that a system of racism doesn’t just hurt a single group; everyone suffers from a culture of fear.
The other thing that I loved about this book was the way Wilkerson was able to show how effects of the Great Migration still impact us today. The design of cities, the traditions and trends of particular immigrant communities in each city, and even the idea of racial separation in cities can all be traced back to what happened when African Americans fled from the South and came North. I’m interested in urban sociology, and this book really is a good background for starting to think about those issues.
One criticism I do have of the book is occasional repetitiveness. Wilkerson is dealing with a lot of moving parts — personal stories, background characters, research, theory, and current discussion — and often repeats details about characters. I’m sure this was a style choice to try and keep all the parts distinct and clear, but I did start to notice it as the book progressed.
If one thing stood out to me from reading, it’s that Wilkerson really put her heart into this book. The dust jacket says she interviewed more than a thousand people, and that level of research shows in the detailed personal stories she shares and the number of academic sources she cites in making her different arguments. The Warmth of Other Suns really is a definitive book covering this historical phenomenon, and I highly recommend making the time to read it.
Other Reviews: Jayne’s Books |
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!