Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have one word to describe this book...Brilliant. It was my book club's selection for this month, and I feared that I wouldn't be able to finish the massive 640 pages before our club meeting. As it turns out, the 640 pages includes the Epilogue, notes on Methodology, the acknowledgements, the permissions to use passages (poems, songs, speeches) from previoously copyrighted works, and footnotes. OHHH..., the footnotes, all 446 of them.

Ms. Wilkerson started the research for this book in 1995. She commented when I saw her in Chapel Hill last month that if this book were a child, it would be dating by now. Her research included over 1200 interviews of people involved in the Great Migration of blacks escaping the Jim Crow South for better lives in the North and West. She met them in churches, meetings of civic and social clubs in the locations where people left, and the cities where they landed, in a Great Migration that started after the first World War and continued into the 1970's.

What sounds at first like a huge sociological study becomes very personal as she follows the lives of three individuals. Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper in Mississippi who moved to Chicago in 1937. George Starling moved from the orange groves of Florida to New York in 1945. Robert Pershing Foster, a physician, moved from Lousiana to Los Angeles in 1953. As we read about their personal reasons for leaving, Ms Wilkerson interweaves citations from Newspapers during those times to give weight to the personal stories.

At times it is not an easy read because she cites reports of lynching after lynching with all of the gruesome dtails. There were days that I just closed the book and cried. When Ida Mae met with housing discrimination in Chicago, Ms Wilkerson cites reports that gave the big picture of the reaction of European immigrants who committed violent acts rather than live in the same block with the new immigrants from the South. She also used testimony from family and friends left behind to fill in the gaps where Ida Mae, George, and Robert may not have been, or may have forgotten.

Ida Mae, George, and Robert never meet, but Ms Wilkerson pulls together the similarities and differences in their lives as they reach thier individual "Promised Land." I thought it was particulalry brilliant the way she tied in the studies from Commissions troughout history such as the reports folllowing the Chicago Riots of 1919 (Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot), and the 1968 Report from the Kerner Commission.

When we reach the end of the book, she has been with each of those three even until death. Their lives have become so much of her family that she can't let it go until she helps usher them on to the beyond.

I tried to think how my family fits into this Great Migration. My parents didn't leave the south, but my siblings and I did. There was not the threat of lynching in Petersburg VA as there was in Mississippi following Reconstruction on through the Civil Rights Era. We didn't have the urgency to leave. My oldest sister settled in Washington DC after college; two of my brothers moved to Washington, DC after the Korean War; a third brother to New York, and a fourth to Colorado after he retired from the military. After my mother died, I went to live with a brother in Washington where I attended high school. When it came time for me to choose a college, I did not consider the HBCU's that my siblings attended; I looked North because of the possibility of better jobs when I graduated. And then I was the first to return to the South in 1975, making me a part of the reverse migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a book for every American. For those of us whose families lived through The Great Migration, it gives solid facts to back up the history that we knew anecdotally, or learned piecemeal in secret from teachers in segregated schools. And for those who never understood the depth and breadth of the discrimination in this country, this book is for you.

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