The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (audio)

I didn’t really know what this book was about when I picked it up – only that it was well-regarded. I’m so glad it found its way into my hands. Isabel Wilkerson has taken on a large-scale, ambitious subject here, and rendered it beautifully. And the audio reading by Robin Miles is lovely to boot.

The “great migration” in the subtitle refers to the movement of black Americans out of the South and into the northern and western United States in 1915-1975. Wilkerson starts from the very beginning, looking at the experiences of former slaves just after Emancipation in an impoverished region struggling to rebuild with a new order of things. The creation and expansion of Jim Crow laws designed to hold blacks down took time after the end of the Civil War to take effect. In the new caste system, former slaves and their descendents were unable to move up in the world and were in constant fear for their lives if they were to misstep around Southern whites. By 1915, they had begun to move out of the South, in what became a mass migration along lines so distinct that enclaves of blacks from specific towns and states were recreated in new locations.

Wilkerson shifts between two ways of studying the Great Migration. Sometimes she takes a broad view of history, in which she cites her own interviews (she states that she did over 1,200) with migrants and their descendents as well as a number of historical sources, to render the story of the Migration generally. And sometimes she follows the specific personal stories of three individuals who she interviewed at great length over a long period of time, traveling the country with them and becoming part of their lives. (In this respect, the journalist/author becoming part of the family of her subject, I was reminded of Rebecca Skloot’s amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.) George Swanson Starling moved from Eustis, Florida to New York City, later sending for his wife Inez to join him there. He had to leave Florida suddenly because a friend tipped him off that a lynch mob was coming for him; he had been involved in organizing his fellow citrus pickers to demand higher wages. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney moved with her husband George and their two children, with a third on the way, from Mississippi where they had been sharecroppers. They would eventually end up in Chicago, by way of Milwaukee. And Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was an ambitious surgeon and veteran from Monroe, Louisiana, with his heart set on Los Angeles. Known as Pershing in Monroe, he would resettle as Robert (or Bob, or Doc) in LA and send for his wife and daughters to join him there, where he built a new life in high society with the big house and booming practice he’d always wanted.

I found this shifting back and forth between the broad view and three personal histories extremely effective. Anecdotes from the lives of Southern blacks drove well home the misery of their bottom-rung status there; some of these stories are horrific, but important to show the desperation some migrants felt when they left their homes in the South. National trends played a role – for example, during WWII demand for Florida’s citrus was high while the supply of labor to pick the fruit was low, with everyone off at war, and this imbalance led to George Starling’s ability to demand higher wages. And the history of Chicago’s race relations and residential segregation puts Ida Mae Gladney’s home ownership into the proper perspective. You get the point. The history is well-documented and, I’m convinced, well-researched; and the personal stories make it all, well, personal. I was deeply involved with our three representative individuals by the end of the book and, yes, I cried.

I love that Wilkerson brought such a large-scale, important trend, that has had such huge effects on American history, to life the way she did. I also like that she examined the broad effects of the Great Migration, in terms of the cultures of both white and black residents of the North and the South, and took the time to show that black migrants were really far more like immigrant groups in history than like migrants within their own country. I recommend this book as part of a study of American history – but one need not be an academic to appreciate it. The story of the Great Migration is made accessible here, and I’m glad I know more about it now. This 19-disc audiobook (over 600 pages in print) went by easily. This is how I like to take my history lessons. Check it out.

Rating: 8 train rides north.

12 Responses

  1. You make a most important point – that this is essential American history, of which most white Americans are sadly unaware. Jim Crow discouraged personal initiative and disrupted families & communities – a loss for the South. The challenge for black Americans to recreate their lives in “foreign” parts of the country, and the consequences for those regions, is an important part of our collective & continuing history.

    • I finally picked this one up, overcame the weighty intimidation of 600 pages and fully appreciated what Wilkerson created. I will simply add to your good observations.

      Like you, I enjoyed her written voice and how she allows herself to be part of the story. Her own family story, and its part in her motivation for writing, is important and contributes to the warmth of her people stories. She writes with open sympathy, if not empathy, for the migrants, and full appreciation for the courage & fortitude revealed in their experiences; and I found that appropriate. Just one example, from her earliest pages describing the magnitude of the migrants’ decisions: “it was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”

      I am struck by the breadth of her story, much attributable to how she weaves in anecdote & nuance in the course of her narrative. Whole books can be written of the wide ranging cultural contributions in literature, music, sports (maybe even “root doctors” in medicine?) – from the early stages of slavery forward, but released in a torrent once the migration began escaping Jim Crow. She mentions this in passing, but we learn more as she accumulates anecdotes & chapter heading quotes.

      The racism implicit in mainstream history & sociology accounts is due full treatment elsewhere, but she obliquely makes the point well with examples of contemporary “professional” accounts, including some that are uncomfortably recent.

      And I’m glad she also observes the way the migrants changed the cities, not just the reverse; this is not a Black History Month episode – it’s an essential part of American history that has been ignored and misunderstood at our loss. Her treatment of the Jim Crow regime is a good example, as she describes the deliberate way it was constructed, one little ordinance or ambiguous social convention at a time, enforced by law but often also arbitrarily, in the shadows, hidden under literal cloaks as well as cloaks of darkness. The not-knowing was part of the terror; her analogy to the spread of Nazism is worthy. She describes the terrible impact on individuals, both physical & mental; but also the deep & insidious cultural impacts, including the scars on a white culture so pitifully dependent on the master/slave mentality.

      Hers is a wonderful contribution to our history, and will no doubt guide my further reading as it has yours.

  2. Sounds like a good one! As a history nerd (and proud of it) I love these types of books.

  3. […] recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s very impressive The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of black Americans out of the south throughout the 20th century. And then I […]

  4. […] the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I got to this book in the first place. Ah, the circularity of things: it amazes and […]

  5. […] The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson […]

  6. […] The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: Robin Miles narrates this work of history in a beautiful, warm voice that I found helpful to the subject. […]

  7. […] of a family and even of a shared experience. I was glad to have the background I gained by reading The Warmth of Other Suns, because like that work of nonfiction, Go Tell It on the Mountain is the story of black Americans […]

  8. […] than three years ago, I listened to the audio version of this book, and reviewed it here. At that time, Pops […]

  9. […] Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) offers a singular and vital perspective on American society with Caste: The Origins of Our […]

  10. […] for the New York Times, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, among many other awards. She has taught […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: