guest review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, from Pops

More than three years ago, I listened to the audio version of this book, and reviewed it here. At that time, Pops commented:

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.

He has now gotten around to reading The Warmth of Other Suns himself, and posted a longer comment to that original review. I thought it deserved its own post here so that more readers would have a chance at his thoughts.

warmth

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.

Thoughtful as ever. Thanks, Pops. For those that missed it, this is an exhortation to go get Wilkerson’s excellent book today! (My final editorial addition: I really do recommend the audio version.)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

2 Responses

  1. Don’t stop here! After slavery & Reconstruction, Wilkerson’s book helps us understand the bridging of Jim Crow into the Civil Rights Movement. The next episode is covered in Michelle Alexander’s indispensable next-step: “The New Jim Crow”

    It is one of those books that will force a re-thinking of what you thought you knew – about the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, the Reagan 80s, our legal system; most importantly, a system of racial oppression as serious but more devious than Old Jim Crow.

    Her 2010 book & continuing public commentary has helped inform events since: from the increasingly apparent pattern of police actions & community protests, to increasing calls for criminal justice reform including Obama’s rhetoric this year.

    Readers are well-informed of her thesis in the Introduction plus 1st & 2nd-last chapters. Because of mainstream incredulity at the time, middle chapters are meticulous in describing the construction & mechanics of the New Jim Crow system; footnotes & her own authoritative experience in civil rights litigation are compelling. The last chapter in particular is boldly & broadly challenging – to more privileged people of color standing apart from those bearing the brunt; to traditional liberal reformers of all colors; and certainly to white citizens implicitly benefiting from it all.

    Her story & analysis are irresistible for those open to this history. If you have any doubt, listen to her speak on the subject (below.) As a spokesperson she is perhaps even more persuasive.

    http://www.democracynow.org/2010/3/11/legal_scholar_michelle_alexander_on_the

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