The Warmth of Other Suns
By Isabel Wilkerson
The award-winning history The Warmth of Other Suns was urged on me while I was standing in line to see Michelle Obama at a fundraiser two years ago. In San Marino, home of the John Birch Society, hundreds of black women lined up on the sidewalk, having contributed a considerable part of their professional weekly salaries to hear the first African American First Lady, and traded book recommendations.
This simple fact would not be lost on the author, Isabel Wilkerson, the journalist who spent 15 years researching the Great Migration of blacks from the Jim Crow south to the opportunities of the American north and west. It would have been inconceivable in 1915, the year the migration began. Not likely in the 1940s, as blacks battled pervasive prejudice everywhere. Ubelievable, a fairy tale, in 1968, as the migrants from the south mourned the death of Martin Luther King Jr. A little more plausible during the 1980s, after Black Power and during Cosby. Distinctly possible by the 1990s, as the children and grandchildren of the migration began to get a slightly larger piece of the American pie. But still remarkable in the first decade of the 21st century, when racial misunderstandings still tragically control so much of our national narrative.
The reactions from Wilkerson’s three subjects, through whose experiences she tells the epic story, are only to be guessed at—but after reading this book, you feel you know them and can guess at what they would say. Ida Mae Gladney, who determined to leave Mississippi in the Depression after a relative was beaten almost to death on the suspicion of turkey-stealing (the turkeys showed up the next day), might have laughed a gentle laugh and “God Bless”-ed everybody in line. George Swanson Starling, who organized orange grove workers in Florida, was flouted in his efforts to finish college, and ended up in Harlem, working as a railroad porter along the same lines he took to avoid certain trouble (or death) at the hands of a corrupt white sheriff, would have been quietly appreciative. And stylish, bon vivant but bitter Robert Pershing Foster, MD, who left Louisiana for Los Angeles, would probably have recognized some friends in the crowd—and criticized what I was wearing.
Wilkerson’s three main characters are vividly drawn, and the men especially emerge in three complicated dimensions. Her research is deep and wide, and she paints in the teeming background of the often brutal history of the African-American 20th century experience with literary style. This history often reads like a memoir or a novel (and it must be admitted, there are enough repetitions to make it seem like you are interviewing an elderly relative yourself). It seeks to set the record straight on who the southern migrants were, what they left behind, and what they found and brought to the north and west in search of full citizenship and opportunity. A fascinating, important book.