Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the migration of African Americans away from the South to escape persecution is an account of three people who braved this journey. In telling their stories, Wilkerson effectively chronicles this period in American history with compassion for their plight and unveils the cruelty inflicted on African Americans that made the exodus necessary.
The title of the book uses the word “epic” and it’s an apt description for the scope of Wilkerson’s ambitious narrative. She dives into the political climate in 1894 when a “colored Louisianan” named Homer A. Plessy challenged the segregation law on a railroad car by sitting in a “white” compartment (38). The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of segregation.
Wilkerson isn’t afraid to tackle a subject that might make people uncomfortable—the widespread acceptance of murder: “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white person’” (39).
She covers the periods from 1916 when a newspaper called the Chicago Defender first reported that black families were leaving Alabama to break away from mistreatment, to the labor shortage in WWI that gave migrating African Americans work opportunities in the North, to the illegal “debt peonage” type of forced labor in Florida and other southern states during WWII, to the civil rights movement and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., right up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American President.
Still, Wilkerson’s book isn’t a history text. She introduces us to three people who made the fateful decision to leave the South: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. The author gives the account of their lives in the South, key relationships, family backgrounds, work struggles, oppressions and horrors they witnessed and experienced, their driving motivations to seek new lives, the harsh and exhausting journeys to escape the South, and the bitter disappointments and hardships that awaited them in their new cities and neighborhoods in the North and the West. Wilkerson captures the essence of these three individuals with her keen reporter’s eye for detail and the fine narrative storytelling abilities honed as a Pulitzer-winning feature writer for The New York Times.
She employs language that corresponds to the periods covered in her narrative. “The word ‘colored’ is used during the portion of the book in which that term was a primary identifier for black people, that is, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, as evidenced by the colored high schools the people attended and the signage that directed them to segregated facilities. As the narrative moves into the 1960s, it shifts to the use of the term ‘black,’ after it gained popularity during the civil rights era, and then to both ‘black’ and ‘African American’ in the current era” (14).
What is most impressive about Wilkerson’s book is the depth of her research. She searched out and interviewed over 1200 people who took part in the migration away from the South to discover the three protagonists featured in her book. She poured through newspapers and scholarly and literary journals of the key time periods to provide the historical context for her narrative. She interviewed witnesses, family members, and peers to verify the accuracy of the oral histories conveyed by her interview subjects. She transcribed upwards of hundreds of hours of audio-recorded interviews and went through census data and “military, railroad, school, state, and municipal records” (541) in her quest for accuracy.
Isabel Wilkerson’s focus, passion, and single-minded determination to uncover the historical truth of the migration of African Americans from the South have forged an epic story for our times, a book that every American should read.