Every now and then I’ll read something which reminds me how Jim Crow and slavery were not really all that far back in American history. The Warmth of Other Suns was one of those books. Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s work and absorbing the terrible atrocities of the early and mid-1900s in the South adds a layer of understanding to why so many blacks chose to leave during the last century. She also does an excellent job of explaining why so many people found the journey and life in the North to be challenging endeavors.
Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through the voices of three actual migrants representing the three main streams of migration from various parts of the South to certain regions in the North. The effect is magical, as she intertwines her in-depth interview research with historical facts to create a cohesive and informative narrative.
I found myself wondering several times while reading how we as a country can think that discrimination and the dreaded R word are really all behind us. Wilkerson’s book so clearly shows the direct links between life in the South and the tough conditions in the North, which wasn’t always everything it cracked up to be. Racial discrimination was a factor in so many parts of the migrants’ experiences, no matter where in the U.S. they lived.
Aside from the political ramifications of the book, I was particularly intrigued by the way the book helped me understand my own family history better. Wilkerson’s book is vivid with the hundreds of interviews she conducted while researching the topic, and I saw some of my family’s story represented in the Western migratory stream. It’s not everyday you read a book that gives you that kind of perspective.
Wilkerson also shows how much the Great Migration really looked like an immigration, with many blacks traveling further than some individuals entering the country for the first time. There are similar reasons as to why blacks left the South and why other immigrants left their home countries–for better jobs, personal freedoms, and to follow their dreams. And the members of the Great Migration met similar challenges to immigrants coming to America, mainly tough working and living conditions.
The toughest part about this book was reading the ending chapters. Because Wilkerson conducted so much research and such thorough interviews, she is able to share the full life spectrum of the three characters that she details in the book. As the reader you know that the book must end with a winding down in the lives of the migrants, but it’s still hard to part with the people who you’ve come to know so well over the past few hundreds of pages. It’s almost as though someone sitting next to you on the bus was able to stop time and tell you everything about their lives from the very beginning, along with the historical context that affected them.
The ending of the book also signifies the end of an era. It’s not only the three characters in the book who age, rather it is the entire generation of blacks who resettled to the North through the Great Migration. Here too is a twinge of sadness at the sense of a historical moment passing and a piece of shared history diffusing into the winds.
For this reason I think Wilkerson’s book is more than just a historical overview or a three-person biography. It’s also a poignant message about life and death. She’s able to remind us how little time we have on this earth and how desperately all human beings at the most fundamental level just want to be happy. Nailing that delivery in a work of nonfiction is no small feat, so I must say thank you to Ms. Wilkerson for delivering such a beautiful tale.
Originally posted at stefanicox.com.