In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America.
Though she is a Pulitzer Prize-winner for journalism, "The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America's Great Migration" is Wilkerson's first book, and I hope to hell she writes another one. She's taken this monster huge topic and made it intimate. Wilkerson spent years interviewing people who had come up from the South to the North, over the period from just after World War I to after WWII. She alternates the stories of three of these people (Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper's wife from Mississippi who came to Chicago; George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker and union organizer from Florida who went to Harlem; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor from Louisiana who ended up in Los Angeles) with historical data, data that shows that a lot of what we thought we knew about the people who came north just isn't so. They were generally better educated, harder-working and more stable, what some have called the "immigrant effect", for they were, indeed, immigrants in their own country. Like the folks who sailed steerage from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the African-Americans who came north had grit and determination, and weren't afraid to face a new life in an unknown bourne. It's interesting to read about the different ways Wilkerson's informants handled the change, who shucked off the South and who kept it with them, how in escaping one form of racism, they found another, how they raised their children and coped with a strange, new world.
This book is scholarly, readable, and gorgeously written. It has one of my favorite sentences of all time, one of those that makes you stop and stare and mark the place in the book: "Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself." (Emphasis mine, because that simile knocked me out.) Go read this book!
The genius of Wilkerson’s approach is that she narrows these millions, into three individuals, putting a face and a personal slant on this story. First, there is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, who departed Mississippi in 1937 for Milwaukee and ended up on the south-side of Chicago. Next up, is George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, who in 1945, fled Florida, after nearly being lynched and settled down in Harlem NY. And finally, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a young physician, leaves Louisiana, in 1953, for sunny LA, where a different type of racism, still persists.
The author follows this trio, through their long lives, touching on every triumph and every painful, heart-rending bump.
The only reason I did not award this book 5 stars, was the last 100-150 pages could have used some editing. It began to drag but this is a must read and I feel it should be taught in every high school in the US.
The myths, the realities and the lies all bound up to together in this book, paint a clear picture. It is lengthy, detailed, inspiring and heart-breaking. I loved being a part of this journey as I know that I and my siblings am a part of the result.
If you have any interest in the African-American journey in America, READ THIS BOOK!!
These are deeply personal accounts of people who were generally better off after their migration, but whose lives were still filled with prejudice, discrimination, disappointment, and loss. Along the way, Wilkerson provides a view of American society’s evolution, and debunks certain conventional wisdom and stereotypes. There are occasional intersections between her subjects and well-known events in the history of civil rights, lifting those events out of the textbook and making them real. Towards the end the book takes a reflective turn, examining her subjects in old age and considering the factors contributing to or detracting from their well-being. Wilkerson’s obvious affection for her subjects made for an emotional conclusion to this insightful work.
You could call this book an epic or a masterpiece or maybe even a magnus opus. For me it was an astounding achievement following years of incredible research combined with a brilliant narrative voice and an intimate portrait of three individuals. Wilkerson’s writing flows beautifully, poetically as she tells the three stories of how these individuals made the decision to leave everything behind and journey from the South to try to establish a new home in the North. They came from Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana and settled in Harlem, Chicago and Los Angeles. . These three people stand readily for the six million or so who made the journey. That’s a hard task to pull off but the author does it with grace and aplomb.
In between the stories of these three people Wilkerson related the general conditions that led to the Great Migration that took place from 1915-1970 and eventually spelled out that it didn’t always work out as well as they had hoped or imagined. Unfortunately, racism exists all over our country and although the conditions in the South were especially brutal, the rest of the country has its share of racists as well. This book is particularly important today as the man in the White House has made very clear.
I can’t give this book a higher recommendation. Narrative non-fiction at its very best. I will never forget these three individuals.
I had no idea how hard it was for people to leave the South: that it was an escape, not just a move. In towns where the local law ran it how they wanted, people literally snuck out in the middle of the night lest they be "caught" attempting to board a train. I had a vague idea that the North and South were different, but this book really showed me how. Racism was all over the country, but in the South it was backed up by the very real threat of a gruesome death. That this occurred in such recent times still makes my chest feel tight in sadness and disbelief.
The community and social support people had in the South may have been partly an act of necessity in the face of such terrible hardship and fear, but it was sorely missed by those families who fled. They arrived to very different ways in Northern cities, and had to adjust. But- they had their freedom. As time marched on, the Northern migrants saw changes in their home states, but with new lives most stayed where they were. And these patterns of movement changed American cities for ever.
There was a lot of information in this book. And a lot of repetition. I feel there could have been a good 100-120 pages removed and it wouldn't have altered the story. The short sections that detailed the personal stories were hopped between fairly quickly, but were then backed up by some historical and social facts. It is a great method of telling a non fiction narrative. But too bitsy for me, and a case of there being a little too much information. A very worthwhile read.
When we talk about the mid-20th-century civil-rights movement, we're usually thinking of the struggles to end legal segregation in the American South. But Wilkerson's book demonstrates the ways that black people who left the South and its Jim Crow system for city life in the North and West changed that system from the outside - not by political means, but by the very fact of making lives away from it. It also illustrates that racist systems are more than capable of developing on their own, via cultural forces rather than force of law.
The subtitle of this book, "The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," is entirely accurate, but Wilkerson scales it to an approachable level by conveying it through the experiences of three individual migrants. Ida Mae Gladney, with her husband and children, made a stealthy departure from the Mississippi cotton fields during the heart of the Great Depression, first to Milwaukee and then to Chicago, where many Mississippi migrants had landed already. Uneducated sharecroppers willing to work hard, the Gladneys both eventually found long-term blue-collar jobs and established their family on Chicago's South Side. George Starling came from the citrus groves of central Florida, and was thwarted in his efforts to complete a college education by his own father and a culture that didn't see its value. But he learned enough to try to organize and get better pay for his fellow grove workers, and knew enough to slip out of state when his efforts became dangerous. George made it to New York in 1945, finding a home in Harlem and work on the railroad, attending to passengers on the north-south routes between New York and Florida and effectively living between both his worlds. Robert Pershing Foster grew up as the youngest son of two teachers in Monroe, Louisiana and always envisioned something more - college, medical school, a well-established family and career of his own, and life without the restrictions of Jim Crow. In 1953, he set out to find it in the Promised Land - Los Angeles - but never quite left behind everything he thought he did.
The stories of these three individuals are more than effective vehicles for illustrating the Great Migration via anecdote - they are riveting reading in their own right. I found the chapters leading up to and including each of their departures from the South particularly engrossing and suspenseful. However, the real achievement of the book is in making the context of these stories - the socio-economic, cultural, and legal climate surrounding them - equally compelling. The Warmth of Other Suns is a well-researched work that blends oral and academic history in a thoroughly accessible manner.
As I said earlier, The Warmth of Other Suns does not tell my story - but it tells a story I really didn't know, and one that I think I needed to know. It's a story that I suspect most Americans don't know nearly enough about - and we need to know it. The story is an essential piece of contemporary history, and one that we need to understand better. As told in this book, it's eye-opening, enlightening, frightening, inspiring, and provocative in the best way. Please don't be intimidated by that 600-plus page count - it moves quickly, and it's hard not to get swept up in it. This is a must-read.
As an American born in 1978, I missed all of this, but have seen a lot of the ramifications that she discusses. Having grown up in the far suburbs of Chicago, and considering that the city of Chicago was one of the meccas for blacks leaving the south, a lot of the things she discusses really hit home. I’ve also lived in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and currently live in Washington, D.C., all cities that were shaped by the Great Migration. This book has really opened up my eyes and I can see it influencing a lot of my thoughts in terms of other literature I read and, of course, the politics of the day.
I really feel at a loss as to how to describe this book, so all I can say is - just read it!
It is based on a huge number of interviews with migrants and those who knew them. I.e. it's based on a huge work of oral history, performed by the author researching for the book.
The author selected three of these migrants in particular, differing by class, location, personality, and gender, and interviewed them extensively, becoming part of their lives, driving them places, and getting to know others in their social and family circles. She tells the story of the migration primarily as their stories, but with additional information about the broader picture, both from statistics/research, and from newspaper accounts of the relevant time periods.
This worked incredibly well for me. I normally love abstraction, and statistics, and don't want my non-fiction personalized. But not this time.
The treatment of black people in the US is an ugly topic, with ever more revelations of despicable behaviour under every rock. I don't enjoy learning about it, but it's something I feel that every thinking person in the US needs to be aware of. But material stuffed full of abstractions just engages my critical thinking/defensiveness in this area. Whereas stories I believe to be accurate communicate with both my head and my heart.
The author's intermittent mention of the statistics also helps. That and her discussion of her research methodology let me trust that she's not ax-grinding to the point of falsification, and selecting (or even inventing) stories and vignettes primarily to prove a political point.
Yes, she has some specific points she wants to communicate:
- the best way to understand the experience of the participants is to think of it as similar to that of immigrants from outside the US
- the new arrivals didn't lower the northern black average in any meaningful way. Those who moved were better educated on average than those they left behind, though less than the blacks already in the north. They worked harder, on average, and made more money, in spite of being paid less than those already there, never mind than white folks. They were more likely to be and stay married too. (I recognize the popular mythology she's trying to debunk here.)
Problems were caused for everyone by the sheer number of immigrants, and the small geographical areas in which their white neighbours were willing to let them live.They weren't caused by the nature and habits of the migrants. (I've seen this story before, except last time it was about poor white people in Victorian London, with the space where they were able to live constantly being reduced by "slum clearance". Conditions in the remaining slums/affordable areas got more and more frightful, as the population per acre increased.)
She's also clear that while the migration improved conditions for most of those who moved, and eventually helped to bring an end to overt discrimination in the south (Jim Crow), there was plenty of discrimination in the north as well, and much of it was implicit rather than explicit, leading to a constant dangerous guessing game. Better jobs - and better pay - and often union membership - went to white people. Usually. And higher rent for similar conditions went to black people, or rather to anyone in the only areas where blacks were welcome.
She also doesn't hide the ways in which black people harmed other black people, and some of the motives, from attempts at self protection to simple power struggles. They come into the book when they are relevant to the stories, reinforcing my sense that this is a fair and honest account.
Overall, an excellent book. I've learned rather more of the ugly details of black mistreatment in the US, and a lot more about how black people coped. And what I already knew is much better contextualized as to place and time.
Wilkerson does a masterful job of capturing how pervasive segregation was at that time, even in the North, and also challenges some common mistaken perceptions about the people who took part in the Great Migration, pointing out that they were often better educated and more likely to be married with only a few children than many of the black people who were born in the North at that time. All in all, a book that really deepened my understanding of both history and the ways in which that history has contributed to situations we have now. Highly recommended!!!
Why and how did the migration take place? Many participating in it were entirely unaware of what was happening country-wide as they made critical individual decisions to escape and rebuild. What was the painful process - what the result?
Wilkerson clearly states her methodology(p 540):
“The book is essentially three projects in one. The first was a collection of oral histories from around the country. The second was the distillation of those oral histories into a narrative of three protagonists… The third was an examination of newspaper accounts and scholarly and literary works… to put the subjects’ actions into historical context.”
There were no shocking revelations for me in this book, but there was a long view of the historical events that slowly have been changing the way we live. There was no glamorization. Instead you will find some thoughtful insights. It rang true.
Is the book too long? Well, it is an epic. There are many details that could have been edited out. This could have been shorter and a quicker read. It was dense. And that’s the way I like it. I thought it was balanced and realistic. Not a lot of action, but a chance to put many pieces into perspective. Perhaps a well edited version would make a great school text to provide a meaningful overview of an important part of our US history.
Your well written documentation of our history should be mandatory reading in every school, beginning in the sixth grade. Had I known more about my fore-family's struggle to carve a life for us in the north, I'm certain that I would have been more sensitive to their habitual need to
You have given voice to the dreams (dead or fruitful) and determination that has afforded myself and others like me to live our own impossible dreams. My father would say "You live in the greatest country in the world- you can do or be anything."
Not only did he and my mother believe it, they proved it and set an example of genuine success and leadership. My very own story was told within your pages.
Special thanks to my Aunt Ruthie-Mae, who blazed the trail that would emerge a Chef, a Dentist, a Stock Analyst, a Lieutenant Colonel: USAF, an Actress, a Comedian, a CPA, a Journalist, an LPN, a First Responder, a CPFT, a Civil Engineer, countless Homemakers, Entrepreneurs and Professionals in every walk of life.
Thank you again, for helping me to understand my parents and their choices with a richer and deeper respect than ever before...SMILE!!!
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Chickasaw County, Mississippi and a sharecropper’s life in 1937, ending up in Chicago with her husband, 2 children, and pregnant with her 3rd. George Swanson Starling fled Eustis, Florida and certain death from white citrus grove owners during World War II to that Mecca for blacks in New York City, Harlem. Fed up with the limitations imposed on him in Louisiana where, as a qualified surgeon and a former captain in the US Army, he could not practice in white-run hospitals, Robert Pershing Foster left Monroe, Louisiana in 1950 for the glamor and promise of Los Angeles. Although Wilkerson brings in excerpts from the lives of other Southern blacks, these three form the basis of the narrative thread that documents the motives, the hopes and fears, and the experiences of two generations of black people who had the courage to pull up roots and strike out for an unknown country and what they hoped would be better lives for themselves but more importantly, their children.
Wilkerson, through her exhaustive interviews and research, documents the motives (primarily to get away from the horrors of life for blacks under Jim Crow) and the experiences in the North. What these immigrants found was not Heaven; racism existed and was at times almost as virulent as in the South. Segregation, while not official, was still the rule in the North, and the only jobs were those that no one else, including recent immigrants from Europe, wanted. But they did find greater freedom--and far greater educational and career opportunities for their children. They also found the perils of the large, indifferent cities--drugs, crime, gangs--which, unlike assumptions that still exist--were pre-existent; Southern blacks were not the origin. Wilkerson also explodes other myths, such as Southern black immigrants were more poorly educated than Northern blacks, had more single parent families than their Northern counterparts, and were less employed than their Northern brethren.
But what Wilkerson does best is to put a human face on the statistics and on the struggle for a better life. She does not “whitewash”; these are real people, and at least two of them made serious mistakes in their choices and the way they lived. But they led honest, hard-working, upright lives, reflections of the immigrants as a whole, and their stories are both poignant and inspirational--and a lesson in assumptions for all of us.
This book has to be a serious candidate for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Not to be missed.
The book tells the story of the
I found the book fascinating because I knew so little about this chapter of American history. I had heard, as most of us have, about the time of Jim Crow laws in the South, but the personal nature of the stories that Wilkerson tells re-emphasized just how stifling and dangerous those times were. I never realized what an act of courage it took to leave the South, given the death threats that followed these people on their journeys. I never thought about what it must be like to take a train from the north to the south or the south to the north and passengers having to change cars at the border between the two to segregate or integrate depending on which way they were going.
Wilkerson chose subjects who left the South at three different decades during the migration and went to three different cities. Their stories complemented each other nicely—allowing Wilkerson to show commonalities in their narratives while at the same time allowing her to share the differences which made the stories more personal and memorable.
I’ve been reading a day-by-day blog of Civil War history. As I write this, Fort Sumter has been taken, but Bull Run has yet to happen. As I read each entry and think about the long war yet to come, I wonder what the slaves must have been thinking as the start of the conflict ensued. I imagine that many of them must have hoped that this war would be the beginning of the end. After reading this book, my only thought is what a long, long journey they have in front of them.
The book tells the story of the great migration of blacks from the American South to the North and
Part of the book gives the facts and statistics about the South and about the migration. At its core, however, is the tale of three people, told in alternating chapters. One is George Starling, who left Florida after death threats when he tried on a small scale to organize labor to ask for better wages. He went to New York an became a baggage handler on the railroads, never able to use his brain and some college education to get a better job.
Second was Ida Mae Gladney, who married young and lived as a sharecropper in Mississippi. She and her husband moved to Chicago.
Third was Robert Pershing Foster from Monroe, Louisiana, a doctor who married the daughter of the President of Atlanta University, who moved to Los Angeles where he hoped to be able to achieve more as a doctor than he could under the limitations on black doctors in the South.
Wilkerson does a masterful job of weaving the strands together, combining oral history with material from primary documents. It is not a book for white Southerners seeking to prove the South under Jim Crow was not that bad - Wilkerson shows in detail how bad it was. She manages to tell the individual stories so that each chapter tells of parallel experiences, even though each story is unique. It is a long book but holds the interest of the reader throughout. Highly recommended.
Even if you think you
Isabel Wilkerson discusses the fact that these people were escaping Jim Crow country, but that they began and ended as Americans. They were non-immigrant immigrants who acted like the other immigrants we've read about. They continued to treasure the foods of their home towns, maintained societies celebrating their home towns, sent money home, sometimes maintained the accents of their youth for life, encouraged those left behind to join the migration, valued family and education and worked very hard. Evidently at some point people tried to say blacks left the South for elsewhere chasing better welfare payments, but that they were in reality less likely to be on welfare than people born in their new communities.
Throughout her book, Wilkerson quotes from the published work of famous migrants. This is one of my favorites to explain why so many people would leave the land of their birth:
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth...
That is the South.
And I, who am
black, would love her
But she spits in my face...
So now I seek the
For she, they say,
is a kinder mistress.
Langston Hughes, "The South"
The migration changed both the ones who left and the South itself, leading, eventually to the demise of Jim Crow. But it was a long time in coming.