Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 640 pages
• Publisher: Random House, 2010
• Price: $30.00
• ISBN-10: 0679444327
• ISBN-13: 978-0679444329

The older we get, the more we read, the more we realize that the history textbooks given to us in public schools when we were children left gaping holes where the shadow side of this nation’s history should have been. It is only as an adult, independent reader, that I have learned most (if not all) of what I know about American history. And while I had a general idea about the Great Migration—the exodus of about 6 million black Southerners moving north from 1915 to 1970—it was only by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns that I have gotten a more thorough grasp of this massive movement.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has done impressive and thorough research to write this book. For that alone, she has earned my respect: 1,200 interviews and 15 years of research. The book is narrative nonfiction pinned on three individuals who, in their intertwining stories, represent those great migrating masses. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney is a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi; George Swanson Starling is a citrus picker from Florida; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is an aspiring young doctor from Louisiana. Their journeys take them to New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

This is not an easy book to read and could not have been easy to write. Which is not to say that it isn’t a page-turner. More than 600 pages, but these stories quickly draw a reader in, touching on every emotion and sometimes hammering the heart to a pulp. One has to marvel at the human endurance and determination in these black migrants. Who of us does not know about those shameful years of slavery in the United States, but to read the intimate details, to see into these individual hearts and minds, can break the heart of the reader. There is irony in being a nation that so often has gone to battle to save the downtrodden across the globe, to wave the flag of democracy and individual freedom, yet within our own borders has perpetrated such inhumanity and cruelty.

The stories of these three have common threads but also differ in direction. How each one escapes differs—by education, by physical momentum, by barely contained rage or by a quiet but enduring gentility. They head north, or west, to escape Jim Crow, but find new prejudices and racial biases no matter where they go. Fascinating excerpts are woven in about the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the growth of Harlem, the demographics of the migrants. Ray Charles makes a prominent appearance. Stunning, too, are the moments of racial bias among the blacks themselves, for instance, when a black woman, recently migrated, refuses the medical services of the young black Doctor Foster because she believes the medical care from a white doctor is superior based on his whiteness alone.

Being of Latvian ethnic background and the first generation offspring of immigrants myself, I was taken aback (page 417) when the author seemed to feel the need to differentiate between the difficulties faced by European immigrants in comparison to the black migrants. She presents the European immigrants as being embraced by American society, encouraged to assimilate, naming those from Latvia and Poland in particular. We should all by now understand that we must be careful to judge others in whose shoes we have not walked. These immigrants came to America to escape Soviet occupation, suffering torture, deportation, rape, executions and genocide, and did not arrive on these shores seeking to join the “melting pot,” but to retain their culture as much as possible while being stripped of their homes. Immigrants often lived in poverty, took menial jobs, picked fruit and cotton in the South, and suffered through barriers of different kinds of prejudice. It helps no one to make such comparisons or to foster competitions of who had it worse. Stalin and Lenin were no walk in the park.

That aside, Wilkerson’s writing is excellent. She has the skill to take facts and add to them the drama of a mesmerizing story. It is easy to understand why this book won the National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) in the nonfiction category; it is well told and offers invaluable documentation of a history we should all know and understand.

The Warmth of Other Suns was also awarded the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the 2011 Hillman Book Prize and the 2011 Lynton History Prize. It was named on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year and many other similar lists.

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