Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson has written a history of the Great Migration, the exodus from rural southern states of African-American citizens to cities in the North and West. Between 1915 and 1970 some six million Black people abandoned their homes in the Jim Crow states for the freedom and opportunities allegedly available for those willing to re-locate. Wilkerson’s 20-year personal and passionate commitment to her subject, the depth of research and the sheer breadth of the narrative have resulted in a masterful work of creative nonfiction. Her prose is consistently vivid and is, at times, lyrical. From the more than 1,200 migration participants whom she interviewed, Wilkerson chose three to spotlight. These three each left home in a different decade, and their specific motives for leaving were diverse.
Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi in 1937, George Starling fled central Florida in 1945, and Dr. Robert Foster moved from Monroe, Louisiana in 1953. The threads of each of their compelling stories weave artfully through The Warmth of Other Suns. Without a doubt, Wilkerson’s major achievement – indeed, the core of the book – is the intimacy of these stories. Wilkerson recognizes a telling moment. She recognizes a significant relationship. Her genuine affection for her subjects never precludes her objectivity in the portrayal of their weaknesses. Though their private struggles and humiliations differ, Ida Mae, George and Dr. Foster possess a common trait – courage.
Interspersed among the anecdotes from the lives of her three primary subjects is Wilkerson’s insightful interpretation of historical and sociological data from the Great Migration. She contends that historians who demeaned the migrants as poor, illiterate folks who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness, and welfare dependency to northern and western cities were wrong. According to her, these people were, in fact, better educated and more tied to family values than Black Americans born and raised outside the boundaries of the Jim Crow states. Moreover, compared to Blacks born in big northern and western cities, the migrants had higher employment numbers, fewer children born outside of marriage, and a lower divorce rate. Wilkerson emphasizes that the heroic determination to uproot themselves for a better future is in itself an indication of character. She reminds us that staying is usually an easier option than leaving.
Ida Mae and her sharecropper husband’s departure from the cotton fields of Mississippi was hectic and perilous. For years the couple had been fed up with picking cotton from dawn to dusk for a few pennies a day. It was, however, a cousin’s mishap that finally prompted them to act. He had been beaten – almost to death – by a White posse that wrongly suspected him of stealing turkeys from a White landowner. Ida Mae and her husband settled in Chicago and quickly understood that they had traded one set of troubles for another. They rented a tenement room in a brutal ghetto. Following one frustration after another in landing jobs, Ida Mae one day found work as a hospital aide, and her husband was employed by a factory for assembly-line work. They stuck to their jobs for decades and became respectable, blue-collar people. Wilkerson portrays Ida Mae, despite her beginnings in life, as a woman of self-esteem and acceptance, the quintessential take-one-day-at-a-time personality.
In contrast, George Starling, angry and bitter over his treatment in Jim Crow Florida, had lost all ambition by the time he settled in Harlem. Back in central Florida, George had graduated “valedictorian” of his colored high school class. Forced to drop out of college when his funds ran out, he went to work picking oranges. He was outraged at the White owners’ exploitation of Black workers. When he tried to organize a strike, loyal friends warned him that the local sheriff had firm plans to lynch him. Running scared, George boarded a train bound for New York.
He took a porter’s job – lifting passengers’ bags up and down from over-head racks – on the Silver Meteor, the same train that had brought him to New York. Surprisingly, given George’s intelligence and drive, he was never once promoted away from his boringly repetitious job, one that he endured for more than 40 years.
Unlike George’s the new life of Dr. Robert Pershing Foster was filled with variety and change. Foster, from Monroe, Louisiana, was educated at Morehouse, the most prestigious Black college in the U.S., and then attended medical school, training as a surgeon. Despite growing up with Jim Crow, Foster possessed confidence and self-respect. Wilkerson makes it clear that for him, moving away was imperative; he wanted more in life than a practice limited to delivering sharecroppers’ babies. Wilkerson’s portrayal of his solitary drive from Louisiana to Los Angeles, during which he encountered one racist obstacle after another, is riveting. Foster flowers into one of Los Angeles’s leading surgeons. Regrettably, something in his character prevented him from ever relishing the many blessings in his life. His psychological insecurities and melodramatic lifestyle cannot be entirely explained by racial inequality. Indeed, he had traded one set of troubles for a set of self-made troubles.
Foster’s sartorial tastes are memorable, as are two reminiscences from the book as a whole. In one, Wilkerson describes train journeys north. Many migrants were understandably unfamiliar with the conductor’s northern accent. As a consequence, they would get off at the announcement, “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Some of the misguided travelers decided to remain in Newark, which accounts for “a good portion” of that city’s Black population.
Much later in the book Wilkerson portrays a “beat” meeting (a meeting of police officers and precinct residents to discuss local crime) on Chicago’s south side attended by an elderly Ida Mae Gladney. A young man named Barack Obama, who was running for the Illinois State Senate, addressed the gathering.
Critics have noted a flaw in The Warmth of Other Suns. It repeats a number of anecdotes and descriptions. I for one consider this a strength rather than a weakness in a work of such length and complexity. Repetition refreshes the reader’s memory.
Wilkerson took the title of her book from a poem by the celebrated Black writer, Richard Wright. At the work’s conclusion Ida Mae informs us that she intends to be buried in Chicago. That is, after all, where she’s from.