Book Review: 'The Warmth of Other Suns' by Isabel Wilkerson
Review by Susan Grigsby
Long before there were digital books or even books written on paper, parchment or papyrus, man recorded his history. We passed down the knowledge of our past through storytelling. The stories could be told around a bright campfire or they could be carved into the wood of a totem pole a bisj, or perhaps even a rock wall.
Somewhere along the line, once man gave up the wandering minstrel or the tribal shaman for paper and pen, our history lost much of its grandeur and its excitement. Gone were the mesmerizing poems, and tales of deeds dared and mountains conquered. Instead, we learned the dates, names and places of leaders and kings and battles and wars in ways that were easy to test, but hard to remember. The passion was removed from our past and in its place were put facts and figures.
Is it any wonder that so many students hated history?
And whether we have inherited our natural affinity for stories or thousands of years of listening wired our brains that way, researchers have found that people remember information better when it is presented in a story structure.
Narrative nonfiction "a discourse grounded in fact but artful in execution," uses literary techniques to tell a true story. When it is done without the necessary respect for research and truth, it becomes A Million Little Pieces, the memoir by James Frey. But when it is done well, it is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Or it is The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson is the Director of Narrative Nonfiction in the College of Communication at Boston University. She demonstrated her talent for creative nonfiction, early, having won her Pulitzer for feature writing while head of the New York Times' Chicago Bureau for work written in 1993.
Nicholas's story and the two Missouri pieces brought Wilkerson the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The award was a milestone in American journalism. Though African-American women had won Pulitzers in other fields, none had won for journalism. Wilkerson was also the first African American, male or female, to win for individual reporting. In the citation (quoted by an anonymous writer in the New York Times on April 13, 1994) that accompanied the award, the Pulitzer Committee praised "the high literary quality and originality" of Wilkerson's work.
She brought all of that literary quality and originality to her work on this compelling story of America's largest internal migration. Between 1915 and 1970, 6 million Americans moved from the homes of their ancestors in the South to cities in the North and the East and the West. The Great Migration changed the places they went to as well as the places they left.
From her Epigraph:
I was leaving the South To fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South To transplant in alien soil, To see if it could grow differently, If it could drink of new and cool rains, Bend in strange winds, Respond to the warmth of other suns And, perhaps, to bloom.
— RICHARD WRIGHT
It is a huge story, taking place over great distances, large groups of people and decades of time. And that is perhaps why it is not usually told as a single narrative. Wilkerson uses the journeys of three individuals, from different decades, traveling from different origins to different destinations, to examine this largest of all internal migrations that the country had ever seen.
It was a leaderless movement of people who were tired of endless restrictions on their right to vote, to own and farm their own land; people who were tired of poor education and even poorer futures for their children. Surely, they must have been tired of their own vulnerability to Jim Crow laws that put the distance between the rest of their lives and the end of a rope in the hands of a white man who took offense at a few words spoken to a white woman.
Just as it was a war that ended the slave labor camps, it was another war that allowed so many to escape from what had become a virtual slavery in the South. World War I cut off the flow of immigrant labor from Europe upon which the industrial cities of the North relied. Word trickled down to the sharecroppers and the migrant agricultural workers and the domestics of the South and some of them left behind all they knew for a chance in the new world.
The fact that they would be facing much of the same racism and hate that they were leaving was probably unknown to many. They would at least be living in a place that did not require them to step off a sidewalk to let a white pass by, or to use a designated doorway, stairwell, or water fountain.
By the time that Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left the sharecropper's life in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, for Chicago in 1937, the percentage of African Americans in Chicago had increased from less than two percent in 1900, to almost seven percent in 1930, on the way to becoming almost 40 percent of the total population by 1990. She, her husband, and their two children left their home in the middle of the night to make a new life.
What they found in Chicago was a different world. There was opportunity, but it was restricted by unwritten laws. The Depression had hit black jobs hard, and in Milwaukee they "plunged by 70 percent, from 1,557 such jobs in 1930 to only 459" when the Gladneys arrived. The jobs themselves were usually menial, unskilled, hard, and dangerous.
Housing was restricted as well, with clear lines of demarcation. Because of the explosive growth of the black population and the narrow strip of land allotted to them, the tenements quickly became overcrowded. But the neighborhoods that hemmed them in were far from welcoming to black families who wished to own their own homes there.
From Wildwood, Florida, in the spring of 1945, George Swanson Starling fled from the orange grove owners that he had offended. A born organizer, Starling had managed to negotiate wages for black orange pickers that were far more than the owners wanted to pay. The owners' solution was to take George out for a "necktie party." Forewarned, he was able to escape to New York, eventually becoming a porter on the train that would take many others north.
A Morehouse graduate and trained surgeon, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster left Monroe, Louisiana, for California in April 1953. His trip by motorcar across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona is one of the more memorable stories of the book. While Texas and Louisiana clearly marked hotels for blacks, once he crossed out of the old South the signs were unwritten but the code strictly enforced.
He is perhaps the most interesting of the three, a complicated man who eventually became the personal physician to Ray Charles after struggling to establish himself as a surgeon in Los Angeles.
These three stories do not cover all aspects of the migration, its causes and its results, but they do give the reader a background, a framework of what was going on during the six-decade movement. All lives are lived against a background of history, acknowledged or not. And all history is made more interesting by the tales told of the individual lives.
Isabel Wilkerson does not ignore the broader historic picture that she is painting:
The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
I added the italics to this quote from The Warmth of Other Suns, because it so perfectly summarizes the problems that Americans face today. It is the ignorance (or the intentional refusal to learn) of most Americans regarding the historic roots of black poverty that makes it so difficult to address. It is not just a lack of education or employment opportunities. Nor it is only due to the mass incarceration of young black men for minor drug crimes that leaves them with prison records and no future. It springs from the theft of wages for hundreds of years of slavery, real and virtual, that allowed the dominant white culture to obtain and then retain its grasp on the wealth of the nation.
And please, before you chime in with claims that the rich have made economic slaves of us all, black and white equally, remember what President Lyndon Johnson said at Howard University, in 1965:
For Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences--deep, corrosive, obstinate differences--radiating painful roots into the community, the family, and the nature of the individual.
These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a reminder of oppression. For the white they are a reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and dealt with, and overcome; if we are to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.
It is the differences that must be addressed.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.