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The Warmth of Other Suns



  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration: book almost instantly hit number 5 on the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction and has since been included in lists of best books of 2010 by many reviewers.
  • Book has won awards such as: National Book Critics Circle Award (Nonfiction), Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, Mark Lynton History Prize, and more.
  • Lives in Atlanta, GA

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Isabel Wilkerson

By Ashley Andrews, 700 Club Interactive

The Great Migration is the untold story of the 20th century. It's a tale that spans more than six decades and involves the lives of over six million people - mothers, fathers, children and grandchildren. And it is a story that for Isabel Wilkerson was a long time coming. For fifteen years, Isabel researched the Great Migration. She interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthing family memories one after another. Then, after more than a decade of research, Isabel put the stories to paper and eventually released (Oct. 2011) her now highly-acclaimed book The Warmth of Other Suns.

Simply put, The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of three people who left the South for a new life in the northern states. But for many Americans today, these stories are their history. As Isabel explained, "Some six million black Americans left the South for all points North and West during the decades of the Great Migration, which lasted, statistically, from World War I to the 1970's. At the start of the twentieth century, ninety percent of all black Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, some forty-seven percent were living outside the South."

It is the descendants of these migrants that make up the majority of African-Americans in both the North and West. For instance, most African-American families in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland can trace their origins back to the South. But, as Isabel pointed out, "The Great Migration is not purely about the numbers but about the lasting effects of so many people uprooting themselves and transporting their culture from an isolated region of the country to the big cities... They brought the music and folkways of the South with them and created a hybrid that has become woven into American life as a whole."

As Isabel set out to write about the Great Migration, she had no idea just how long it would take. "For a journalist, 15 years is a lifetime, multiple lifetimes. Once I got into it, there was no way I could turn back...I interviewed seniors at quilting clubs in Brooklyn, senior centers in Chicago, on bus trips to Las Vegas with seniors from Los Angeles. I scouted for people at union meetings of retired postal workers and bus drivers and at AARP meetings on the South Side of Chicago. I went to Sunday mass in Los Angeles and Baptist churches in Brooklyn. I went to funerals, libraries, senior dances and the southern state clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago. Essentially, I went everywhere I could think of that would attract large numbers of black seniors who might have migrated from the South."

Her goal was to find one person for each of the three streams of the Migration (East Coast, Midwest and West Coast). As she shared, "They each represent not only different migration streams but different backgrounds, different motivations for leaving, different outcomes and different ways of adjusting to the New World. Together, their lives tell a more complete story of the Migration than has ever been told before." In the end, Isabel found the three people she was hoping for - Ida Mae, George Swanson and Robert Joseph.

As she delved into the stories of these three migrants, Isabel noticed how each person's perspective greatly influenced their life. Although they each came from a similar background, they each responded to their circumstances differently, which inevitably led to varying outcomes. As Isabel reasoned, "Each of the three protagonists adjusted to their circumstances in completely different ways. One turned his back on the South and created a new identity for himself, going as far as to change his name. He never fully found peace. Another moved between worlds, never fully reconciling one with the other. A third, Ida Mae, took the best of both worlds, never changed from who she was, and was the happiest and lived the longest of all."

We do not know just how prominent the Great Migration was to America. But there is no doubt in Isabel's mind that many famous Americans exist today because of it. As Isabel described, "...there's no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South. Some might never have existed because their parents met in the North. Among the children of the Migration are: Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, the astronaut Mae Jemison, the producer Sean "Puffy"Combs, the leading neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, the artist Romare Bearden, the playwright August Wilson and many others. Each of them grew up to become among the best in their fields...They were among the first generation of blacks in this country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of parents or grandparents who knew it was too late for themselves to truly benefit from the advantages of the north but knew it was not too late for their children."

"One such parent," that Isabel shared about was, "an ambitious sharecropper wife in Alabama, convinced her husband that their family should migrate to Cleveland in the 1920's. The father was so worried that, as they were packing, he had to steady himself on the shoulders of his nine-year-old son. The boy felt the father's hands shaking and only then realized the gravity of their situation. The boy's first day at school in the North, when the teacher asked his name, he told her it was J.C., which was short for James Cleveland. The teacher couldn't understand his southern accent and just called him Jesse instead. From that day forward he was known, not by his birth name, but by the one he had mistakenly acquired - Jesse Owens. He went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Berlin becoming the first American in the history of track and field to do so in a single Olympics and disproving the Aryan notions of his Nazi hosts."

So why is it that most Americans today are not aware of the Great Migration? "Most children of the Great Migration know the basic facts of where their parents came from," Isabel explained. "But one reason the larger story of the Migration hasn't been fully told is because many families haven't talked about it much. When the parents or grandparents left, many left for good. They didn't look back - it was just too painful. Some had experienced or witnessed violence. Many endured persecution. All had suffered the indignities of caste. Some felt shame or embarrassment over being southern and rural now that they were living in big, sophisticated cities. Like immigrants who change their names or choose not to teach their children the language of the old country, some migrants created new northern identities for themselves and didn't pass along their stories to their children and grandchildren or take their children back to their homeland. Others, however, surrounded themselves with people from back home and never left the South in spirit. So, children of the Migration grew up with differing connections to the South depending on their parents' connection to it and their parents' ability to make peace with their southern past, or not."

Regardless of whether or not we give credit to the Great Migration, it would be difficult to imagine America had it not occurred. "American music," she mentioned, "was one of the gifts of the Great Migration. Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them, shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and, ultimately, the music their children and grandchildren created." What's more, when comparing the North and the South, it is apparent that life in the North is more promising. As Isabel described, "To this day, the South lags the North in many economic indices, such as wage scales, life expectancy, property values, cost of living and cultural influence in this country. These are complicated economic issues that result from many internal and external forces. But the loss of so much intellectual and creative talent and the fact that those who left comprise the bulk of the success stories of African-American life in this country can only hint at the unknowable price paid by the South as a result of the loss of so much talent and manpower."

Unfortunately, as Isabel sees it, the Great Migration was not unlike other migrations we read about in history books.
"This domestic migration was similar to most any other immigration experience in that the people had to make the hard choice to leave the only place they had every known for a place they had never seen, just as any other immigrant must do. The interior sense of loss and longing, of being torn between worlds, never quite fitting in, making sacrifices for the next generation are all universal to the human experience of migration." However, the issue here, she pointed out is that "The Great Migration differs and is, in fact, tragic because these people were already citizens. In a just world, they shouldn't have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship. Birth in this country alone should have assured that for them. The realities of race and caste in the South forced them to leave to claim their citizenship. But once in the North and West, they ran into resistance and hostility and had to work even harder to prove themselves, often being pitted against immigrants from other countries, who, in fact, had more in common with them, as landless serfs themselves, than many of them truly realized." For Isabel, it is time that we all acknowledge the blessings from the Great Migration and respect this extremely important piece of American history.