By Fatima Shaik
This review of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration was first published in the New York Bookwoman.
My aunts and uncles went to Chicago and New York in the 1940s but returned home to New Orleans. Cousins went North in the 1950s and remained while others relocated to California. I found respite from segregated Louisiana in Canada with my parents in the 1960s, while other relatives tried out Mexico. But only after reading Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns did I fully realize my family’s role in the massive phenomena called The Great Migration—the exodus of six million African-Americans from the South over six decades from 1915 to 1970.
Readers who may not have personally experienced this exodus certainly know blacks with roots in the South. Wilkerson noted that they brought their food, culture and attitudes to the American mainstream—their greens and fried chicken, their music that birthed Motown and Miles Davis, and their black churches that sprouted in the urban interior like mushrooms after a rain. Wilkerson described the migration by railroad to Chicago and New York. People sat surrounded by luggage in the Jim Crow car at least until the Mason-Dixon line and frequently beyond. They carried their quilts, fried chicken and boiled eggs. They left with children in tow. Some migrants went by automobile. Pershing Foster drove 2,000 harrowing miles by himself, most of the trip without stopping because there were no colored hotels—and only dangerous roadsides. He was one of the three people on whom Wilkerson pinned the narrative of the migration and its effects, after she interviewed 1,200 people over 15 years.
In one case, Ida Mae Gladney snuck out of Mississippi because her family’s landlord-employer would not allow them to leave. Gladney went to Chicago but now visits Mississippi frequently. George Swanson Starling, who came to New York and wished never to return to Florida, now is buried there. Louisianan Pershing Foster rubbed elbows with California’s black celebrities, but appeared melancholy amid his riches before he died and was cremated near Hollywood. Wilkerson’s migrants had full lives once they escaped Southern racism and improved their conditions, but their freedom came with tolls.
Wilkerson’s book also dispels many negative interpretations of earlier research about Southern blacks who moved North. Among the myths are that Southerners brought urban blight. But, in fact, there were so many people migrating so quickly that housing was not available and the existing housing was segregated and unkempt. There was also Northern white flight once communities became integrated. The Promised Land – the coded name given the North since the era of 19th century slavery—did not always deliver on its promises of equal opportunity, fair wages and social fluidity.
The Warmth of Other Suns put the migration of African-Americans into national and global context—for example, opening the United States to the concept of diversity which later aided immigrants from Asia, South and Central America, and the Middle East. The Warmth of Other Suns reminded us that a book is an important cultural repository, different from other media.
A book such as this engages us both intellectually and viscerally. The Warmth of Other Suns offers a compelling narrative about the people we see every day, and may not have noticed. A good book opens our eyes and minds.
Fatima Shaik is an expert in the Afro-Creole experience. She writes for adults and children, and is currently working on a non-fiction book about a society of 19th century free men of color in Louisiana. Check out her website, www.fatimashaik.com.