“I was leaving the South.. To fling myself into the unknown… To see if [I] could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.” – Richard Wright
During the 20th century, some of the most impactful moments in our history stemmed from World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. All of us have at least some basic understanding of how these events shaped our lives today, but during that sixty year period another phenomenon happened that has shaped the North and the South, has outlined popular thought and has defined many of our biggest cities. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is dedicated to studying this phenomenon, a movement now known as the Great Migration.
Through this sixty year period, hundred of thousands of black people fled the South in search of greater freedom, opportunity and stability. They left the south as fugitives, forced to become both emigrant and immigrant in their own country– orange pickers driving down back roads, sharecroppers concealing their plans from farmers, those condemned for activism smuggling themselves in coffins, others still driving days without sleep. Now in the new world, a world which Northerners had advertised and led them to, they could walk on the same street as white people, talk to them without honorific titles, and work for a wage, but the North erected its own set of obstacles. The racism of the north disguised itself in higher rent, and lower wages. It made itself evident in the white flight from a neighborhood as soon as a black family moved in. “The hierarchy in the North called for blacks to remain in their station…while immigrants [from other nations] were rewarded for their ability to leave their old world traits”.
The Warmth of Other Suns not only inspects how migrants made their way from South to North, but how they navigated the injustices they faced once there, how they realized the North was not the oasis they dreamed of. Wilkerson is a masterful story teller, interweaving smaller vignettes into the longer arcs of three primary “characters”– each of whom followed a very different path North. Ida Mae Brandon Gladey, a sharcropper from Mississippi, leaves the South on the verge of the Great Depression. She settles in Chicago where her resilience and affectionate practicality helps her make a home in a swiftly changing city. George Starling Swanson, a passionate, willful orange picker from Flordia, flees the state to Harlem, New York after the owner of the groves decides to kill him for organizing an ersatz union to fight for workers’ rights. Robert Pershing Foster, an ambitious surgeon hemmed in my limitations of Louisiana, drives to California where he hopes to prove himself to his family, his race and his oppressors.
I’ll admit, some of Wilkerson’s reminders of information in previous chapters felt repetitive, and I do wish she had included some of the images on her website in the book itself, I still learned a great deal from this book, and appreciated the stories it told. In fact, I have not been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down. For anyone who wishes to understand how false myths surrounding welfare, inner cities and crime first took root, or who for those just wishing for a good story pick up The Warmth of Other Suns.