They came from Natchez and Eustis and Port Arthur and Selma. They rode the rails, drove new Buicks and old Packards, whatever it took to cover those hundreds of miles. Their journeys ended in New York and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles. This Great Migration, as historians would come to call it, saw millions of black Americans relocate from the rural South to the urban North and West between 1910 and 1970, reshaping the nation's cultural, political, and social landscape in the span of a lifetime.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson has rendered the most sweeping, most moving record of the Great Migration to date. It is at once history told on a grand scale -- like Taylor Branch's civil rights era trilogy -- and biography written with a quality of empathy perhaps only available to a child of the Migration herself. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, now Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University, has synthesized a staggering amount of material, comprising 1,200 interviews with migrants conducted over ten years as well as countless archival documents and newspaper reports. She argues that the Great Migration is "the most underreported story of the twentieth century," an historical turning point that would "transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched."
The roots of 21st-century racial inequality, Wilkerson argues, pass directly through the Great Migration. New arrivals from the South faced lower wages and higher rents, economic exploitation and continued segregation, setting up a cycle of inequality that became a birthright to their children and their children's children. "Multiplied over the generations," Wilkerson writes, "it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of [black] families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value."
The Warmth of Other Suns, however, is more narrative than polemic. Wilkerson grounds her book in the life stories of three migrants -- Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Foster, and George Starling -- each of whom, she explains "left different parts of the South during different decades for different reasons and with different outcomes." She takes us into places that few writers have gone: the sharecropper's day of reckoning with the white planter; the Pullman porter's deft handling of a potentially incendiary racial confrontation; the citrus picker's last minute escape from the lyncher's rope.
In her loving projections of the internal lives of her subjects, Wilkerson takes us beyond the shock of racism to a kind of nostalgia for a type of black experience that may have only existed under segregation. This experience is, of course, shot through with peril -- the arbitrary horror of racial violence, the everyday privation of life under Jim Crow -- but nonetheless suffused with richness: the warmth of close communities, the sweet pleasures of companionship and music and laughter. Finally, Wilkerson's narrative is not a tale of loss but a life-affirming portrait of endurance and transcendence, of simple acts done with deliberate intent.
One hesitates to describe a book that stretches beyond 700 pages as vigorously paced, but that is precisely what Wilkerson has achieved. Short sections comprised of shorter chapters that alternate among her three subjects generate and sustain a crisp narrative momentum. This patchwork structure, however, occasionally comes at a cost. In particular, the numerous epigraphs that introduce both the book's parts and its chapters (there are a staggering forty-seven epigraphs in all) soon come off more like impediments than insights, regardless of how rich each passage might be in isolation. Nonetheless, such minor narrative detours finally serve to remind us that only a chorus of voices could make such a book possible.
The Warmth of Other Suns is an impassioned history, by turns sweeping and specific, celebratory and shocking. Like a literary companion to the artist Jacob Lawrence's Migration series, it tells the story of the Great Migration in terms both vibrant and bold. It is a history not of power barons and political leaders, but of everyday people whose individual acts of bravery and self-assertion combined to reshape a nation. Wilkerson has done an invaluable service to all those who would resist the slow creep of historical amnesia, particularly when it comes to the most painful details of our national life. This is a book that enacts the very thing it describes; like the brave lives of the people she writes about, it is a testimony, a challenge, and a timely reminder of our still unfulfilled promise of a more perfect union.
Adam Bradley is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author, most recently, of Ralph Ellison in Progress.
Read an Excerpt
In the Land of the Forefathers
Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees. . . .
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
and from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
—Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up
This land is first and foremost
It was he who brought order
out of primeval wilderness . . .
Wherever one looks in this land,
whatever one sees that is the work of man,
was erected by the toiling
straining bodies of blacks.
—David L. Cohn, God Shakes Creation
They fly from the land that bore them.
—W. H. Stillwell
Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Late October 1937
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney
The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her. She had sold off the turkeys and doled out in secret the old stools, the wash pots, the tin tub, the bed pallets. Her husband was settling with Mr. Edd over the worth of a year’s labor, and she did not know what would come of it. None of them had been on a train before—not unless you counted the clattering local from Bacon Switch to Okolona, where, “by the time you sit down, you there,” as Ida Mae put it. None of them had been out of Mississippi. Or Chickasaw County, for that matter.
There was no explaining to little James and Velma the stuffed bags and chaos and all that was at stake or why they had to put on their shoes and not cry and bring undue attention from anyone who might happen to see them leaving. Things had to look normal, like any other time they might ride into town, which was rare enough to begin with.
Velma was six. She sat with her ankles crossed and three braids in her hair and did what she was told. James was too little to understand. He was three. He was upset at the commotion. Hold still now, James. Lemme put your shoes on, Ida Mae told him. James wriggled and kicked. He did not like shoes. He ran free in the field. What were these things? He did not like them on his feet. So Ida Mae let him go barefoot.
Miss Theenie stood watching. One by one, her children had left her and gone up north. Sam and Cleve to Ohio. Josie to Syracuse. Irene to Milwaukee. Now the man Miss Theenie had tried to keep Ida Mae from marrying in the first place was taking her away, too. Miss Theenie had no choice but to accept it and let Ida Mae and the grandchildren go for good. Miss Theenie drew them close to her, as she always did whenever anyone was leaving. She had them bow their heads. She whispered a prayer that her daughter and her daughter’s family be protected on the long journey ahead in the Jim Crow car.
“May the Lord be the first in the car,” she prayed, “and the last out.”
When the time had come, Ida Mae and little James and Velma and all that they could carry were loaded into a brother-in-law’s truck, and the three of them went to meet Ida Mae’s husband at the train depot in Okolona for the night ride out of the bottomland.
Wildwood, Florida, April 14, 1945
George Swanson Starling
A man named Roscoe Colton gave Lil George Starling a ride in his pickup truck to the train station in Wildwood through the fruit-bearing scrubland of central Florida. And Schoolboy, as the toothless orange pickers mockingly called him, boarded the Silver Meteor pointing north.
A railing divided the stairs onto the train, one side of the railing for white passengers, the other for colored, so the soles of their shoes would not touch the same stair. He boarded on the colored side of the railing, a final reminder from the place of his birth of the absurdity of the world he was leaving.
He was getting out alive. So he didn’t let it bother him. “I got on the car where they told me to get on,” he said years later.
He hadn’t had time to bid farewell to everyone he wanted to. He stopped to say good-bye to Rachel Jackson, who owned a little café up on what they called the Avenue and the few others he could safely get to in the little time he had. He figured everybody in Egypt town, the colored section of Eustis, probably knew he was leaving before he had climbed onto the train, small as the town was and as much as people talked.
It was a clear afternoon in the middle of April. He folded his tall frame into the hard surface of the seat, his knees knocking against the seat back in front of him. He was packed into the Jim Crow car, where the railroad stored the luggage, when the train pulled away at last. He was on the run, and he wouldn’t rest easy until he was out of range of Lake County, beyond the reach of the grove owners whose invisible laws he had broken.
The train rumbled past the forest of citrus trees that he had climbed since he was a boy and that he had tried to wrestle some dignity out of and, for a time, had. They could have their trees. He wasn’t going to lose his life over them. He had come close enough as it was.
He had lived up to his family’s accidental surname. Starling. Distant cousin to the mockingbird. He had spoken up about what he had seen in the world he was born into, like the starling that sang Mozart’s own music back to him or the starling out of Shakespeare that tormented the king by speaking the name of Mortimer. Only, George was paying the price for tormenting the ruling class that owned the citrus groves. There was no place in the Jim Crow South for a colored starling like him.
He didn’t know what he would do once he got to New York or what his life would be. He didn’t know how long it would take before he could send for Inez. His wife was mad right now, but she’d get over it once he got her there. At least that’s what he told himself. He turned his face to the North and sat with his back to Florida.
Leaving as he did, he figured he would never set foot in Eustis again for as long as he lived. And as he settled in for the twenty-three-hour train ride up the coast of the Atlantic, he had no desire to have anything to do with the town he grew up in, the state of Florida, or the South as a whole, for that matter.
Monroe, Louisiana, Easter Monday, April 6, 1953
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
In the dark hours of the morning, Pershing Foster packed his surgery books, his medical bag, and his suit and sport coats in the trunk, along with a map, an address book, and Ivorye Covington’s fried chicken left over from Saturday night.
He said good-bye to his father, who had told him to follow his dreams. His father’s dreams had fallen apart, but there was still hope for the son, the father knew. He had a reluctant embrace with his older brother, Madison, who had tried in vain to get him to stay. Then Per- shing pointed his 1949 Buick Roadmaster, a burgundy one with whitewall tires and a shark-tooth grille, in the direction of Five Points, the crossroads of town.
He drove down the narrow dirt roads with the ditches on either side that, when he was a boy, had left his freshly pressed Sunday suit caked with mud when it rained. He passed the shotgun houses perched on cinder blocks and hurtled over the railroad tracks away from where people who looked like him were consigned to live and into the section where the roads were not dirt ditches anymore but suddenly level and paved.
He headed in the direction of Desiard Street, the main thorough- fare, and, without a whiff of sentimentality, sped away from the small-town bank buildings and bail bondsmen, the Paramount Theater with its urine-scented steps, and away from St. Francis Hospital, which wouldn’t let doctors who looked like him perform a simple tonsillectomy.
Perhaps he might have stayed had they let him practice surgery like he was trained to do or let him walk into the Palace and try on a suit like anyone else of his station. The resentments had grown heavy over the years. He knew he was as smart as anybody else—smarter, to his mind—but he wasn’t allowed to do anything with it, the caste system being what it was. Now he was going about as far away as you could get from Monroe, Louisiana. The rope lines that had hemmed in his life seemed to loosen with each plodding mile on the odometer.
Like many of the men in the Great Migration and like many emigrant men in general, he was setting out alone. He would scout out the New World on his own and get situated before sending for anyone else. He drove west into the morning stillness and onto the Endom Bridge, a tight crossing with one lane acting like two that spans the Ouachita River into West Monroe. He would soon pass the mossback flatland of central Louisiana and the Red River toward Texas, where he was planning to see an old friend from medical school, a Dr. Anthony Beale, en route to California.
Pershing had no idea where he would end up in California or how he would make a go of it or when he would be able to wrest his wife and daughters from the in-laws who had tried to talk him out of going to California in the first place. He would contemplate these uncertainties in the unbroken days ahead.
From Louisiana, he followed the hyphens in the road that blurred together toward a faraway place, bridging unrelated things as hyphens do. Alone in the car, he had close to two thousand miles of curving road in front of him, farther than farmworker emigrants leaving Guatemala for Texas, not to mention Tijuana for California, where a northerly wind could blow a Mexican clothesline over the border.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“A landmark piece of nonfiction . . . sure to hold many surprises for readers of any race or experience….A mesmerizing book that warrants comparison to The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann’s study of the Great Migration’s early phase, and Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s great, close-range look at racial strife in Boston….[Wilkerson’s] closeness with, and profound affection for, her subjects reflect her deep immersion in their stories and allow the reader to share that connection.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“The Warmth of Other Suns is a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration… Wilkerson combines impressive research…with great narrative and literary power. Ms. Wilkerson does for the Great Migration what John Steinbeck did for the Okies in his fiction masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath; she humanizes history, giving it emotional and psychological depth.”—John Stauffer, Wall Street Journal
“[A] massive and masterly account of the Great Migration….A narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars, yet so immensely readable as to land the author a future place on Oprah’s couch.” —David Oshinsky, The New York Times Book Review (Cover Review)
“[A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book. . . .Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of….This is narrative nonfiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.” —Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
"The Warmth of Other Suns is epic in its reach and in its structure. Told in a voice that echoes the magic cadences of Toni Morrison or the folk wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston’s collected oral histories, Wilkerson’s book pulls not just the expanse of the migration into focus but its overall impact on politics, literature, music, sports — in the nation and the world."—Lynell George, Los Angeles Times
“One of the most lyrical and important books of the season."—David Shribman, Boston Globe
“[An] extraordinary and evocative work.”—The Washington Post
“Mesmerizing. . .”—Chicago Tribune
“Scholarly but very readable, this book, for all its rigor, is so absorbing, it should come with a caveat: Pick it up only when you can lose yourself entirely.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
"[An] indelible and compulsively readable portrait of race, class, and politics in 20th-century America. History is rarely distilled so finely.” Grade: A —Entertainment Weekly
“An astonishing work. . . . Isabel Wilkerson delivers! . . . With the precision of a surgeon, Wilkerson illuminates the stories of bold, faceless African-Americans who transformed cities and industries with their hard work and determination to provide their children with better lives.” —Essence
“Isabel Wilkerson’s majestic The Warmth of Other Suns shows that not everyone bloomed, but the migrants—Wilkerson prefers to think of them as domestic immigrants—remade the entire country, North and South. It’s a monumental job of writing and reporting that lives up to its subtitle: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” —USA Today
“[A] sweeping history of the Great Migration. . . . The Warmth of Other Suns builds upon such purely academic works to make the migrant experience both accessible and emotionally compelling.” —NPR.org
“The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written, in-depth analysis of what Wilkerson calls “one of the most underreported stories of the 20th century. . . A masterpiece that sheds light on a significant development in our nation’s history.” —The San Jose Mercury News
“The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written book that, once begun, is nearly impossible to put aside. It is an unforgettable combination of tragedy and inspiration, and gripping subject matter and characters in a writing style that grabs the reader on Page 1 and never let’s go. . . . Woven into the tapestry of [three individuals] lives, in prose that is sweet to savor, Wilkerson tells the larger story, the general situation of life in the South for blacks. . . . If you read one only one book about history this year, read this. If you read only one book about African Americans this year, read this. If you read only one book this year, read this.” —The Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
"A truly auspicious debut. . . . The author deftly intersperses [her characters'] stories with short vignettes about other individuals and consistently provides the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative…Wilkerson’s focus on the personal aspect lends her book a markedly different, more accessible tone. Her powerful storytelling style, as well, gives this decades-spanning history a welcome novelistic flavor. An impressive take on the Great Migration." —Kirkus, Starred Review
“[A] magnificent, extensively researched study of the great migration… The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Not since Alex Haley’s Roots has there been a history of equal literary quality where the writing surmounts the rhythmic soul of fiction, where the writer’s voice sings a song of redemptive glory as true as Faulkner’s southern cantatas.”—The San Francisco Examiner
“Profound, necessary and an absolute delight to read.” —Toni Morrison
“The Warmth of Other Suns is a sweeping and yet deeply personal tale of America’s hidden 20th century history - the long and difficult trek of Southern blacks to the northern and western cities. This is an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation.” —Tom Brokaw
“A seminal work of narrative nonfiction. . . . You will never forget these people.” —Gay Talese
“With compelling prose and considered analysis, Isabel Wilkerson has given us a landmark portrait of one of the most significant yet little-noted shifts in American history: the migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West. It is a complicated tale, with an infinity of implications for questions of race, power, politics, religion, and class—implications that are unfolding even now. This book will be long remembered, and savored.” —Jon Meacham
“Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an American masterpiece, a stupendous literary success that channels the social sciences as iconic biography in order to tell a vast story of a people's reinvention of itself and of a nation—the first complete history of the Great Black Migration from start to finish, north, east, west.” —David Levering Lewis
“Isabel Wilkerson’s book is a masterful narrative of the rich wisdom and deep courage of a great people. Don’t miss it!” —Cornel West