Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

Day 348

Once in a while, when I finish reading a book, the feeling that resonates as I close it is one of being decades older, because I feel as though I've lived the lives of the characters and seen the changes they've seen. I don't have to love the characters -- the first time I remember this happening was senior year of college, reading a novel for pleasure for the first time in months, and I chose Phillip Roth's American Pastoral -- but I connect anyway. While nonfiction, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration gave me the same transportive experience. 

Wilkerson interviewed scores of Black Americans who had moved from the South to the North or West between the 1910s and 1970s. As she pointed out, while the people were part of a phenomenon sociologists and historians would term the "Great Migration," few of them saw their choice to move as a decision to participate in a larger pattern. Instead, they moved for many of the same reasons anyone moves anywhere: for a chance at a better job, to send their kids to a better school, to be near friends and family, or to get out of a family member's shadow. They also moved to escape the lynchings, low wages, and dehumanization of the Jim Crow South.

The Warmth of Other Suns follows three people through their whole lives, interweaving their stories and background information about the migration as a whole and the experiences of other migrants. Ida Mae Gladney, who was born in Mississippi in 1913, moved to Illinois in 1937. George Starling, born in 1918 in Florida, moved to New York in 1945. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, born in 1918 in Louisiana, moved to California in 1953. Their stories are told in parallel, with their experiences before migration next to one another regardless of the year, and with the three narratives catching up to one another by the 1960s. This structure lends a timeless and universal feeling to Gladney, Starling, and Foster's experiences. In some instances the feeling is very appropriate. An incident of a Black person being turned away at an unofficially Whites-only motel in the North, or a moment of a parent having complicated and tender feelings watching a child grow up, could happen just as easily in the 1950s or 1930s. At the same time, it can get a little ahistorical; as a reader it's hard to follow the changes in patterns over the decades when they are mixed together.

The book serves as a joint biography of three people who never met. The bulk of Wilkerson's research was interviews with these three and other migrants, now mostly elderly, but it doesn't feel like an oral history in the tradition of Studs Terkel (which I also would have enjoyed). Instead, the recounted memories are woven together in warm and nuanced prose, with most of the stories of other migrants presented as asides in chapters devoted to one of the three central figures. A journalist rather than a historian, Wilkerson avoids the ivory tower's insistence on making an argument about a trend's significance. Her main thesis is that the migration had a huge impact on the economy, culture, and politics of regions throughout the United States, and that the migrants' experiences were both very similar to one another in broad strokes and very different in the details. It's a broad but valid claim which is diffused throughout the book. The real power is in the way Wilkerson follows Gladney, Starling, and Foster through all their ups and downs, ending with reflective portrayals of the ends of Starling and Foster's lives and of Gladney's 86th birthday party with four generations present. Gladney died in 2004, which is noted in an afterword. 

I set out to read The Warmth of Other Suns to expand my knowledge of Black American history beyond slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights era. I accomplished this, and found it to be a powerful and moving book. Unless you're already deeply familiar with the ins and outs of the Black migrant experience, this book will give you a whole new understanding of the 20th century.