Shop Indie Bookstores
The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 2010, 538 pp
I read this as part of my continuing quest to understand racism in the United States. It is an impressive work of history. The Great Migration of its subtitle refers to the period between 1915 and 1970 when 6 million black southerners left the region to resettle in the North. The repercussions of this migration would influence the country in many ways. The author calls it "perhaps the biggest under-reported story of the 20th century." I would say, after reading the book, that it has also been the biggest misinterpreted story until now.
Once again, I learned so much. I don't know if this part of American history is taught in high school these days. It certainly was not in my day.
The book is dense with facts and because it covers over 50 years of time it is dense with incidents. In order to bring human interest into such a vast body of research, the author follows the lives of three different characters who left at different times (1937, 1945, 1953) and settled in different cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.)
Through their experiences she brings to life the sordid details of Jim Crow discrimination in the South. Though slaves were emancipated in 1863 by President Lincoln's executive order, former slaves and all people of color in the South had barely any rights. When they came north of the Mason/Dixon line, they could drink from the same water fountains, eat in the same restaurants, ride in the same bus seats and railroad cars as whites, sometimes, but a more subtle racism crowded them into city slums. All of this plays out in the lives of those three individuals and their Northern families. It also plays out in the social order of our land.
Some readers and reviewers have complained that the book is repetitive in an annoying way. Since I read it over a period of many weeks, I was grateful for that because there is so much information to keep track of. I thought Ms Wilkerson did an excellent job of organizing all that material.
One-hundred-fifty-four years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation; fifty-three years since the Civil Rights Act. Many blacks have risen above discrimination and lack of good education to become successful members of American society but the fact remains that among much of our adult population, racism still operates. I ask myself how much longer it will take to right the wrongs of slavery and to correct the injustices of both slavery and current practices. I can't predict how long but I can predict that if Americans were better informed about our true history as a nation the time could be reduced.
The Warmth of Other Suns might not be a beach read, but if you are looking for answers to the puzzling times in which we live, you will find some of them here.
(The Warmth of Other Suns is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)