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On the Move

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

by Isabel Wilkerson

Review by Jon Boyd

The history of race in America has often involved journeys, including Africans’ original, forced migration at the hands of slavers in the first place. (That’s one reason a Sankofa trip can be such an effective way to pursue racial reconciliation.)

With this sweeping book, Isabel Wilkerson tackles another history-making mass movement: the flood of blacks leaving the South between 1915 and 1970 for new homes in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. This tectonic shift came to be known as the “Great Migration,” and it remade American race relations.

What makes the Pulitzer-winner’s account so powerful, however, isn’t its epic scale but her focus on telling the personal histories of three individuals who made the move, in three different decades (the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s). More than the epochal backdrop of shifting demography, their richly remembered stories of what they left behind in the South — and what they found in the North — make this a book that readers won’t forget.

In the tradition of “microhistory,” Wilkerson’s book spins out the stories of a few carefully chosen individuals in order to illuminate much larger historical trends and issues. (Or maybe, since she’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, this approach isn’t so much microhistory as just great journalism.)

Her three protagonists are:

  • Ida Mae (Brandon) Gladney, a cotton sharecropper who left Mississippi with her family in the 1930s for Milwaukee and Chicago
  • George Swanson Starling, a college-educated fruit picker who fled Florida for New York with angry whites on his heels in the 1940s
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, bound for LA in the 1950s, whose distinguished Army career as a surgeon in Europe hadn’t done him much good in Jim Crow Louisiana

Wilkerson keeps the story rolling as fast as the Great Migration itself with an almost cinematic style of fast cuts back and forth among sociological and demographic analysis; literary extracts from artists like James Baldwin, Mahalia Jackson, and Langston Hughes; and, of course, the heart of the matter: the personal histories of these three and their families, friends, and antagonists.

Through telling detail, the absurdities of the segregationist Jim Crow laws are on full display here, whether an account of “one North Carolina courthouse, [where] there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on” or the ways that credit was at the root of the injustices in the Southern sharecropping system. (Ring any bells?)

The particular enticements of the North are fascinating, too, and Chicago plays a prominent role, whether through the call northward of the legendary Chicago Defender newspaper or even the Sears, Roebuck catalog. “‘What did it look like at that time, Chicago?’ I asked her, half a life later. ‘It looked like Heaven to me then,’ she said.”

The forms of hardship, constraint, and violence faced by Gladney, Starling, and Foster were all different, even deeply personal. Historians and sociologists will recognize the familiar contours of hegemony-and-resistance dynamics here. But hearing all that went into each individual’s difficult decision, and then difficult preparations, to leave the South on “the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren” keeps a very human dimension to what might otherwise become anthropological or statistical abstractions. Even though the Migration would swell into the millions, each one had to know their own reasons to hop that train.

As dramatic as are their stories of pre-Migration life — not to mention their days and nights of actual pilgrimage, fleeing north and west — The Warmth of Other Suns really shines in revealing their post-Migration life. As she shows, “the Old Country was still in the people no matter where they went,” and that fact both troubled and sustained them in the hard life they found in the North and West’s segregated cities. The courage and personal resources they mustered to leave the South helped them become demonstrably more successful in the North than the locally born.

Leaving the South shaped not only the emigrants’ own biographies but the whole direction of American history. It’s an important argument of Wilkerson’s that this diaspora brought word of Jim Crow’s brutality to the rest of the nation in so vivid a way that it helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement itself. “Their world — the former Confederacy — was made better in part because of the pressures put upon it by those who made the sacrifice to leave it.” The presence of these millions scattered all over the United States gave living faces and voices to help the nation begin to love these neighbors as ourselves.

Throughout, her book is enriched by Wilkerson’s sensitivity to the biblical resonance of this migration as an “Exodus.” I suspect this will be especially true for Christian readers who undertake their reading with a heart open to prayer, thanksgiving, and repentance. We ourselves can’t walk the same path these three migrants and millions of others did. (We should thank God we don’t have to.) But it’s a great book that can help us undertake, through “going back to get it,” our own path on the continuing journey of racial reconciliation.

Next Steps

Read over Jon Boyd’s shoulder for highlights and comments on passages throughout the book.

Explore resources for racial reconciliation and civil rights.

Learn about the North Park Sankofa journey.

Read more from the Summer 2012 North Parker.

The Warmth of Other Suns