Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly covers a little understood but epic movement in American History, the Great Migration, in her seminal work, The Warmth of Other Suns.
“So far reaching are its effects even now that we scarcely understand its meaning.” Historian Neil McMillen, as quoted on page 10.
Wilkerson tells of a piece of American history I knew little about, and yet it has such a profound effect on America today. Too much of our history isn’t told from the minority point of view, but all history is OUR history. This is more apparent to me after reading The Warmth of Other Suns.
Some six million people left the only home they’d ever known and headed north and west to start new lives. From 1915 to the 1970s, these courageous souls took routes filled with possible harm and rejection. Unfortunately, racism greeted them in their new homes as well. It just looked different.
The Warmth of Other Suns follows three people through their lives in the Jim Crow South, their decision to leave and subsequent journey north, and then the aftermath for themselves and their children. Their experiences living under the racist caste systems in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana were chilling and heartbreaking. Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster had compelling reasons to leave their limited futures and head out for more opportunity.
“The achievement was in making the decision to be free and acting on that decision, wherever that journey led them,” wrote Wilkerson on page 535.
Gladney, Starling and Foster had several things in common. They were married, all had children, and all three were driven and spirited. Gladney survived the death of one of her children, the hard life of a sharecropper’s wife and a country-wide journey out of the south while pregnant. Starling was forced to quit college despite great potential and eventually had to run for his life after organizing pickers in Florida. And I’ll never forget the charismatic Foster, a promising surgeon and Army veteran who moved to California and built himself a devout following as a doctor.
But these migrants were just a sampling of the millions who made these journeys. And from these migrants came countless people whose opportunities outside of the South continue to influence our country’s culture and history.
“The migration changed America’s culture as we know it. The migrants brought the blues and birthed whole genres of music – jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, hip-hop. The Migration would influence the language, food, dance and dress we take for granted,” Wilkerson penned on page 531.
Followed by Racism
The racism the migrants faced as they moved into their new cities changed the landscape of each location, as the black communities were pigeon-holed into low-paying jobs and crammed into tenement homes. Entire neighborhoods changed their ethnic make-up, some over-night, all because of the reaction of white residents. To this day, the segregation of these cities remains the same, causing much of the poverty, crime and racial strife we see on the news.
Wilkerson also dispels many myths that have risen from the influx of people into the north. Crime rates went up, neighborhoods failed, and divorce skyrocketed. But Wilkerson shows how early studies blaming migrants for these issues were incorrect. Most migrants were more educated than their northern peers, had more stable families and worked harder. Ironically, it was the racism and racist systems white people used to keep the black migrants poor and uneducated that brought economic harm and ruin to their cities.
These systems resulted in hyper-segregation, “a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work,” Wilkerson documents on page 398. This situation continues today and is one of the many ways the Great Migration continues to influence our country.
Why these three migrants survived and fared better than their Southern peers is unknown, but their own personal fortitude certainly influenced their success. Gladney, Foster and Starling are American champions in their own small stories.
Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns is a deep, thoroughly researched piece of historical narrative I highly recommend. Well-written stories carry the weight of the book, making it easy to read and hard to put down. Anyone interested in learning more about our country’s history would benefit from reading The Warmth of Other Suns.