45 pages • 1 hour readIsabel Wilkerson
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Published in 2010, The Warmth of Other Suns is a sweeping ethnography of the Great Migration—the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South to Northern and Western US cities dating from approximately 1914-1970. The book traces the history of racism in the Jim Crow South as well as the reasons, successes, and failures of those African-Americans who left the place of their birth in order to seek better economic and social opportunities elsewhere in the United States.
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In The Warmth of Other Suns, author Isabel Wilkerson moves between the stories of three individuals—Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster—discussing the historical background, statistics, and ultimate social influences the Great Migration had on the South and on the Northern ports of refuge that received nearly six million African-American migrants. Today, these black migrants appear as a modern version of the Europeans who flooded America’s shores in the late 1800s and early 1900s, both groups determined to roll the dice for a better future. It is no surprise, therefore, to find census data showing that Black Americans who left the South had far more schooling than those who stayed, and that Black migrants had higher employment numbers and more stable family lives than Northern-born Black people, as shown by lower divorce rates and fewer children born outside of marriage. The traditional migrant advantage has worked historically for Americans of all colors.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was a sharecropper’s wife who moved from Mississippi to Chicago. George Swanson Starling fled Florida and the clutches of the notorious Sheriff Willis McCall for refuge in Harlem, New York. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a former Army Captain and doctor, struck out for Los Angeles from Louisiana to achieve the American Dream. Despite differences in circumstance and location, Ida, George, and Robert left the American South to seek freedom and the rights bestowed upon them as American citizens. In recounting their stories, along with hundreds of others, The Warmth of Other Suns offers insight into the fear and humiliations African-Americans suffered under segregation and Jim Crow.
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However, Wilkerson’s work is not an overly romanticized account of how people fled oppression in one region to receive full freedom in another. The Warmth of Other Suns masterfully explores the dual nature of life in the North, where segregation was illegal, but still intruded on the lives of many African-Americans in indirect ways.
Wilkerson speaks to the challenges, failures, and successes that shifted and evolved over different eras of the Great Migration through the different perspectives of her three historical figures. She highlights two often-overlooked issues: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.
In particular, Wilkerson’s accounts of Starling and Foster represent the contradictions of the Great Migration. Starling took a porter’s job on the same Silver Meteor train line that had once brought him north. The life he led in Harlem was richer than anything he could have imagined. But he also knew that the migrants now riding his train would reap the blessings of a civil rights movement that were unavailable to him: History had come too late for the once promising student. Foster, meanwhile, matured into one of Los Angeles’s finest surgeons. But his rejection of his Southern roots left him adrift, nursing ancient wounds and unable to enjoy his new life.
The Warmth of Other Suns details a period in American history, whose importance cannot be understated. The effects of the Great Migration not only affected the lives of millions of African-Americans, but also shaped much of modern-day American popular culture and identity.
By Isabel Wilkerson