The Warmth of Other Suns is one of those books that I’d been meaning to get around to and just never did. I knew I’d love it. I knew it won all the awards when it was published. My friends raved about it. I even name dropped the title, derived from Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in my History 1302 lesson on the Great Migration. Nearly 9 years after its publication, I finally picked up a copy on audiobook and was instantly smitten with Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece.
The book focuses on the lives of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. They each had different backgrounds and found varying levels of success, both personally and professionally, after leaving the South. Some were just trying to make it out of Jim Crow alive; others had dreams and felt called to specific parts of the nation. But though the book focuses on these three individuals, readers learn about the myriad reasons why over 6 million African Americans fled the South from around 1915 and continued their exodus all through the 1960s. The impact on the economy, the Southern workforce, American culture, and the arts — not to mention impact on families’ educations and upward mobility — is overwhelming and immeasurable.
The average history class usually skims over the Great Migration; the other major events happening during the migration’s biggest waves — particularly World War I — tend to take up the brunt of most lesson plans. Students are only left with a vague sense that one Great Migration happened over a shorter amount of time. Sometimes some interesting tidbits make their way into public consciousness — Jesse Owens’ career would not have happened had his family not been part of the migration — but for the most part, the migrants have remained faceless and nameless in history, and the Great Migration becomes another static thing that happened, rather than a living, breathing movement whose reverberations are still felt to this day.
My background is in history, and I was blown away by Wilkerson’s work. She weaves in so much meticulous research while never bogging down her narrative. I can’t even begin to imagine how much time went into collecting all of the oral histories — not just from the people she focuses on, but everyone in their orbit — not to mention the time spent parsing through historical documents to bring everything to life. The final result is exquisite.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration was originally published in 2010. I listened to the audiobook version by Brilliance Audio.