America’s Great Migration, which saw over six million black Americans relocate from the South to either the North, Midwest or West over the period from 1915-1970, has certainly been the subject of numerous articles, essays, books and even television documentaries over the years. Yet Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s new volume The Warmth of Other Suns finds a way to make this worthy yet familiar topic fresh and exciting by moving the focus from the general to the specific. Her decision to examine this incredible event through the eyes of three individuals and their families allows her to make gripping personal observations while providing readers with the broader details and analysis necessary to put the event into its proper perspective.
She selects Ida Mae Brandon Gladney from Mississippi (1937), George Swanson Starling from Florida (1945) and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Louisiana (1953), following them on their journeys. They had no idea about where they were going beyond the feeling that it had to be better and offer more opportunity than their current conditions. They were more than willing to sit in cramped, segregated train cars and put their fears aside in search of a new land.
Through more than 1,200 interviews with principals and related individuals, Wilkerson shows how this migration helped change the nation’s political and cultural landscape. From the businesses and communities that were built to those that were abandoned, the music, food and customs that moved to new regions and helped forge a host of hybrid and innovative fresh creations, and the political impact the migrants had on their new cities (the first black mayors of each major Northern and Western city in the Great Migration were participants and family members of this movement), there’s no question this was an epic period in American history.
Yet Wilkerson’s book is also about triumph and failure; it is a study in how this move not only changed the course of a country, but affected those who weren’t always doctors, lawyers or academics. As both its main figures and their relatives recall their past with a mixture of joy, wonder, satisfaction and occasionally sadness or regret, The Warmth Of Other Suns shows that memorable and poignant tales often come from people and places no one expects.