Summary: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson examines the migration of blacks from the South to the North and West of the United States from 1915 to 1970. She tells the stories of three individuals: Ida Mae Gladney who moved from Mississippi to Chicago; Robert Foster, a doctor, who went to California for greater opportunities in the practice of medicine; and George Starling, who escaped from Florida to New York under threat of death for attempting to negotiate better pay for himself and other citrus pickers. These three stories are interwoven with just enough history and statistics to give them context within the wider migration of some six million people.
Thoughts: Last night, our book club discussed The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Wilkerson. We’re a special book club, if I do say so myself, an outgrowth of the Community of Understanding and Hope that was formed after the tragic shooting at Kirkwood City Hall in 2008. Most of our book selections are about race in America. Many in our group considered The Warmth of Other Suns to be the best book we’ve read in two and half years together. It is certainly the most comprehensive book we have read about the black experience in the twentieth century and how racism in both the South and North hindered the efforts of blacks to improve their lives and those of their children.
One theme that particularly struck us, in part because later this year we’ll be reading The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris, was how black parents who migrated from the South kept silent about their experiences, not sharing them with their children who were born and raised in the North. One long-term effect that and other factors had among the blacks in our group was an aversion to traveling to the Deep South that continued well after the Great Migration had ended. The one exception was a woman who spent some time in the South as part of a military family, but she agreed that the military offered a certain protection and isolation that made that more comfortable than it might have been otherwise.
We also talked a lot about the similarities and differences of the black migration with the immigrant experience in the United States. Blacks from the South, like immigrants from all of the world, worked hard, rarely returned, and expected life to improve for their children. What they accomplished came in spite of the fact that black migrants had lower status than immigrants from other countries. Much of what is startling about the statistics that Isabel Wilkerson found was how they counter the commonly-held wisdom that northern cities and the plights of blacks who lived there declined due to the influx of migrants from the South.
According to a growing body of research, the migrants were, it turns out, better educated than those they left behind in the South and, on the whole, had nearly as many years of schooling as those the encountered in the North. Compared to the northern blacks already there, the migrants were more likely to be married and remain married, more likely to raise their children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed.
Isabel Wilkerson was interviewed widely last fall when her book came out, but our group was particularly taken by her interview on Charlie Rose. The very personal moment between the two at the end of the interview will take your breath away.
Appeal: Our group would like to see this book widely read in our community and beyond. Do not be scared by the number of pages or the fact that it appears to be a history book. We all agreed that it reads like a novel. This book was needed to understand the history of the United States in the twentieth century and how that history brought us to where we are today.
Challenges: I’m counting this for two challenges. The long form of the title has the word Migration in it which is a travel or movement for the What’s in a Name challenge. I had to buy this book because the request lines were too long at both libraries that I frequent for me to read it in time for our book club meeting. So, I’m counting it as January’s book for the Buy One Book and Read It challenge.
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Have you read this book? What did you think?