The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Until I picked up this book, I had never heard of the Great Migration, the exodus of African-Americans out of the South between 1915 and 1970. Isabel Wilkerson, a former National Correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, studied this historical event for 15 years, interviewing over 1200 people who had fled or remained behind. The book is based on these interviews, but showcases three remarkable people and how their lives changed due to the migration.

While her writing style is very cut and dry, she does give you a feeling for the people and what a terrible time they had. The amount of prejudice they faced, even in the North, shocked me. The unfairness of the Jim Crow laws in the South were not left behind. The challenges of finding work and housing, as well as restaurants or hotels that would accommodate them were described in heart-wrenching accounts. The story of Robert Foster driving for hundreds of miles, unable to stop because no one would give him a room, was one of the most memorable examples of racial discrimination; but the stories were integrated throughout the book. From the harsh labor of picking cotton or oranges, to the fear of being lynched for “improper” conduct towards a white person, Wilkerson made it very clear that the end of slavery did not free the blacks- and may have even put them in a worse position.

She backs up her interviews with many documents of court cases and other legal records. The facts that she uncovers opened my eyes to many things I had not noticed or understood before. When I discussed this with my book club, we were all in agreement that the integration of blacks into the North has been smoothed over by history. None of us had fully recognized the reasons for the Civil Rights movement, believing it to mostly be a problem in the South. Wilkerson quotes Martin Luther King, Jr after being attacked by a mob in Chicago, describing the incident as more violent and hateful than anything he had seen in the South.

Some of our members had grown up in NYC. After reading this book, they understood why their neighborhoods were so conflicted while they were growing up. One person remembered real estate offices being attacked and police forces providing security on the school buses. Looking back, it now makes sense to her as NY was one of the main hubs of the migration, thus stirring up the most turmoil.

Wilkerson uses her research to contradict many misgivings about the people who came, including that they were uneducated and unemployable, spreading crime and deterioration throughout the neighborhood. According to her, most migrants were better educated and willing to work harder at the worst paying jobs than either the Northern blacks or European immigrants. She also documents how the white neighborhoods they infiltrated, were already being devalued by the whites themselves, out of apprehension and greed.

My only criticism is that some parts got a little long and repetitive, but overall it was well worth the read. It definitely made me appreciate how much black culture has been integrated into our society, through music, literature and art. If this had not happened, we would not be at the point we are today, with distinguished African-Americans in all walks of life, right up to the top job of President. If you are interested in learning more about this overlooked movement in American history or want a greater picture of the effects of racial discrimination throughout America, I recommend this book.

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