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The warmth of other suns : the epic story of America's great migration (edition 2010)

by Isabel Wilkerson

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1,767873,983 (4.4)296
When I was a kid, I rode the Illinois Central trains from my home in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood to the University of Chicago neighborhood, and to downtown Chicago. I didn't know then that that same rail line was part of a historical moment, a facilitator of a seismic population shift. That movement is Wilkerson's story.

Though she is a Pulitzer Prize-winner for journalism, "The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America's Great Migration" is Wilkerson's first book, and I hope to hell she writes another one. She's taken this monster huge topic and made it intimate. Wilkerson spent years interviewing people who had come up from the South to the North, over the period from just after World War I to after WWII. She alternates the stories of three of these people (Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper's wife from Mississippi who came to Chicago; George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker and union organizer from Florida who went to Harlem; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor from Louisiana who ended up in Los Angeles) with historical data, data that shows that a lot of what we thought we knew about the people who came north just isn't so. They were generally better educated, harder-working and more stable, what some have called the "immigrant effect", for they were, indeed, immigrants in their own country. Like the folks who sailed steerage from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the African-Americans who came north had grit and determination, and weren't afraid to face a new life in an unknown bourne. It's interesting to read about the different ways Wilkerson's informants handled the change, who shucked off the South and who kept it with them, how in escaping one form of racism, they found another, how they raised their children and coped with a strange, new world.

This book is scholarly, readable, and gorgeously written. It has one of my favorite sentences of all time, one of those that makes you stop and stare and mark the place in the book: "Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself." (Emphasis mine, because that simile knocked me out.) Go read this book!
10 vote lilithcat | Jan 1, 2011 |
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Summary: The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families.

One of the most significant migrations in American history never passed through Ellis Island, or across any of our national borders. Yet it was a migration of six million people and had huge social implications for the United States. It was the migration that took place from 1915 until around 1970 during which six million blacks left the Jim Crow South to migrate to the Northern and Western cities in the U.S. Many of these migrations followed the rail lines from where blacks lived in the south to various destination cities along those lines in the north. Often, other family, kin, or friends had preceded them.

Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of this migration through the lives of three persons (although she interviewed hundreds of others). Ida Mae Gladney is a plantation worker from Chickasaw Country, Mississippi, who along with her husband and children leave, ending up in Chicago after a cousin, Joe Lee is beaten up and falsely accused of theft. George Swanson Starling is a young man with aspirations of a college education from Eustis, Florida. Discouraged after a couple of years of school, he marries Inez, and resorts to picking the orange groves, and begins organizing for better wages for the pickers. When he receives word that the owners are preparing to lynch him, he heads north to New York City. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was the son of a high school principal, who trained as a medical doctor and was a surgeon in World War 2. Coming home to Monroe, Louisiana, he is not granted admitting privileges at local hospitals and determines to head to California, undergoing a harrowing car trip across Texas and an American southwest inhospitable to blacks, setting up a hugely successful medical practice in Los Angeles with Ray Charles being one of his most famous patients.

Wilkerson skillfully weaves historical material about the realities of separate facilities, Jim Crow laws, the ever present danger of lynching for any black who was too "uppity", and a system that robbed them of wages due them, holding them in economic slavery. She describes their efforts to gain a toehold in the northern and western cities. George Starling works as a railroad porter, returning to the south from which he'd fled and helping other migrants he served on the trains. Ida Mae's husband works in a soup canning factory, she eventually secures work in a hospital. Foster starts out giving insurance exams and collecting urine samples, making $10 an exam. In telling this story she describes the subtle forms of discrimination they encounter instead of the overt racism of the South. Often they are deployed as cheap labor and strike breakers, which exacerbate tensions with white workers. Most tellingly, they are restricted to certain areas of the cities to which they migrated, prevented by restrictive covenants from moving into white neighborhoods. When they succeed as population pressures force them outward, there are often mass exoduses of whites from those neighborhoods, destabilizing the community. It was a story that played out in every northern city with Chicago's black south side and white north side, and Cleveland's black east side, and white west side being just two examples.

She describes how the migration changed both a South facing the loss of a workforce on which it depended and the North and West accommodating a changed situation. And we see the impacts of the cities they settled in on them and their children. While on the whole, the migrants were more likely to be married and stay married, worked harder and were on welfare much less, they, and especially their children were not insusceptible to problems already prevalent in the north with drugs and street crime. Yet many were notable successes (such as Robert Foster) and the first black mayors in many northern cities came from the South.

Perhaps one of the things I most appreciated in this work was that Wilkerson seemed to genuinely respect each of the three individuals she features in this work, despite their imperfections. She enters their lives and allows them to tell their story on their own terms. She is present, even holding George Starling's hand and squeezing it as he sinks into the coma that ends in his death. But it is a presence that draws out and tells the story of the migration without getting in the way.

I was a child and teen in a northern city during the latter part of the period of this migration. The growing presence of blacks in our city, the pressures this placed on housing and the transitions of neighborhoods were topics of family conversation, not always pleasant. This book helps me understand the dynamic behind those conversations, but also helps me step out of my white sub-culture as I listen to the stories of people longing for freedom and safety from the invidious culture of Jim Crow, people longing for the chance to work hard at a fair wage to pursue a better life for their children. So many of us are also the children of immigrants who wanted the same things. It makes me wonder whether the hearing and telling of these family stories, both unique, and yet not so different may be one of the paths toward the healing of the wounds of race in our nation. Isabel Wilkerson has given us a great chance to begin if we will listen to the stories of Robert, George, and Ida Mae. ( )
  BobonBooks | Apr 17, 2016 |
This is a close-in biography of three African Americans who migrate from Jim-Crow Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. It’s an interesting and extremely well-researched trio of personal oral histories but, considering its subtitle, “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” it was less informative about the big picture than I’d expected. Still, I did learn -- of the level of racism in early-1900s Florida; of the level of torture involved in some lynchings; that the top migration points in the north became the most severely (and enduringly) segregated U.S. cities. And it was immersive; I listened to its 19 CDs over weeks and weeks of morning walks and felt adrift when I finished. ( )
  DetailMuse | Apr 2, 2016 |
An excellent book that could have been outstanding with some better editing. Ms. Wilkerson told the history of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, East and West primarily through the stories of 3 individuals - an approach which made the history much more immediate and personal, and made it much more than a dry historical tome. She spent hours with those individuals and their families and friends, and her affection for them came through very clearly, particularly at the end. Woven through the personal stories were some statistics and other information about the time period being covered at that point. All of that - outstanding and fascinating, although sometimes difficult to read the personal stories of living in the South at that time. However, the narrative jumped back and forth between each individual and other material, and was also quite repetitive - I think so that the reader didn't lose track of the details about each person, which worked I guess, but the repetition became tiresome. I did like the movement back and forth between the stories, as it allowed comparisons between the different experiences at the same point in their stories, but it was done too often - sometimes multiple times in each chapter. With tighter editing, this could have been a really outstanding book; as it was, I still was tremendously moved by it and would definitely recommend it. Even more, I recommend hearing the author speak - I had the opportunity to hear her speak about the book and her process of researching and writing it (many years of work and thousands of interviews - I think she interviewed about 1500 people before settling on the 3 she uses as her primary subjects), and she is a wonderful speaker. ( )
  Booklover889 | Feb 25, 2016 |
A definite! Hope we include this one - although it may be too long - 539 pages.
  gennyrebecca | Feb 7, 2016 |
This book was a great look at the Great Migration. I thought the story was well told, but she repeats a lot of information as the story jumps around. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
This book was a great look at the Great Migration. I thought the story was well told, but she repeats a lot of information as the story jumps around. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
This book is composed of a series of stories focussing on individual African Americans and their families during the "Great Migration" of poor African Americans from the South to the promise of greater freedom in the North and spans decades.
There are also numerous side stories about others from the same times and their experiences.
This was an incredible read of people struggling to have the freedom to live as citizens in their own country. These people faced amazing odds.
I listened to this book over a very long time--I found it difficult to listen to in large amounts because attitudes the people faced became quite distressing. ( )
  quiBee | Jan 21, 2016 |
Excellent book about the Jim Crow south and the Great Migration from it that traces the stories of three people who left the south - one to work as a train porter, another to the cold streets of Chicago, and a third a flamboyant and successful physician who never forgot the humiliations of white supremacy in the deep south. Hard to put down, terrifically well researched.
  bfister | Nov 8, 2015 |
Review to come... ( )
  irisper012106 | Nov 1, 2015 |
Excellent - one of the best works of American history I have read. The authors method of telling the story of this important part of the African-American story in the USA - through the eyes and life experiences of her three primary subjects - made the entire book come alive, be more "real", and caused it to have more emotional impact. I am glad to have read this. ( )
  labdaddy4 | Oct 21, 2015 |
Deeply moving history of the post-World War I mass migration of African Americans from the deep South to northern and western cities where they expected to find better lives. The author focuses on three individuals and their families. While they escaped the brutal violence and legally-mandated segregation they had grown up with, they found themselves in a new world that was less than idyllic. ( )
  dickmanikowski | Oct 13, 2015 |
I'm late to Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize party, the epic history of a time period that changed the lives of everyone in America. The structure has the compelling stories of three migrants - one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles, one to New York - as well as an overview of the entire 60 year exodus from South to North. And Jim Crow is ever present - in person in the southern states and barely disguised in the industrial North.

Another shining attribute is the book's memorable quotes from Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston.

Read this and you've got another weapon to thrust at those ignorant racists who say "White people were oppressed too. Black people should just get over it."

It is such a mandatory read that I'm not going to describe, just quote:

"It is the culminations of all these personal discriminations which create the color bar in the North, and, for the Negro, causes unusually sever unemployment, crowded housing conditions, crime, and vice. About this social process, the ordinary white Northerner keeps sublimely ignorant and unconcerned" - Gunnar Myrdal

"The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went."

"On August 14, 1997, Barack Obama makes an appearance at Ida Mae's beat meeting...that night, no one in the room could have imagined that they had just seen the man who would become the first black president of the United States."

"...whether it was the pull of the North or the push of the South."

"They were not immigrants. The South may have acted like a different country and been proud of it, but it was a part of the United States, and anyone born there was an American." ( )
  froxgirl | Aug 15, 2015 |
So informative, and so heartbreaking. It was a wonderful read. ( )
  annwieland | Aug 4, 2015 |
4.5 stars

Primarily between 1915 and 1970, “coloured” people migrated in masses from the American South to the North. However, even the North wasn't all it was cracked up to be. This book looks at the overall migration, but it also focuses on three specific people who migrated.

Ida Mae, in the late 1930s, moved from Mississippi to Milwaukee, then Chicago; George, in the 1940s, moved from Florida to New York; Robert, in the 1950s, moved from Louisiana to California. All three moved to escape the Jim Crow laws and the treatment of coloured people in the south.

This was really good. I did find it helpful (especially towards the start of the book) that the author usually did a quick little recap for each of our main characters as she went back and forth between them. She also interspersed more general information about the mass migration, as well as adding in smaller anecdotes of other migrants and their stories. Wow, she did a lot of research for this book, not only “book” research, but lots of interviews, not only with the three main people she focused on (as well and their families, friends, and acquaintances), but also initial interviews with over 1000 people to decide who to mainly focus on. Very impressive! ( )
  LibraryCin | Jul 12, 2015 |
A compelling, superbly written history of the Great Migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South to northern and west coast cities, an exodus that spanned many decades. Wilkerson masterfully weaves intimate, personal stories into a sweeping, big picture narrative. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
Stories of the great wave of African-American internal migration, South to North, tracking a few specific stories—a woman who moved to Chicago and got factory work, a man who moved to New York and worked the trains, and a man who moved to Los Angeles and finally found the kind of work as a doctor he sought. Through them, Wilkerson tracks the incredible bravery required to escape, often under circumstances where blacks could be killed for trying to leave and killed for any reason if they stayed. She recounts the hard work and tradeoffs the migrants made, as well as the racist barriers they left and the ones they encountered in the North—they often got the lowest pay and the worst jobs, which were still often better than the options in the South, but left them with little opportunity to supervise their children. Among her points is that the migrants, like many immigrants, were often highly ambitious and risk-taking and that they were wrongly blamed for causing social problems in Northern cities, whereas they had higher education, employment, and marriage rates than native-born Northern African-Americans. Racism was the problem, and they found partial solutions, as well as individual triumph and tragedy, by leaving the South (and often longing for many of its traditions for decades afterwards). ( )
  rivkat | May 3, 2015 |
Fabulous and touching ( )
  ibkennedy | Mar 22, 2015 |
I had been meaning to read this book ever since it came out, but the national uprising against police brutality following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson pushed me to finally pick it up. I felt it was necessary to improve my understanding of the history of structural racism in the US.

Isabel Wilkerson's book covers several decades and a huge geography but she keeps her discussion focused on the experience of her three protagonists who left the South because of their particular experiences under Jim Crow and the conditions they faced in the north (or, in the case of Robert Foster, California).

Wilkerson writes in the book's introduction about what might be "the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century":

"Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turing point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched."

Wilkerson's book is a significant effort in understanding the leaderless Great Migration's meaning and its legacy.

Though she focuses on three main characters throughout, Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people for the book and she also cites a variety of secondary sources. So while the book is narrative-driven, it is grounded in comprehensive research.

Some have criticized the book for repeating details but it seemed obvious that this was done so that chapters can work as stand-alone pieces, making this book a good resource for teachers. So I don't think this should be held against the book; it would be a shame if it hadn't been approached with classroom education in mind.

I do think this book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand why racial inequality is so entrenched in the United States today. I plan to follow it up with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? ( )
  maureenclare | Jan 17, 2015 |
Phenomenal oral history and great read. ( )
  lincolnpan | Dec 31, 2014 |
A really outstanding, moving book following the history of three people who moved out of the South and into New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s to escape Jim Crow. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Dec 4, 2014 |
As a Yankee transplant to the South who has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for more than 15 years, I found this book fascinating. From the minute I arrived in Alabama, I was acutely aware of the race relations issues still lingering and I found myself studying the history of Alabama especially as it relates to the civil rights movement. One visit to the impressive Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and its Jim Crow installation including a "White Only" water fountain leaves a lasting impression especially when you walk out the front door and find yourself standing in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 little girls were murdered in 1963 by a church bomb. Kudos to Ms. Wilkerson and her extensive research which is so eloquently set forth in this book. If I could make this book required reading in every American middle or high school, I would. We may have come a long way since Jim Crow but we still have so far to go and this is the kind of book that opens up the important dialogue necessary between the races to keep the improvement of race relations front and center. ( )
  kellifrobinson | Nov 25, 2014 |
Joy's review: Wilkerson tell the story of the great African-American migration out of the south from the early 1900's to the early 1970's through the stories of three individuals and their families. Wilkerson is s good story-teller and weaves in the facts around the migration and reasons for migration. Primary reasons: Jim Crow, Lynchings and economic opportunity. My main gripe is that she repeats the same facts many times. Without that, this book could easily be 100 pages shorter. ( )
  konastories | Nov 4, 2014 |
Wilkerson illustrates the great migration through the biographies of three Americans whose journeys out of the South represent the three major routes of migration (one travelled from Mississippi to Chicago, one from Florida to New York City, and one from Louisiana to California). Wilkerson interviewed 1200 people just to find these three Americans and it was time well-spent, because their stories are dramatic, very different from each other, and yet representative of the places they left, the cities they settled, and the times they lived. Wilkerson provides historical context alongside the biographical segments, anchoring the biographies in time and place. Personally, this book enlightened me to the cultural geography of my country and gave me a context for understanding some of the literature that came out of the generations born to these migrants. ( )
  read.to.live | Oct 13, 2014 |
Wilkerson won the Pulitzer for this narrative non-fiction book about the Great Migration, the mass exodus of blacks from the south to the north and west from the early 1900s until 1970. Wilkerson writes this book masterfully. She interviewed 1200 migrants and ended up framing the book around 3 of these people’s lives. She intersperses their life stories with facts about the times. I won’t get into the details of the book or I won’t know where to stop, but it is very readable and the topic is important for any American to be able to understand our country.

As an American born in 1978, I missed all of this, but have seen a lot of the ramifications that she discusses. Having grown up in the far suburbs of Chicago, and considering that the city of Chicago was one of the meccas for blacks leaving the south, a lot of the things she discusses really hit home. I’ve also lived in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and currently live in Washington, D.C., all cities that were shaped by the Great Migration. This book has really opened up my eyes and I can see it influencing a lot of my thoughts in terms of other literature I read and, of course, the politics of the day.

I really feel at a loss as to how to describe this book, so all I can say is - just read it! ( )
  japaul22 | Jun 24, 2014 |
A magnificent book on the Great Migration that humanizes the epic through the stories of three participants: a sharecropper's wife who goes to Chicago, a man escaping a "necktie party" by going to New York, and a frustrated surgeon who escapes the confines of a small town for the sun of LA.

The author, Isabel Wilkerson, intersperses data and analysis of the Great Migration with the stories of her three migrants. Each of her main characters flees the South for different reasons and each experiences both more freedom and continued racism in the promised land of the North. Wilkerson uses the experiences of these three migrants to illustrate the waves of the Great Migration as well as its various wellsprings.

Other than its length, this book would make great reading for a interested general reading or an excellent text for a college course on 20th century race relations.

Strongly recommended. ( )
  barlow304 | Apr 12, 2014 |
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