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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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1,416645,344 (4.35)248
lilithcat's review
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!
8 vote lilithcat | Jan 1, 2011 |
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Showing 1-25 of 64 (next | show all)
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 |
Isabel Wilkerson's history of Black migration from the south in the twentieth century is a book from which I expanded my knowledge of this major historical event of twentieth century America. She interviewed more than 1,200 people for this grand history, focusing primarily on the personal stories of three Black Americans. While telling these stories the book intertwines a general history and statistical analysis of the entire period. The specific people were: a sharecropper's wife who left Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago, named Ida Mae Brandon Gladney; an agricultural worker, George Swanson Starling, who left Florida for New York City in the 1940s; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana in the early 1950s, for Los Angeles.

The use of these personal stories served as a means of demonstrating the overall theme of the migration of large numbers of black Americans out of the old South and into the Northeast, Midwest, and West of the United States. Each story is narrated over the course of the books in chronological vignettes of each life. Together these vignettes provide a biography of the whole of the lives of the three protagonists, if you will, and demonstrate the impact of the migration through their individual and family experiences. The author deftly interspersed their stories with short vignettes about other individuals; she also inserted general overviews of the migration into the narrative from time to time. The process consistently provided the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

The story-telling approach gave this history a novelistic flavor. However, reading the stories I felt a repetition due to overlapping material; while some of the inserted stories were only tangentially related to the main theme of Black migration. The stories of the three individuals who provided the main portion of the book were rendered believably through sympathetic portrayals of the unique vicissitudes of their lives. I particularly enjoyed the story of Robert Foster, the doctor who migrated to Los Angeles and, like the others, overcame much adversity to attain his personal dream. Overall the history was epic in its scope and Wilkerson's imaginative approach to the story made this an interesting and informative book. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jan 7, 2014 |
A most magnificent book! Things I've mostly "known" all my life but never really "felt" or "experienced" or "lived" like I did through the stories of these three people who I grew to know so very well. This book should be required reading for high school students. And for every citizen of the United States. I will never forget this book. Most enlightening! ( )
  bibliophileofalls | Dec 31, 2013 |
There are too many things to like about this book to list them all, but one can begin with Wilkerson's choice of the three people she follows. Each represents a different geography, a different economic class and different profession. The relationship between segregation and race in the North and the South becomes very clear. Recommended for anyone who is interested in history, race, or lives of "ordinary" people. ( )
  Maya47Bob46 | Dec 1, 2013 |
This is a side of history that I didn't know (and certainly needed to). Told from the viewpoint of several main characters, it shows the great migration from the south of African Americans to the cities of the north. I stayed up several nights, unable to put it down, and I went back and read parts of it again, after I'd finished. Remarkable work, and excellent research. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Nov 28, 2013 |
#1book140 October read. I never really got into it. The story was interesting, but the writing annoyed me. I only got up to 350 or so of 1000 pages. Don't believe I will ever finish it, though.
  KymmAC | Nov 4, 2013 |
Three stars is probably not adequate for a book that I liked a lot, but three stars is what I feel I should give.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a great masterpiece of research that focuses on the movement of black people from the south to the north of the US. This took place in the 20th Century, following World War I until the early 70s. Isabel Wilkerson weaves through her research stories of men and women (and children) who, unable to stand the racism and segregation of the southern states, moved their familes up to the northern states. Their stories of life in the south are heartbreaking and difficult to read, at times. There is no respite from the horrors once these people arrive up north, though. The three main characters Ida Mae, George and Robert come out of the pages and their stories are fascinating as much as they are painful.

So far, so good.

The aspects of this book which made me drop a star in my review were small and insignificant, but they built up over the length of this book. There's a lot of repetition: in the stories of the three main people, in the analysis, in the treatment of blacks down south or up north. Everytime the story swung back to Ida Mae, George or Robert, we got a little summation of what they'd been up to until now. But this was unnecessary and boring after a while because I'd just read about their story a few pages back. I was paying attention. There's also some repetition in the fact of housing: black people found it difficult to move outside of the acknowledged "black" area and were often forced out of the "white" areas by violence. This is an awful fact, but there is no need to mention it over and over and over again. I was, as I said, paying attention.

Caste is a word that was overused. I understand that the division between the black population and white population was one similar to caste, but surely other words could have been used. In the UK we talk of classes, but races and minorities and groups in society would have sufficed. Instead we got caste, caste, caste. I suppose it was for some shock value or to indicate just how bad things were...but it would have been better to use the word throughout the text, interspersing it with others also applicable.

This book was extremely well research and I learned a lot from it. Some of the stories hit me hard and I carried them around with me for days. But, in the end, what I found to be the shortcomings of this book were too much for me.
( )
  kingarooski | Oct 18, 2013 |
From the early 20th Century to well past its midpoint, millions of African-Americans living in the Jim Crow South headed north. The Warmth of Other Suns tells their story. By zeroing in on three of the “migrants,” Ms. Wilkerson tells a story that is both focused and grand in its scope. That’s because she doesn’t stop with her three principal characters, but also adds in stories from multiple interviewees and enough context to make sense of the story for general readers.

Being a long-time amateur genealogist, I’ve researched my immigrant ancestors, and read a lot about immigration in general. African-Americans were immigrants in their own country with all the attendant problems and issues and then some. The three characters – an uneducated woman from Mississippi, a college-educated labor activist from Florida and a Louisiana medical doctor – present three very different scenarios. But they were all brave and persistent and adaptable and worth memorializing in this way. There are many more whose stories will never be known except by their descendants; that’s sad.

The author took ten years to research the book – including more than a thousand interviews – and read voluminously about the topic. The Warmth of Other Suns is one of the best written, best researched, and best sourced … and most lovingly put together book I’ve ever read. It’s easy to see why it won a zillion awards. ( )
1 vote NewsieQ | Oct 6, 2013 |
A very interesting view of the Great Migration. I learned a lot about the challenges that the migrants faced. I felt it was a positive story in that each improved their life as a result of their move. ( )
  LoisB | Sep 20, 2013 |
This is an depth study of the causes, impact and motivations for "The Great Migration" of African Americans out of the South into the North of the US between 1915-1970. The author follows the migration and lives after migration of 3 individuals covering 3 different decades and 3 cities and uses this to compare and contrast. The over arching themes of the book include supporting the understanding that migrants from the South were better educated, harder working and more stable than most sociologists would admit and that there is a compelling argument that these people were more like immigrants than migrants. It also offers an insightful look at individual and personal happiness based on how the individuals handled the cultural change from a personal perspective. This makes the book much more than just a social study, much more interesting because of the life lessons that are provided regarding how people adjust or don't. The all more telling side of human nature that human beings are unwilling to admit mistakes, unwilling to face realities and unable in the end to deny who they really are comes out in full force. I found the book much more interesting on the level of the personal behavior and how these people dealt with change than on the overall sociological level that was the authors stated purpose. This is a book I will undoubtedly re-visit, there is a great deal to it. I can easily recommend it. ( )
  statmonkey | Aug 18, 2013 |
A touching and thorough examination of the Great Migration. A masterful review of the evil of Jim Crow and the courage of the migrants. ( )
  Doondeck | Aug 1, 2013 |
I learned a lot from this book. I do feel it, at times, has a bias in favor of middle class blacks, but this should not stop you from reading this book. ( )
  ageoflibrarius | Jun 27, 2013 |
This book is a must read. A thoroughly researched book of the Great Migration with three dramatic personal narratives that help bring home the human reality of all those numbers and statistics. This is the first history book that actually made me cry on more than one occasion.

Even if you think you know what the Jim Crow South was like, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Maybe even especially if you think you know what Jim Crow was like. ( )
1 vote dgmillo | Jun 2, 2013 |
I put off reading this book for a year, because of it's heft. I actually found it to be a very compelling and quick read. Highly recommend, even if you don't read a lot of history books.
Pat ( )
  molugum | Apr 16, 2013 |
A must read book about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West. By tracing the journeys and lives of three individuals, Wilkerson turns statistics and reports into portraits of complex people with complex lives. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
You say it can't happen here? Well guess what? It did. By that I mean the repressive, nightmarish type of scenario we often see in dystopian fiction like "1984" and "The Handmaid's Tale". After the Civil War, the Federal Government stepped in and regulated race relations in the South. But this regulation only lasted a few years until the bile of the white South became too great to bear. Then followed nearly 100 years of "Jim Crow". Sometimes the words "Jim Crow" are followed by the word "Laws", and yes, there were laws which segregated blacks and whites.Yet if the word "laws" would lead you to infer a system of even-handed enforcement handed down by courts of law, think again. Jim Crow was terror, vigilantism, lynching. Few black men accused of crimes ever made it to trial. Angry mobs would storm the jails, kidnap the accused, and subject him to torture and death. And such accusations often had to do with offending the prevailing caste system, rather than the actual commission of a crime. A black woman was not safe from rape if a white man took a fancy. Slavery had ended in name only, as the agricultural economy continued to function on black labor compensated by bare subsistence (if that),

After WWI, black migration to the North and West began, continuing until the late sixties, after the Civil Rights laws enacted in 1964 began to be enforced. Rather than continue to put up with Jim Crow, blacks moved on to greener pastures. All of this is the subject of Isabel Wilkerson's excellent book. What makes this book special, though, is that it tells the story of the migration through the eyes of three unforgettable individuals. There's Ida Mae Gladney who, with her husband and children, left the cotton flelds of Mississippi for the bustle of Chicago. There's the shrewd George Starling, who couldn't put up with the slave wages being paid to citrus pickers in Florida and for a time, was a de facto labor organizer. He left for New York at exactly the right time to escape a certain lynching, and ended up with a long career as a railroad porter. And then there's my favorite character in the book, Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, who leaves Louisiana, and later, leaves the shadow of his university dean father-in-law in Atlanta, to achieve success in Los Angeles. But no success ever seems to be enough for Foster, who is dogged by the resentments of a lifetime, even though he creates a successful medical practice and becomes the personal physician to Ray Charles. (Music fans: hunt down the Ray Charles single "Hide Nor Hair", which is Ray's tribute to his doc).

Wilkerson, a New York Times journalist, is an excellent writer, and this is one of the best books I've read in the past year. Now only will you learn a lot by reading it, but the stories of Ida Mae, George, and Pershing will resonate with you for a long time to come. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
The Warmth of Other Suns is about the 50 some years of the Great Migration. It is a fascinating and written in a style that is eminently readable. Wilkerson tells the story of the great migration by focusing on the lives of three different people (and their families) who move out of the rural South and into Northern cities (LA, Chicago and New York City). At times, as you would expect, the material is heartbreaking as these individuals confront the racism and economic struggle they thought they were escaping by leaving the Jim Crow South. My only complaint is that it gets a little repetitive- she writes each chapter as if they were meant to be stand alone pieces of writing. After a point, it didn’t feel like it was really necessary to read the whole book. Overall though, this was a really great book. ( )
  eenee | Apr 2, 2013 |
Great book about the Great Migration. The introduction and epilogue weren't that great, which is the only reason I rate it 4 stars instead of 5. ( )
  rkreish | Mar 31, 2013 |
Powerful writing and stories. I loved how she was very visible in this story as a listener. ( )
  allison.sivak | Mar 21, 2013 |
What a remarkable book about a remarkable story. The bulk of the great migration, African-Americans moving from the racist and restrictive south to the north and west, took place in the first half of the 20th century. While I was aware that there were many people of color looking to get out of the south, I didn't realize it was actually considered a migration, and I didn't realize the extent of its importance.

This book is a perfect mix of general facts and statistics along with the stories of three migrants and their families. All three individuals had entirely different personalities and entirely different stories, but seem representative of what happened to many of those who went north. They escaped the overt racism of the south to find themselves with severe but less overt problems in the north. And they were blamed for problems not of their creation.

Leaving the south was often dangerous and always tricky, and it took courage and/or desperation to make the move. Some embraced their roots and never changed. Some tried to distance themselves from what they had known. All of the stories are fascinating and touching.

I've said this before, enough so that I sound like a broken record, but it amazes me what evil humans can do to one another. But it also amazes me the indomitable spirit that some humans have.

I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Robin Miles. Her reading style and voice were perfect for this book.

I highly recommend this one. ( )
  TooBusyReading | Jan 27, 2013 |
Well written, readable, and most importantly fascinating analysis of the great migration of southern blacks to the north and west of the United States from the 1910's to the 1960's. The stories of three migrants are told in great detail, making the book feel like a biography as well as a historical study. Highly recommended. ( )
  creynolds | Jan 21, 2013 |
This as a very interesting book for someone like me. Someone whose knowledge of recent American history is limited to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's (courtesy of a High School History module), and whatever I can reliably take from TV and films. Which would be not much. It ties the general phenomenon of the 20th C migration of blacks from the South to North /West US together with the specific life stories of three such migrants.

I had no idea how hard it was for people to leave the South: that it was an escape, not just a move. In towns where the local law ran it how they wanted, people literally snuck out in the middle of the night lest they be "caught" attempting to board a train. I had a vague idea that the North and South were different, but this book really showed me how. Racism was all over the country, but in the South it was backed up by the very real threat of a gruesome death. That this occurred in such recent times still makes my chest feel tight in sadness and disbelief.

The community and social support people had in the South may have been partly an act of necessity in the face of such terrible hardship and fear, but it was sorely missed by those families who fled. They arrived to very different ways in Northern cities, and had to adjust. But- they had their freedom. As time marched on, the Northern migrants saw changes in their home states, but with new lives most stayed where they were. And these patterns of movement changed American cities for ever.

There was a lot of information in this book. And a lot of repetition. I feel there could have been a good 100-120 pages removed and it wouldn't have altered the story. The short sections that detailed the personal stories were hopped between fairly quickly, but were then backed up by some historical and social facts. It is a great method of telling a non fiction narrative. But too bitsy for me, and a case of there being a little too much information. A very worthwhile read. ( )
3 vote Ireadthereforeiam | Dec 1, 2012 |
This is the story of the migration of African Americans from the rural south to the north and west. Between 1915 and 1970, about 6 million people moved, often risking violence by leaving, even into the 1970s. Wilkerson found 3 individuals to represent this journey, and weaves their stories in and out of the more general history.

You know when you're reading a suspenseful novel, and the author is switching between different story lines, and you flip ahead to see what happens next to one character? Well, this history had me doing that. Wilkerson gives you the history, but roots is so firmly in individuals, families, and places that it lives and breathes. I'm a lazy reader. I rarely read nonfiction, and mostly read novels that have a plot that pulls me along. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the tales woven through it are still in my mind 7 months later.

Isabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer prize as a journalist, and this book was picked as one of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year — deservedly so.
1 vote mulliner | Nov 6, 2012 |
The Warmth of Other Suns provides a historical account and first person narrative of the Jim Crow South, the hardships of the migration north, and the hardship of being in a strange land. The Great Migration (1915-1975) is often given short historical shrift. In most K-12 schools, the focus is on significant political or military events not so much on a people’s history. Isabel Wilkerson plans to change that. She not only tells a beautiful story weaving historical fact with a compelling first person narrative, she demonstrates that problems are not solved in a single act, but change over time. Progress slows when people begin to turn away from these problems or believe them to be “solved”.
The Great Migration would have lasting effects on the entire country with the story of three such migrants told in a very poignant and even heartbreaking way.

I didn’t know very much about the Great Migration until I read a Brad Luckingham’s Minorities in Phoenix. It really changed the way I see a city divide. Minorities moving to the Phoenix area were not permitted to live beyond certain streets. This wasn’t an official policy by anyone (it wasn’t Jim Crow, but referred to as "red-lining"), it was an unwritten rule to keep minorities in certain areas of the city. Real Estate Agents and those in positions of influence were able to block anyone migrating beyond a certain point. As a result, services provided in the area were severely diminished. Even though the 1968 Housing Rights act stopped this practice officially, the damage was done.

Wilkerson explains the conditions in the Jim Crow South where black men could be falsely accused, tortured, and lynched at will. This constant oppression was not better than slavery and those fed up with it decided to escape north. To live in those conditions were unimaginable, but the escape was just as daunting. There was no guarantee they could leave the area, many leaving in the night like fugitives, and once they got to their destination hopes for a better life were often dashed. It wasn’t a paradise. They were not welcomed with open arms. They often faced the same oppression as Jim Crow, but instead of government interference, it was an unwritten agreement against them. It’s all told here through the eyes of two men and one woman escaping the south in 1938, 1943, and 1953. They are tales of hardship and perseverance with some small victories. Escaping the South was only the beginning of their troubles. Wilkerson takes these three all the way from birth to the end of their lives and with it, essential stories of our nation. This kind of book and its material must find a way into the curriculum to fully understand the impact of The Great Migration.

Favorite Passages.

"It comes back to him, one image after another, how Jim Crow had a way of turning everyone against one another, not just white against black or landed against lowly, but poor against poorer and black against black for an extra scrap of privilege." p. 60

"By the time Lil George was old enough to notice, it seemed as if the whole world was crazy, not because of any single event but becasue of the slow discovery of just how circumscribed his life was turning out to be. All this stepping off the sidewalk, not looking even in the direction of a white woman, the sirring and ma'aming and waiting until all the white people had been served before buying your ice cream cone, with violence and even death awaiting any misstep. Each generation had to learn the rules without understanding why, because there was no understanding why, and each one either accepted or rebelled in that moment of realization and paid a price whichever they chose." p. 74

"The unfairness started to eat at Pershing. it was a curse to be able to see it. Better not to know. But the older he got, the more he was starting to want. And the more he wanted, the harder it was to accept that he might never get it--all because of a chemical in his skin that some people resented and felt superior to and that no one on this earth could change. To make matters worse, he had the misfortune of having developed exquisite taste and what little he was exposed to only fed his ambitions. "Everything you wanted was white and the best," he said."

""There were no colored or white signs in New York. That was the unnerving and tricky part of making your way through a place that looked free. You never knew when perfect strangers would remind you that, as far as they were concerned, you weren't equal and might never be. It was just the prerogative of whoever happened to be in a position to keep you from getting what the law said you had a right to, because nobody was going to enforce it anyway." p. 339

“Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.” P. 410

"He turned fifty-two in 1970. He had been in the North for a quarter of a century. He would never be the chemist or accountant he had seen for himself in his mind, would never work a white-collar job or any kind of job that would make use of his intellect. And, by an accident of birth, he had managed to suffere the terror and injustice of Jim Crow but just missed the revolution that opened up the best in education and unheard-of career opportunities for black people with the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. The revolution had come too late for him. He was in his midforties when the Civil Rights Act was signed and close to fifty when its effects were truly felt." p. 416

"All told, perhaps the most significant measure of the Great Migration was the act of leaving itself, regardless of the individual outcome. Despite the private disappointments and triumphs of any individual migrant, the Migration, in some ways, was its own point. The achievement was in making the decision to be free and acting on that decisino, wherever that journey led them." p. 527 ( )
  shadowofthewind | Aug 29, 2012 |
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