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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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1,599764,544 (4.39)282
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 |
Showing 1-25 of 76 (next | show all)
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 |
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 |
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