They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.– The Warmth of Other Suns
Summary and Thoughts
In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.
Wilkerson’s intense documentation of the Great Migration is done with such artistry and empathy, that despite its swaths of historical information and overall length, I found myself completely absorbed in the stories and the characters. Wilkerson follows the lives of three travelers, each from different time periods, backgrounds, and ambitions, and inspects the ways their personal navigation of a country set against them reveals the resilience and ingenuity of black migrants as it does the blatant brutality of the South and the simmering intolerance of the North. Despite nonfiction history not being a common genre of mine (though historical fiction is one of my favorites), I loved the way in which Wilkerson threads together small, sensitive details with overarching timelines and information. Wilkerson makes sure that while we learn the magnitude of the migration, we should also keep in mind the singular humanity of each of its participants.
I highly recommend picking up this book. Even if you feel daunted by the length or worry about the dearth of historical facts, Wilkerson did not win the Pulitzer for journalism for nothing. I’m so glad to have read and learned from her writing and look forward to the stories she brings to the light in the future.
For Those Who Enjoyed
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead