Monday, January 9, 2017

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson
I took advantage of having a big chunk of free time off work between Christmas and New Year's to tackle a big, meaty book.  I saw Isabel Wilkerson speak during the Chicago Humanities Festival after the election in November, and I had a feeling that her book would be a great one for me to read to start the new year.

The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North over several decades in the 20th century.  Wilkerson conducted hundreds of interviews.  Her book compiles many people's stories, though she focuses on three people who left various areas of the South at different times and went to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to start new lives.

This book is excellent.  It is 540 pages of personal stories, which probably sounds like a lot, but it is not.  It feels like you are in the same room as these people as they tell you about their lives, the decisions they made, the regrets they have, the people they knew.  It's almost like a gigantic, written version of This American Life.

Like many people, I am struggling to come to grips with the way the world seems to be moving backwards to tribalism, distrust, and fear.  Reading Wilkerson's book was empowering.  When she came to speak at the Humanities Festival, she said something that I keep going back to.  I am paraphrasing, but the gist of it was, "The lesson of the Great Migration is the power of an individual choice.  They freed themselves."

Often, when reading books about minorities in the US, the general trend of stories is the same.  People who are different show up.  The people who are already there become angry.  They treat the newcomers badly (sometimes, really really badly).  The newcomers fight for their rights.  Sometimes they win.  It's an important story to tell because it happens so consistently, probably everywhere, but definitely in the United States.  But it's also just depressing and disheartening.  People are so frightened by anything that is different, no matter how superficial that difference might be, or no matter how ridiculous that fear is.  And they fight back in terrifying, brutal ways.

 But even against all that, a backdrop of hate and threats and physical violence, people fight.  And that's what was so, so wonderful about this book.  Even people with very little of their own, barely scraping by and with no rights of their own - they resisted and they fought and they made the world a more accepting and welcoming and equal place for all of us.  As Wilkerson said, "The Great Migration... was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed... It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface."

A few snapshots from this book really stood out to me:
1.  Ida Mae Gladney coming to Chicago in the 1930s and realizing that she had the opportunity and the right to vote and that her vote would be heard and counted.  She had never even bothered trying to vote before.  Many, many years later, she would vote for Barack Obama for Illinois state senator.

2.  Robert Foster's desperate search for a motel to spend the night on his drive to his new life in Los Angeles.  He went from motel to motel and was denied a room at every single one.  Finally, he broke down and told one couple that he was a veteran, that he was a physician, that he meant no harm to anyone and just wanted to sleep.  They still refused.

3.  The story of a man who worked with the NAACP, was locked up in a mental institution, and then escaped with the help of a coordinated effort that had him in a coffin and traveling across state lines in different hearses.

4.  The store clerk who owned a dog and taught that dog many tricks.  One trick was for the clerk to ask the dog if he'd rather be black or dead.  The dog was trained to respond by rolling over and playing dead.

There were many more stories about oppression and resistance, the times people bowed to authority and the times they defied it.  The many ways that people faced indignities and swallowed the insults, turned the other cheek, and then came back to fight another round.  The consequences of leaving behind family and friends to start a new life.  The consequences of working long, hard hours to make a better life for a family that you rarely get to see.  The consequences of moving from the rural south to the industrial north.

I don't think I've done a good job of describing why this book is so moving.  But it's a huge book, and it covers so much!  It's hard to cover all of that in one post.  All I can say is that it is an excellent story of how much progress we've made and the cost of that progress, not only for the country as a whole but for so many individual people.  And it serves as an important reminder that individual decisions matter and can make a difference in the world.


  1. Oh, I so loved this book. I know you read more NF than I do, but if others are reading your review and hesitant to pick it up (whether because it's NF or because it's long), I encourage them to try it too (although you've laid out plenty of reasons already, of course!); it's tremendously compelling and often reads like a novel, IMO, even though of course it's true (which is perhaps what adds to the sense of urgency to keep turning those pages). Now you've made me want to reread, Aarti!

  2. This review is perfect. I was interested in this book (a friend recommended it to me), but now that I know it's personal narratives, I'm *definitely* going to read it.

  3. Aarti, you have definitely done a superb job of describing this book. I want to read it ASAP now - thanks to you :) I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. This book sounds like such an important one - a must-read, especially right now. I'm so glad you posted about it.

  4. I keep meaning to read this book, but it is a matter of preparing to sink the time into it. I like the snapshots that you included - the one about the motel and the guy who escaped in a coffin(!) especially. When I'm reviewing great chunkster nonfiction like this, I have a hard time choosing which tidbit/anecdote to share, as there are usually so many good ones.

  5. I know of this book but was not planning on reading it; you have me thinking that I should give it a look...maybe get it from the library. It sounds like one I could read chapters of even if I don't read the entire book. That's a common thing with non-fiction reading for me.


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