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Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Warmth of Other Suns (Book Review)

Cover of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The E...
Cover via Amazon

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (ISBN: 9780679444329)
Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 543 reading pages

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books

Review Rating: 5.0 out of 5 stars

From what I recall, the Great Migration never really garnered a lot of attention in my high school history class. We briefly mentioned that it happened, but that was it. As a result, I missed out on learning about one of the most history-altering periods in African-American (and American) history. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Black families from the oppressive South into the less opprssive, (but just as hostile) North, known as the Great Migration was one of those moments in times that altered the racial, cultural, economic, and social landscape forever.

Good thing this book was referred to me!

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson is an epic tale on par with classics like” Roots” by Marcus Garvey and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley.  It focuses on the period between 1915 to 1970, when large portion of the Black American population moved North to find jobs and escape the  dangerous claws of Jim Crow. Her book chronicles the real-life stories gained from personal interviews of three Southerners and their families as they move to the North. Along the way, Wilkerson sprinkles in historical detail that shows how their individual actions were part of larger movement.

The greatest aspect to this book is the author’s focus on humanity. Her stories showcase the ability of Black Americans to withstand and make sense of utter stupidity and indecency of blatant racial prejudice and segregation that existed in earlier United States history. Wilkerson’s book, however, doesn’t focus exclusively on the struggles of Black Americans against a social class that was unwilling to deal with reality. She also (and in my mind very cleverly) shows the impact of racism on all members of society. As she discusses in her book, racial prejudice (especially the set of policies known as “Jim Crow”) hurts everyone.

 Economically, Jim Crows laws drained the states of human labor and cost the states thousands. As opponents of segregation in Wilkerson’s book pointed out, the act of building separate facilities like separate bathrooms, fountains, etc. was not worth the cost. No matter how you put it, building four bathrooms (one for colored men, one for colored women, one for white men and one for white women) is more expensive.
 Socially, segregation limited the opportunities of Blacks and kept Whites restricted within a caste system. Two stories from the book exemplify this. The first deals with a family who needed a hotel on a long and tiring trek to the North. When seeking to get a room, the family chose a person with the “lightest” skin tone to make the reservation. When they got the room, they had to sneak their other children who had “darker” skin or risk losing their room. In the other story, a female hotel owner is willing to allow a Black man to have a room; however her fear (and her husband’s fear) about their potential loss of business and social ostracism (something that was a reality for Whites) is too great and they send him on his way.

Despite this, the author balances this rather dismal view of American culture at that time with equally important tales of triumph and optimism. She points to statistics and anecdotes the incredible courage of Black Americans to leave everything they were used to for something better. She details stories of families and individuals saving every single penny to get money for transportation, working extra jobs, even hopping trains if they had to.  She also explores the personal triumphs of each individual person.  One of her interviewees became a surgeon and another became a deacon. Another took her first steps in democracy and ended up helping others do the same. Still another individual led a grassroots farm workers’ struggle for higher wages. Wilkerson provides ample opportunities to show these triumphs.

The balance that Wilkerson has in the book is also displayed in her portrayal of the North and South. It can be easy to idealize the North; however Wilkerson is keen to point out that the North was not free of discrimination and segregation.  While it was less apparent than in the South, Blacks and other minorities were subject to some of the same discrimination, misunderstanding, and lack of respect that they experienced in the North.  She points both to the North as provider of opportunities as well as an obstacle to opportunities. For example, Dr. Foster (my favorite character) is never really allowed the same prestige and access as his White counterparts even though he has a quality education. He was able to make a comfortable practice on his own in the North (unlike the South), but never earned the prestige that was due because of his skin color.
In short, this book was eye-opener.  Reading this book, I went through moments of anger, joy, sadness, and despair. I only felt that from the outside. Imagine having to deal with segregation and discrimination on a daily basis. Knowing that you could not shake a White’s person hand first, being openly called demeaning names, or  unwittingly breaking any of the seemingly trivial and unwritten rules regarding race of the country in early 20th century, is truly humbling as a person of African descent. It is truly a story that needs to be read by everyone because the theme connecting everything in this book (both the good and the bad) is humanity. Wilkerson’s obvious point, displayed in each and every character in this book, is that our individual actions have a greater part in the history. We would be wise to make sure our actions are worthy of our descendants. 

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