In honor of Black History Month in February, I listened to The Warmth of Other Suns, the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic by Isabel Wilkerson covers the previously poorly examined great migration of African-Americans to the northern and western cities to escape the racist Jim Crow policies of the southern states from 1914 to approx 1970.
The author follows three true characters during different times and from different areas of the south as they move north and west seeking better opportunities as well as a safer environment. She also includes a multitude of interviews from the thousands she conducted in the making of this book.
What this book did for me was to illuminate the racism of Black Americans in a way I never understood before. Growing up in the liberal Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s and remaining in liberal areas (predominantly white at the time) I never understood what all the fuss was about. The Civil War was over a hundred years back. Hadn’t people moved on? Jim Crow? What was that?- Maybe a paragraph in my high school history book? Fast forward to Donald Trump and the murder of George Floyd. Talk about a wake-up call.
After reading this book I realized that enslaved African Americans never were truly freed in the south. Jim Crow laws enacted after the civil war ensured that they still had few rights. They could not vote or often could not earn enough money to buy land. Black citizens were intimidated, harassed, and often lynched. Even a move north could be life-threatening. It was difficult for me to read about the horrors inflicted by whites on black citizens.
The irony is even though the ones that escaped the South had more opportunities they dealt with their share of racism in their new homes that left many in a state of poverty to this day. The hate and frustration still bubble- on both sides affecting policy current policy- especially in conservative states and the Republican party.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a must-read no matter what race or color you are. It’s forced me to look at the USA in an entirely different context. It’s very readable and well worth your time.