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Book Review: "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," By Isabel Wilkerson


Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns describes the lives of three people who participated in the Great Migration, an exodus of six million African Americans from the South to northern cities. Beginning during World War I, this odyssey lasted six decades. The title, taken from Richard Wright's novel Black Boy, reflects the yearning for a brighter life through jobs and freedom. A migrant himself, Wright journeyed to Chicago from Mississippi. Wilkerson, a child of that migration, is a journalist and professor.

Fleeing the indignities of the Jim Crow South, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a highly competent physician, left Monroe, Louisiana, for the glamour of Los Angeles in 1953. Foster is an odd choice because he probably could have become a successful doctor and community leader in a southern city. Instead, his wealth allowed him to become consumed with appearances and gambling.

Fed up with her subordinate status, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband, George, traveled from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, to Chicago in 1937. George traded the "mind-numbing sameness of picking cotton to the mind-numbing sameness of turning a lever" (p. 316). Gladney's precarious economic foothold provided wages and voting rights but little else. For her, Chicago's black ghetto had become a cesspool of crime, drugs, and dilapidated neighborhoods. It was also Chicago that frustrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s attempt to bring the civil rights movement to the North in 1966.

Fearing for his life, George Swanson Starling abandoned Eustis, Florida, in 1945 for New York, where he clung without promotion to his lowly position as a railroad porter. A son succumbed to drugs, and a daughter became pregnant at thirteen. Disillusioned by a ghetto culture of drugs and hate, the proud Starling explained, "We're the ones that's killing ourselves" (p. 493).

Wilkerson provides some historical context. Her prelude casually observes that the "North withdrew its oversight" of the South during Reconstruction (p. 37). Northern racial animosity confined blacks to the South after emancipation. During a period when millions of white immigrants arrived in America, no black migration to the North occurred between 1865 and World War I. Wartime labor shortages then precipitated the Great Migration. Hardly unique, the Great Migration in many ways typifies a normal historical movement from the farm to the manufacturing job and wages. Wilkerson writes repeatedly of white southerners' resistance to the exit of southern blacks. If six million oppressed African Americans left, the barrier to migration was not as widespread as Wilkerson emphasizes.

Wilkerson sees the white South as the personification of evil, while euphemistically absolving the North, where mean streets or "the outside world" are blamed for horrific ghetto conditions and an intractable black underclass (p. 458). Wilkerson ironically accepts the view that migrants reared in the southern racial caste system could best cope with the northern racial caste system. These newcomers, she explains, had more stable marriages, were "more economically successful," and were harder working than the African Americans already in the North (p. 530).

Wilkerson has a keen journalist's eye for detail and narrative, but she is blind to some of the complexities of history. Her use of Richard Wright's hopeful words is belied by his own actions — permanent exile in Paris.

October 2011 issue, North Carolina Historical Review