Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson takes on one of the most underreported issues of 20th-century America in her debut The Warmth of Other Suns—the Great Migration. Between the advent of World War I and 1970, an estimated 6 million African-Americans left the South, resulting in one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in American history. With lyrical prose and intricate detail, The Warmth of Other Suns is a universal story of courage and possibility—the story of America itself. Recently, Wilkerson spoke with Kirkus about Amy Tan, quilting clubs and her own history as a “daughter of the migration.”
What was the Great Migration?
The Great Migration was the exodus of 6 million African-Americans from all parts of the South to all points North and West within the borders of our country from 1916 to 1970. It was in some ways a defection from the caste system that ruled the everyday lives of the people whole left. That caste system was commonly known as Jim Crow. Their arrival in these cities in the North and West was not all that different from the arrival of immigrants who came across the Atlantic in steerage, or across the Pacific or the Rio Grande. [Particularly] in terms of what they were looking for: a desire to be free, to make a better life for themselves.
How’d you come to write a book about this?
The migration hasn’t often been put in this context. When it was discussed, the discussion stemmed from the problems the cities were having trying to handle this influx of people—overcrowding, housing, health concerns. Traditionally, the Great Migration has been the preserve of sociologists and historians, documenting the effects of having so many people arrive so quickly in very poor sections of cities. But this didn’t give us a chance to see the human aspect of the migration. How did these people make the decision to leave, find the courage to leave for a place they didn’t know, had never seen? So I found three people, each who represented one of the three steams of this migration, who left the South during different decades from different regions. I let them represent the breadth and scope of this migration.
I’m a daughter of the migration myself. My mother came from Rome, Ga., to Washington, D.C., and my father from southern Virginia. They came from different parts of the South to the same city—they would not have met had there been no great migration. I wouldn’t exist. That’s the case of the majority of African-Americans in the North and the West. That provides a little understanding of the geographic scope of the result of this demographic shift. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South, by 1970, more than half were living outside of the South. A huge demographic shift had occurred as a result of this outpouring, defection of people from the caste system of the South.
I was reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and I found myself identifying with the daughters in the book. I didn’t expect to as an African-American. Tan was writing about immigrants from China. But I identified so completely with the intergenerational desire of my parents to live up to the ideals that have come to define immigrant values. And then I realized that there was no The Grapes of Wrath for the great migration, not that I’m proposing that I have written one, but I thought, why not apply the skills I have as a journalist and find people who experienced this and tell it in a way that would draw the reader in. I decided I’d find three people who represented different streams and eras of this migration, spend time with them and learn from them.
How’d you find them?
I spent more than a year and a half interviewing over 1,200 senior citizens in cities in the North and West, from New York to Chicago to Oakland. It was like an audition, a casting call. I went to senior centers, AARP, Baptist churches in New York, quilting clubs, anyplace I thought I might be able to find them. It was a question of who was the most comfortable talking, was available to spend the time with me to give me the breadth and width of their lives for a book of this nature. I was able to narrow it down to three characters who complement one another so beautifully in the telling of the story. They represent different classes of people, different approaches to life, different decades of the migration. Their experiences were different in terms of when they left and where they came from in the South. And, also, they were just amazing characters.
Finally, you’ve mentioned that the word “migration” is a misnomer for what happened in America. Can you elaborate?
It was really frustrating during the writing to come up with the appropriate term. Migrants are people who move back and forth. I was looking for a general term that describes people leaving one place for another. Emigrants. These people may have been leaving a place within the borders of their own country for another place [in that same country] that would be better. But they left with the idea of never returning. They left for good, some left and changed their names, melted into the new world and never had anything to do with their past. There were 6 million people, so there were 6 million different reasons for leaving, 6 million different journeys, 6 million different outcomes.
Wilkerson’s favorite music, writing and art inspired by the Great Migration:
1. Anything by Motown but particularly “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas.
This 1964 song is in many ways an ode to the Great Migration, reciting in its joyous lyrics, the many cities to which African-Americans fled during the decades of this movement—“Philadelphia, P.A., Baltimore and D.C. now and can’t forget the Motor City… way down in L.A….” The lead singer, Martha Reeves, was a child of the Migration, brought as to Detroit as an infant from Alabama by her parents. It is classic Motown, a company that became an American icon and might not have existed had there been no Great Migration. Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown, was the child of parents who had migrated from Georgia and recruited talent from the young people around him, such as Reeves, Diana Ross and the Jackson Five, all children of the Great Migration.
2. Anything by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
These three legends of jazz were all part of the Great Migration and could be said to have changed music as we know it. Davis’ parents migrated from Arkansas to Illinois where he grew up. Thelonious Monk’s family migrated from North Carolina to Harlem when he was five. And John Coltrane migrated as a teenager from North Carolina to Philadelphia where he got his first alto saxophone. All three men blended the Southern roots with Northern sensibilities to help define an American art form.
3. The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence.
This landmark series of paintings chronicled in primary colors and stark imagery the Great Migration while it was in progress. The artist Jacob Lawrence was a son of the Great Migration and was reared in Philadelphia and New York. He began his series of paintings in 1940. They depicted life in the South and North, of lone figures mourning underneath a lynching tree and of people rushing to the trains leading to different cities. The series was reproduced in Fortune magazine in 1941, bringing Lawrence international acclaim. The paintings have been widely reproduced as representative of black American life in the 20th century.
4. Black Boy by Richard Wright.
The 1945 autobiography of Richard Wright is perhaps the leading memoir of the Great Migration. Richard Wright, the son of a sharecropper, migrated from Natchez, Miss., to Chicago via Memphis in 1927. He became one of the best-known novelists of the 20th century for his masterpiece, Native Son. His autobiography, originally titled American Hunger, is a frank and unsentimental depiction of the fear and heartbreak he experienced growing up in the Jim Crow South and chronicles the reasons and desires that impelled him, and millions of others to leave. The title, The Warmth of Other Suns, comes from a passage in the first edition of the book in which he describes his dream of transplanting himself in alien soil to “respond to the warmth of other suns.”
5. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson, explored the tensions and legacies of the Great Migration in a cycle of plays set in his hometown of Pittsburgh, one of the receiving stations of the Great Migration. He was a child of the movement, his mother having migrated from North Carolina, and his grandmother having said to have walked from North Carolina in search of a better life. His 1987 play, The Piano Lesson, is set in the 1930s, the middle decade of the Great Migration. It centers on the desires and tensions between those who stayed in the South and those who left as a family wrestles over a beloved piano. It was the play that won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize.
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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Random House / September / 9780679444329 / $30.00
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010