Sunday, December 19, 2010

"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals to provide a broad overview and understanding of the Great Migration, the fifty-five-year period in American history in which southern blacks migrated to the North.  Centering the book are Ida Mae, a sharecropper who migrates to Chicago in the 1930s; George, a grove picker who flees Florida for New York after attempts at unionizing in the 1940s; and Robert, a southern doctor who moves to Los Angeles in the 1950s in order to practice medicine.

Musings: The Warmth of Other Suns is the perfect nonfiction novel; it effectively blends the narrative with the sociological, and in doing so, it brings an intensely personal and human element to a significant part of American history while also demonstrating the large-scale effects the Migration has had on our country.

In choosing her subjects to focus on, Wilkerson has been careful to capture very different stories and experiences that, nonetheless, have important similarities.  Ida Mae, for example, was among the poorest who came North, and though she found contentment in life, she was never wealthy.  Robert, on the other hand, came from elite southern black society and was among the highest educated.  Through practicing medicine he became extraordinarily wealthy.

But, regardless of education level or background, Ida Mae, George, Robert, and the many others who traveled North did so for many of the same reasons and faced many of the same problems.  They left because there was little available to them in the Jim Crow South, where segregation and hatred made it not only difficult to make a living, but to live safely.  Although the North did provide significant more freedom than the South, it was not perfect.  What was most heartbreaking was how much prejudice the migrants continued to face, even in the North where Jim Crow did not legally exist.  In the South, a person of color knew what restaurant he or she could enter--it was clearly posted.  In the North, there were no signs, but that did not mean places were any less segregated--a person of color had to enter the establishment and potentially be refused service in order to find out.

Wilkerson is especially effective at detailing the daily indignities migrants faced in both the North and the South while also showing the ways in which the migrants were able to find success for themselves despite the virulent racism.  Although, logically, I was familiar with many of the racist policies, it was all the more poignant to hear them in terms of individual stories.  One of the sections that most stuck with me was the difficulty in migrants finding housing in the North, and the extremes white residents went to to ensure their neighborhoods remained all white.  It was sickening and saddening, and it happened within the lifetimes of many people living today.

At times some of the material could be repetitive as Wilkerson retells portions of the characters' stories as a reminder or continually reinforces the idea of a caste system, but that style also means that the main points were clearly driven home.  I liked that the book is broken up into short sections and frequently switches between Ida Mae's, George's, and Robert's stories, as it make the relatively long book feel fast-moving.

Like the other nonfiction book I recently read, Unbroken, The Warmth of Other Suns has made a number of "best books of the year" lists.  Since I spent time while reading Unbroken considering what made a nonfiction book "best," I felt like I needed to do the same with Wilkerson's work.  For me, Other Suns was a significantly stronger piece, and I think that's because Wilkerson uses the stories of individuals to help the reader understand a macro-level movement.  Hillenbrand, on the other hand, uses a major event (World War II) to tell the story of an individual, and long term, that was less compelling.

The Great Migration is a largely overlooked part of American history, but it has shaped the makeup of our country and race relations ever since, and The Warmth of Other Suns is an engaging look at that period.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

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