Isabel Wilkerson here blends narratives of the lives of three distinct Southern blacks with historical sociology to do two things at once – describe and chart what she calls “The Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to the North and West and vividly demonstrate the effects of the migration in human terms.
It is a disturbing book to read, particularly in the context of Trump America. For, it starts from a point at which Americans who would have considered themselves upstanding, religious, fair-minded people were not merely subjugating an entire race of fellow Americans but, through the institutions of government and in the very name of freedom, were promoting, tolerating and in many cases performing the most inhumane and barbarous acts of violence and terror. It would be troubling enough to read as ancient history, which many young people today may consider it to be. But the events that launched the journeys of Wilkerson’s three protagonists – and the millions like them who fled the South to an only marginally more-enlightened North – are not ancient history. The culture of lynching, abuse, humiliation and oppression was alive and active in the decades of my own youth and adolescence. Among the horrifying effects of this book was the reminder that these repulsive behaviors were commonplace in years of my memory – though, thankfully in a way and frighteningly in another way, I was entirely unaware of them. And they were institutionalized and defended by people claiming to support individual rights and free and fair enterprise. In the context of the political environment in Washington, D.C., today, that, too, is a stomach-churning similarity to thinking in our own era still prominent enough to elect a president and support the dismantling of agencies and systems created to avert and protect against such behaviors.
So, in that context alone, this work has direct implications for contemporary thinking and events. But one also cannot escape the central correlation to the immigration debate of our own time. Interestingly, Wilkerson notes that her subjects resisted and resented the notion that they were “immigrants.” Yet, all the basic objections that greeted them when they moved North can be seen in the objections to immigration, particularly from Mexico, in America today. The immigrants are willing to work for less money, thus not only taking jobs away from “natives” but also suppressing wages. They bring with them the food, music, social hierarchies and habits of their home region. They settle in communities of people from their home regions – both because they are forced to by economic circumstances and because they want to for reasons of familiarity and comfort. They sacrifice and struggle in the hope of helping their own children move into the mainstream of the society. In this context, it is intriguing to reflect on the integration of the Southern immigrants into Northern culture, to see them in the concurrent environment of other foreign immigrants with whom they competed who have also assimilated into contemporary American culture and consider how the pattern may be reflected in our own time.
Each of the individual lives Wilkerson traces has its own dynamic. A defiant fruit-picker flees likely lynching in Florida because of his efforts to get living wages for his fellow field workers. The son of an Atlanta “colored school” principal heads to California seeking a status and lifestyle befitting his education and skill as a surgeon. A young bride and her share-cropper husband flee cheating landowners in Mississippi for a bittersweet life of limited self-determination and urban complication on Chicago’s South Side. All are interesting, if described a bit more clinically than passionately. Each story is told with an honesty and candor that helps emphasize that the making of a life is more than merely a function of setting, and that happy endings are a moving target.
The Warmth of Other Suns is, in short, a compelling, multi-layered book that does what all exceptional histories do, which is to help us understand our own lives and times through a vivid description of the past.