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REVIEWING

The Warmth of Other Suns—The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

by Isabel Wilkerson

Random House | 2010 | 620 pages | $30.00

Reviewed by Herb Boyd


book cover

There was a time, around a decade or so ago, that I was delighted and looked forward to reading one of Isabel Wilkerson’s articles in the New York Times.  Not only would the topic be of abiding interest, her skillful writing always managed to take it to another level of appreciation and insight.   Everything about her taste, her style, her way with words, rang with conviction and authority.

Clearly, I was addicted and then came the withdrawal symptoms when I discovered she was no longer at the paper, leaving me with no idea of why or wherefore she had gone.

Holding her heavy tome—and I mean heavy in weight and wisdom—it is evident where she’s been, and if this isn’t selected for one of the top literary awards there is no justice in the universe and the rest of us struggling writers may as well dismiss any notion of arriving at one of those coveted plateaus.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration or too highfalutin to call this book Wilkerson’s magnum opus, though she expresses every indication of greater promise.  In short, Warmth of Other Suns is an extraordinary achievement and more than an engrossing response to historian James Gregory’s charge that there was no “comprehensive treatment of the century long story of black migration.”

For those of you who have had the privilege of reading some of her shorter pieces, this is more of the same.   Epic is a word in the book’s subtitle and it’s perfectly fitting because she has deftly and completely captured the narrative elements of creative nonfiction with absolutely scintillating episodes.   She presents an ever arresting point of view, descriptive language, freshly inventive metaphors, extensive character development, and tantalizingly instructive anecdotes, all of which blend into morsels of unforgettable lessons and incomparable teaching moments.

I thought I knew a lot about the travels and travails of the blues people during the several migrations from the southern badlands, but Wilkerson provides another vista of comprehension, something that in her distillation of facts and figures transcends, but pays respect to, the harrowing legacies of the slave narratives, the autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and J.W.C. Pennington, “the fugitive blacksmith.”

Her riff on the picking of cotton is a tour de force and you can practically feel the prickly cups holding the fluffy bolls.   Here, Wilkerson recalls the ineffectiveness of Ida Mae Gladney—one of the three people she follows across time and space—in the cotton fields.  “She had never been able to pick a hundred pounds,” Wilkerson wrote.  “One hundred was the magic number.  It was the benchmark for payment when day pickers took to the field, fifty cents for a hundred pounds of cotton in the 1920s, the gold standard of cotton picking.  It was like picking a hundred pounds of feathers, a hundred pounds of dust.”

Later, to bring the snapshot of cotton picking into full focus, she notes, “It took some seventy bolls to make a single pound of cotton, which meant Ida Mae would have to pick seven thousand bolls to reach a hundred pounds.”  No matter the circumstance or event, Wilkerson illuminates them with brilliant back-stories obviously limned from the 1200 interviews she conducted.

But it’s her relentless pursuit of the journeys of her protagonists, Ida Mae, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster that is the scaffold over which she stretches her broad tapestry of African American history and the seemingly endless migration.   Getting to their destinations is spelled out with often gripping details, and there were times—given the riveting adventures they endured—that you didn’t want them to arrive too soon.

Foster’s drive to California, which anticipated many of the other migrants from Monroe, Louisiana, most notably basketball immortal Bill Russell and Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, is an exhaustive, yet exhilarating experience.   Driving alone and deep into the western night with no idea where he was going, you tremble with him as he speeds from the menace of Jim Crow, knowing full well that he couldn’t outrace racism.

As Wilkerson recounts, the trails beyond the Mason and Dixon Line followed the Mississippi River, for those destined for Chicago, Detroit and other parts of the Midwest; went westward to California, as the families of Russell and Newton traversed; or up the eastern seaboard for those migrants whose final terminal was in the nation’s capital, Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, or Virginia, as Wilkerson’s family had ventured.

Reading the book reminded me of my mother’s flight from Alabama with two sons in tow.   Wilkerson’s vivid descriptions of the various trains from the South put me back again on the Illinois Central on our way to the Motor City, slicing boldly through the black velvet night.  I am sure many readers will say amen to similar scenes as their forefathers and foremothers sought roads and rivers in search of the so-called Promised Land.

The conventional wisdom is that most of the migrants were motivated to leave the South because of the devastation of the cotton farms, many of them ravaged by the boll-weevil.   For Wilkerson, the menace of the boll-weevil is not a primary factor, because thousands left locations where cotton was not king, but nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan were in abundance.   She lists a number of reasons why the migrants chose to seek their fortune elsewhere, including following relatives, getting better wages and earning a better living, or just sick and tired of the South.

In the twenties, she reports, nearly a million blacks departed from the South, almost double those who had fled during World War I.  “It did not stop in the thirties, when, despite the Depression, 480,000 managed to leave,” Wilkerson continued.  World War II, she noted, brought the fastest flow of black people out of the South in history, when nearly 1.6 million left during the 1940s.  “Another 1.4 million followed in the 1950s…and another million in the 1960s, when, because of the barefaced violence during the South’s desperate last stand against civil rights, it was actually more treacherous to leave certain precincts of the rural South than perhaps at any time since slavery.”

Warmth of Other Suns, a phrase she lifted from Richard Wright, is so richly textured with black history and culture that with each turn of the page there’s more astonishing information, more factoids and patches of politics, economics, and anthropology that is part Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington. 

Indeed, the book is loaded with literary magic, laced with engaging bromides, and sniffs of tall tales and folklore, but more than anything it’s blessed with a writer who has thoroughly investigated the byways and highways of the migrations from the South, who has read the literature and winnowed the spice, and whose family and life mirrors the paths she has trekked.

I’ll say it one more time, if this isn’t a winner or nominated for the top prizes in nonfiction, I’ll eat this review.   And I’ll do it, Ms. Wilkerson, without the benefit of asafetida.

Herb Boyd

11-2-10

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