The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is a real treat for anyone interested in American history. The book, 620 pages long including the index, took a while for me to plow through because it is so rich with cultural and historical tidbits about the Great Migration of African Americans from the north to the south and west, which lasted roughly from World War I to 1970.
I’m generally a fast reader, but this took me such a long time to get through because I kept stopping to look up particular names and riots and cities. It’s a very well organized book that focuses on three people who moved from various places in the south to northern and western destinations (Chicago, New York and Los Angeles) while at the same time couching their specific experiences within the overall dynamic of the Great Migration and the accompanying historic moments. Riots, lynchings and strikes play a prominent role in these tales.
Oh and Wilkerson gets nice with her pen. “The leaves were the color of sweet potatoes and of the summer sun when it sets.” Isn’t that pretty? That sure is pretty. When you read this, you will become completely engaged with the stories of her three subjects. You will be enraged at the overt racism and downright awful things that black people endured in those years. You will be amazed by the strength of sheer will.
On a side note, this book also inspired me to take another look at my family tree. As you all know, I’m super duper into genealogy. One of the stories I came across from my family tree was that of a great uncle who seemed to just up and disappear one day from rural Kansas in the first half of the 20th century as a very young man, still a teen. He had a somewhat common name, so I came across a few folks by that name who could have been him, but I was particularly intrigued by the 1940 census in San Bernardino, California. Right name, age, race, birth place, etc. Knowing a little bit about his particular home situation with his mom in Kansas and her parade of husbands (literally a new one for every census), I thought perhaps he moved mostly because of family strife. That could still be the case, but after reading this book, I started to think about the myriad other reasons why a young black man might flee rural Kansas for seemingly greener pastures. The jury is still out on that for his particular story, but I’m working on it.
So in short, go read this book. Today.