Written by Isabel Wilkerson and Reviewed by John Strikwerda
The Warmth of Other Suns changed how I view my country. This book deals with the Great Migration, the movement of over six million black citizens from the South to the North between 1915 and 1975. This significant movement of people profoundly changed both the South and the North.
The migration is often neglected in histories because it had no leader and no organizers. People followed their friends and relatives to a better life. Most left in secret, fearing reprisals if their employers learned they were departing.
Although it is history, the book reads like a novel. It follows three real people, Ida Mae from Mississippi, George from Florida, and Robert from Louisiana. Ida Mae and her husband left the cotton fields for a better life in Milwaukee and Chicago. George was a small-time labor organizer in the citrus groves who fled for his life to New York City. Ironically, he became a railway porter and had to revisit places he’d rather avoid. Robert was a physician, but limited in his profession, so he left for California where he developed a successful practice despite discrimination.
The three stories are intertwined, allowing for comparisons of the reasons each had for leaving, their adjustments to new places, and dealing with the consequences. Additional comments place their individual experiences in the context of general events in society.
The stories reveal the evils of Jim Crow laws and the danger in opposing them. That brutality was a primary impetus for many to leave, even though each person had their own reasons.
In the North and the West, a black citizen didn’t have to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached. They could sit in front on a public bus. Unfortunately, northern and western cities had their own discrimination, even if it wasn’t as directly life-threatening. The book discusses the social conflicts in stark terms and shows how each of the main characters came to terms with them.
Ida Mae, George, and Robert are treated with compassion and honesty. They made mistakes, they tried to rise above racial discrimination, and they struggled to survive with their families. They are my fellow Americans and I’m honored to know their stories. Reading this book impressed on me the obligation to do what I can to make real the dream they had of a better life.