Paul's Reviews > The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
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's review
Feb 27, 2012

it was amazing
Read in February, 2012

This book measures up to all the glowing praise on the back cover. It is history of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to the north, roughly from 1915-1970. The book is based on interviews of some 1200 individuals, in addition to bibliographic research on documents from that time period. In depth interviews of three main characters provide for a story-like ethnographic study that reads like fiction.

The book traces the migration north of three individuals providing all the reasons for their moving north, together with specific and graphic accounts of all they experienced. Ida Mae Gladney migrates to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1930s, George Starling from Florida to New York in the '40s, and Robert Foster from Louisiana to Los Angeles. Ida Mae picked cotton in the south and eventually worked as a nurse aid in Chicago. George Starling had 2 years of college, but picked fruit in Florida, working the rest of his life as a porter on the railroad. Dr. Foster as a physician built up a thriving practice in California.

Over 6 million black people moved from the south to the north during this time period. It was a spontaneous, leaderless people movement clearly motivated by the miserable Jim Crow treatment of blacks in the South. The stories told in the book, although recounted with restraint, nonetheless show the cruelty of the caste system that was a mirror image of slavery. And the accounts of lynchings, brutality, and vigilante "justice" are well corroborated and consistent with the historical facts. It was not easy to get away from the south, and most who left had to do so quietly. The story of Dr. Foster's drive from Monroe to San Diego in 1953 was believable, but hard to fathom how "colored" people could not even find places to relieve themselves in the pre-interstate drive across the continent--much less find a place to sleep. Even west of Texas, motel managers would claim there was no vacancy, despite the signs lighting up their lies.

A couple of short paragraphs can never do justice to this monumental work. Yes, it is a bit long at 550 pages of well-footnoted text; however, it reads like a novel with artistically crafted writing, structure, drama, and pathos. It is a sobering read, especially seeing the treatment received both north and south and the social problems that have seemingly gotten worse. However, there's no denying that the boldness and desperation of the migrants served to sound the death knell for Jim Crow and the gains of the civil rights movement.


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