Elaine'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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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2016

On a plane so review to come. In the meantime, now more than ever this book is required reading.

Edited to add: In early July, there was an awful week when we watched video of (yet another, the 2nd in a week) Black man dying while men in uniform, having shot him, did nothing to help him, but instead ordered his girlfriend to keep her hands on the wheel, as her little girl, so heartbreakingly, offered useless comfort from the back seat and then we watched helpless as a sniper retaliated against officers in Dallas, killing 5, and our hearts - or mine at least - were so full and so bruised that it didn't seem possible to go on with the pain of this summer filled with "terror" of all kinds and an election that seems designed to do anything but alleviate this pain.

Anyway, during that week, I went to the gym where I am wont to engage in long philosophical discussions with K., the middle-aged Black man that runs the place - conversations that usually touch on everything in the news BUT race. I didn't know how to say anything meaningful, so I just said, "I'm so sad and angry right now, and I can't even believe we're still here in 2016 and, most importantly, I can't imagine what you are going through". And he told me a lot of things about his life - about growing up in Louisiana, post-Jim Crow, but still in an era when only 2 black kids could be on the Little League team, and his getting on meant someone else being moved off. About being an avid golfer and getting stopped time and time again by NYC policemen who find a Black man with a golf bag sinister...even when he is one block from the golf course. About going to certain clubs in NY in the '80s to play squash as an invited guest, and being shown the service entrance. And intriguingly, to me as a reader, he told me that in this week of terrible renewed pain, he had been urging the young people in his family to read The Warmth of Other Suns. He told me that this book was a talisman to him, and he read it and re-read it when he was trying to make sense of race in America.

I went home and ordered the book right away, and barely put it down for the entire week that followed. Did I know about Jim Crow? Sure I did, to a certain extent, but I knew about the heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights movement, and the more sensational moments of violence, and less about the wearing grinding horrific legal and factual subjection of Black people in every aspect of daily life. So too had the Great Migration merited a sentence or two in my American History II class, but there again, as is the wont in American History classes, it was presented triumphally, Black people pouring into the North to take well paid factory jobs. I didn't really know bupkus about the subject matter of this well-told and well-researched book.

There are three things that made this book exceptional for me: First, Wilkerson found great subjects, and the variety in the time and place and manner of their birth/migration/life out of the South made the book very rich. Second, she's a great story teller - the book is almost cinematic in some of its cliff hangers. Third, her repeated ties between the Great Migration and the immigration journeys taken by people like my great-grandparents, also fleeing hostile and often murderous legal regimes, helped me root the book more firmly in my own emotional experience.

So, the question I still wrestle with is why did K. tell me that this book is his talisman? I haven't had a chance to ask him yet. Maybe it comforts him to know that we as a nation, and his people as a people, are on a journey out of a very dark place, and it shouldn't surprise us, even if it deeply saddens us, that we haven't gotten to the end of that journey yet. I'm not sure. I'm only grateful that he got me to finally read this book.
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Reading Progress

July 12, 2016 – Started Reading
July 12, 2016 – Shelved
July 12, 2016 – Shelved as: 2016
July 20, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Cheryl (new) - added it

Cheryl And I'm happy to say I have it to read soon! Will be on the lookout for your review...


message 2: by Jo (new)

Jo Great review Elaine-especially how you came to read this book.


message 3: by Amy (new) - added it

Amy Prussack Hi Elaine: Sounds great! Have you read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie? I think maybe a fictional counterpart to the Warmth of Other Suns. Also, on a bit more popular level, The Invention of Wings--historical fiction about the Grimke sisters.


Dede Thanks for such a personal and heartfelt review, Elaine. This book has become a "must read" recommendation. Most of us only had a line or two from our history classes regarding the Great Migration. For me, it was only through appreciating Jacob Lawrence's paintings that I understood more. Isabel Wilkerson's book should be required reading. I was looking forward to your reaction and you did not disappointment!


Elizabeth I'm glad you finally got to read it, too! As you can tell from my own review, it had an enormous impact on me. I think about it often.


message 6: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Such a moving piece, Elaine.


Elaine Amy wrote: "Have you read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie? I think maybe a fictional counterpart to the Warmth of Other Suns. Also, on a bit more popular level, The Invention of Wings--his..."

Amy, I haven't read either of those - will check them out

Jo wrote: "Great review Elaine-especially how you came to read this book."

Thank you Jo!


Elaine ·Karen· wrote: "Such a moving piece, Elaine."

Thank you Karen!


Elizabeth wrote: "I'm glad you finally got to read it, too! As you can tell from my own review, it had an enormous impact on me. I think about it often."

And I was thinking about you in Chicago as I read. I could visualize the chapters in Harlem, but the geography of Chicago's South Side, which is very important in the later stages of the book was completely foreign to me.

Dede wrote: "Most of us only had a line or two from our history classes regarding the Great Migration...."

This book had me thinking about cirriculum the whole time. It's too long for high school classes, I think - but excerpts would work well. I know Jacob Lawrence's work, but I'm off to look it up.


Elizabeth I think I mentioned elsewhere that this was the "One Book, One Chicago" selection a few years ago. CPL had discussions and related events at many branches; I attended the discussion near my home. I would have like to attend one in an African American neighborhood, too, but couldn't work out the timing.


Elaine @elizabeth, I love the idea of One Book One Chicago. I'm quite involved with the Brooklyn Public Library - have to ask them if they have tried that.


message 11: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy Man, what a great story about the man at the gym. Also a great review!!


Elaine Thank you Judy. It's almost exactly 1 year since the murder of Philando Castile spurred that conversation and got me to read this book.


message 13: by Dede (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dede Terrific review!! This is such an important book.


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