Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns ought to be required reading for all Americans, black or otherwise. It tells a story that most of us know tangentially but whose true scale and historical importance are appreciated by few.
In the early to mid- twentieth century, millions of African-Americans departed the deep South, where many still worked as sharecroppers on the same plantations on which their ancestors slaved, to seek a better life in the metropolises of the North. The resulting demographic shifts were seismic: the black population in states like Mississippi and South Carolina decreased by more than a third, while that of Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit increased ten-fold in the space of a few decades. They sought better wages, equitable treatment, and the freedom to live and work where they pleased. What they found was a new set of hardships that, cold as their reception was, usually represented an improvement over the lynchings and Jim Crow culture of the South.
None of this is ground-breaking stuff, but it was always something that I vaguely knew without ever thinking much about. “The Great Migration” was never on the curriculum of any US history class I ever took.
What is remarkable about Wilkerson’s book is her ability to bring these migration stories to life and to give them the historical significance that they deserve. She interweaves the stories of her three primary subjects, each of whom grew up in a different Southern state and moved to a different Northern city, with research about broader historical trends and with the stories of famous migrants (Ray Charles, Richard Wright, John Coltrane) and of her own family.
Her prose is artful but crisp, and although Wilkerson fills 640 pages in the Hardcover edition, her book never feels slow or drawn out. She is, after all, telling the story of millions that spans half a century.
We begin in the South, with the young adulthood of her three principal characters: Ida Mae Gladney is born to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers and soon goes to work picking cotton herself, George Starling gets to attend a few years of college before his father can no longer afford the tuition and he must return to Florida to seek work in the orange groves, and Robert Pershing Foster is the privileged (relative to other African-Americans in his town) son of a principal and schoolteacher who completes medical school but realizes that he will never become the surgeon he wishes to be in Texas.
All three experience hardship and persecution and eventually feel compelled to leave their homes altogether to seek opportunity in the North. The difficulties entailed by such a decision were among the most eye-opening parts of the book for me. As the Great Migration got into full swing, the South began to realize how much its economy depended on the cheap labor of its black “citizens”, who were nominally free but in practice could not vote or exercise many of the other privileges that that word usually entails. Entire trains full of migrants were sometimes turned around by local authorities, and many had to flee in the middle of the night for fear of arrest or worse. Leaving was a crime in some towns, as was recruiting African-American laborers, which didn’t stop Northern industries from sending agents to promise better pay and treatment in their factories for those who moved.
Wilkerson’s subjects move to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, respectively, but soon find that, although there are no Jim Crow laws on the books, the North is segregated and discriminatory in its own ways. African-Americans could find apartments only in certain neighborhoods, and even then only at exorbitant prices that often required multiple families to share a space barely large enough for one. Poker actually makes a brief cameo in the book, as a particularly profitable element of the “rent parties” often held at the end of a month to help raise rent money:
Tenants stood to make the most money if they got the partygoers playing poker, and George was all for it. There were some people from Eustis, Florida, living up on Seventh Avenue, between 146th and 147th Streets. They lived right next door to each other and started running their parties simultaneously. “We just go from one house to the other,” George said. “We get tired of playing over to Freeman’s, or we get mad with him about something, and we go over to M.B.’s. We go from one house to the other. We would be gambling the whole weekend.” When they got tired of the people on Seventh Avenue, they went over to the Bronx, where the Blye brothers had a sister named Henry living over at Third Avenue and Seventeenth Street, and played some more. The wives and girlfriends served the gin and bourbon and the grits and eggs and biscuits and smoked pork from the pork store down the street, the big poker players never getting up from the table, shoveling forkfuls of grits into their mouths between hands. They were playing five-card stud, and sometimes there were so many people there’d be two or three games running, people just in or visiting from Eustis and Ocala, people who had been in Harlem for years, hustlers who made a life out of circulating at the gambling tables of the rent parties to beat the tenants out of their own rent money. It was an open invitation, after all.
Eventually the characters become parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Some of their progeny exceed their wildest hopes and go on to Ivy League universities and high-paying jobs. Wilkerson reminds readers more than once that great artists such as Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and Miles Davis would not have flourished had their parents not moved North to give birth, literally, to the Harlem Renaissance. Others get caught up in drugs and crime, breaking their parents’ hearts and leaving them wondering whether moving North had really provided a better life for their families.
Through it all, Wilkerson expertly treads the fine line between novelist and historian. The narrative is presumably cobbled together from thousands’ of hours of interviews but mostly presented in the omniscient third person, which probably makes the non-fiction purists squirm. Yet the result is deep characters with compelling stories that, though at times heart-wrenching and tragic, are rarely sentimentalized or sensationalized. The characters have their flaws, and Wilkerson makes of them neither angels nor victims. They are human beings with human responses to dramatic events, testaments to both the strengths and the weaknesses of the millions of African-Americans who undertook The Great Migration.