I recently read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. The full title of the book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book is a non-fiction exploration of how and why six million black people left the American South over the course of six decades in the 20th century and what happened when they reached their destinations. Although The Warmth of Other Suns is technically a history book, many of the themes of racism and segregation continue today. I saw in its pages the origins of some of the worst aspects of my city and my country. This is an important book about the present as well as the past.
The Great Migration had no official start or end but is considered to have taken place from about 1915 through 1970. During that time, six million black southerners left their homes, fleeing the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow in hopes of finding better lives in the North and West.
The Warmth of Other Suns primarily explores the the Great Migration through the stories of three people who moved from the South to some of the popular “receiving cities” during this time. George Swanson Starling went to New York. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster moved to Los Angeles. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney moved to Chicago. George had been picking fruit in the Florida citrus groves. Robert was a surgeon and veteran. Ida Mae was the wife of a cotton sharecropper. Three backgrounds. Three destinations. One movement.
All the stories were interesting, but I was particularly drawn in by Ida Mae’s sections because they showed the changes that occurred in the city I call home. Her experiences reveal the birth of what Chicago is today, including the origins of some of our biggest problems, especially racial segregation.
According to the book, Chicago’s black population grew from 44,103 (close to 3% of the population) at the start of the Great Migration to over a million by its close. As Wilkerson writes,
“By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.”
The book describes how black people were penned in to neighborhoods on the South Side. How when the black population in one neighborhood reached (exceeded, actually) its capacity and black people dared to move in to another neighborhood they were either greeted with threats and violence or their white neighbors would suddenly disappear. This is the reality that led to the extreme segregation that still exists in Chicago today.
A compelling theme of the book is what Wilkerson refers to as the “mirage of equality.” In the South, life for black people was brutal and unfair, but at least the rules were known. When people left to other parts of the country they did not escape prejudice and hate, but in those other places where racism was less blatant the rules of engagement were often unclear and unpredictable.
Even if a hotel in the North or West did not display a “whites only” sign it might suddenly run out of rooms when a black family arrived looking for a place to stay. Two black men might have a drink in the wrong bar and have their drinking glasses smashed in front of them to let them know not to return. Black people could work with and live near whites, but they would be paid less for their work and charged more for their homes than their white counterparts. The equality that the migrants craved was not as real as it had appeared when they were far away.
The “mirage of equality” continues today. The mirage is what allows people to think that it is sufficient to say that “all lives matter,” ignoring repeated examples when black lives matter less in too many situations. The mirage tries to tell us that since discrimination is illegal it must not exist.
The detailed, personal stories in The Warmth of Other Suns provide insights into the people of the Great Migration, where they came from, and where they went to that give a far richer understanding of this catalyst of American history than the generic definition of the Great Migration that you may have gotten in a history class. I recommend this book as both a way of understanding America’s history and America’s present.
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