The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is the story of Black Americans escaping the Jim Crow laws of the South as seen through the eyes of three subjects: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Wilkerson did a good job picking these people, as they illustrate her points, and come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
This migration starts just before World War I. It was made possible by the Industrial Revolution in the North. Blacks, now had an alternative to picking cotton for starvation wages. The railroad made it easy to move. Friends and relatives would write and beg them to come up to escape the lynchings and beatings. Good jobs were waiting. At least until the Great Depression, but by then the trickle of blacks northward had turned into a steady stream.
Wilkerson relates personal stories illustrating the corrosive nature of racism not only on the Black families but on the White families too. I would like to read more about how those systems got put into place in the first place. Were they reactions to seismic changes or were they gradual? The personal stories save this from being a dry research volume and are the strongest draw of the book. A good editor would have cut this book in half putting the research in as an introduction and summary. Then would collect each of the three stories into separate sections to preserve the narrative. Instead Wilkerson interleaves the stories, which is confusing. When she returns to pick up the tread of a previous narrative she often repeats parts of it over again- it gets repetitious at times- and the book is already too long.
The writing is pretty good, (See the excerpts below) and the stories are compelling. Robert Foster comes across as a bigger than life figure.
I will recommend the book but be prepared to slog through some dry chapters.
Amazon Book Preview of The Warmth Of Other Suns
My Kindle Excerpts/Notes From The Book
If they had not gone north, what would New York look, like? What would Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Oakland look like? – location 264-65
Not unlike European Jews who watched the world close in on them slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism, colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go. – location 693-96
Frederick Douglass saw his health fade just as everything he spent his life fighting for was falling apart. He said, in his last great public lecture, delivered in Baltimore in January 1894, a year before his death, “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.” – location 737-40
“It was like getting unstuck from a magnet,” he said. – location 4109
She did not see herself as taking any kind of political stand. But in that simple gesture, she was defying the very heart of the southern caste system, and doing something she could not have dreamed of doing–in fact, had not allowed herself even to contemplate–all those years in Mississippi. – location 5607-9
He had a chess-like series of encounters with Mayor Richard J. Daley, the mayor-boss of Chicago, who managed to outwit the civil rights leader at nearly every turn. For one thing, Daley knew not to make the same mistakes as his southern counterparts. – location 7172-74
Daley’s police force didn’t let any white mob get near them, which kept the protests off the news and kept the movement from gaining traction, just as Daley had hoped. – location 7176-77
By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hyper-segregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least:
- Gary, Indiana
- Los Angeles
- St.201 Louis
all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration. – location 7372-77
It wasn’t that he was against the civil rights movement. He was all for standing up for one’s rights. It was just that, to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it. – location 7598-7600
“Although many blacks sought initially to reach an assimilated position in the same way as did the new European immigrants,” Lieberson noted, “the former’s efforts were apt to be interpreted as getting out of their place or were likely to be viewed with mockery.” – location 7721-23
But he couldn’t understand why some of the young people couldn’t see it. Maybe you had to live through the worst of times to recognize the best of times when they came to you. Maybe that was just the way it was with people. – location 7776-77
James and Eleanor can’t understand how they do the things they do, how they would rather trawl the streets than go to work every day and be able to hold their heads high. – location 8544-45
Here it is, fifty years after most of them left, and they can’t stop talking about the South. They are exiles with ties to two worlds, still obsessed with the Old Country, and have never let it go. – location 8783-84
“I don’t know why you staying up here,” some of them have been telling George. “Better get out from here while you can.” It reminds George of how people talked during the Migration. “People saying the same thing they said before, just in the reverse,” he says. – location 8910-12
It took World War II and the even bigger outflow of blacks to awaken them to what some agricultural engineers working on a mechanical harvester already knew: “Much of this labor is not returning to the farm,” Harris P. Smith, the chief of agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University, wrote in 1946. “Therefore, the cotton farmer is forced to mechanize.” – location 9806-9
A central argument of this book has been that the Great Migration was an unrecognized immigration within this country. The participants bore the marks of immigrant behavior. They plotted a course to places in the North and West that had some connection to their homes of origin. They created colonies of the villages they came from, imported the food and folkways of the Old Country, and built their lives around the people and churches they knew from back home. They took work the people already there considered beneath them. – location 9846-50
..nearly every black migrant I interviewed vehemently resisted the immigrant label. They did not see themselves as immigrants under any circumstances, their behavior notwithstanding. – location 9857-58