Isabel Wilkerson has all of the receipts. Setting out to understand the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South and into other regions of the country, she drew on scholarship, she drew on hundreds of interview, she drew on the archives of dozens of organizations, and she arrived with a great work of synthesis, a book whose pages encompass the most significant domestic migration in the history of the United States. It is, she writes, “three projects in one. The first was a collection of oral histories from around the country. The second was the distillation of those oral histories into a narrative of three protagonists, each of whom led a sufficiently full life to merit a book in his or her own right and was thus researched and reported as such. The third was an examination of newspaper accounts and scholarly and literary works of the era and more recent analyses of the Migration to recount the motivations, circumstances, and perceptions of the Migration as it was in progress and to put the subjects’ actions into historical context.” (p. 540)
Wilkerson not only interviewed a vast swathe of people before selecting her three protagonists, she “confirmed or clarified [the protagonists’] accounts through interviews with the waning circle of surviving witnesses, cohorts, and family members, through newspaper accounts in the South and North dating back to 1900; and through census, military, railroad, school, state, and municipal records. (p. 541) She spoke with the people “for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours, most of the interviews tape-recorded and transcribed.” (p. 541) She not only spoke with as many people as she could find to tell and corroborate the stories she relates, “I then reenacted all or part of each subject’s migration route, devoting most of my time to the migration of Robert Foster.” (p. 541) She has been there and done that, seen every bit of the journey, gotten it all down and made as much sense as one person can of a movement so vast that it touched practically every corner of a continent-spanning nation.
What Wilkerson is too modest (and too smart) to remark in her notes that discuss how she put the book together is that the stories she chose are riveting. Wilkerson is aware of the scholarship and draws on it, but as she writes, “I began this work because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who experienced it. Because it was so unwieldy and lasted for so long, the movement did not appear to rise to the level of public consciousness that, by any measure, it seemed to deserve.” (p. 539) She describes three goals for the book: to describe when the Great Migration took place, to depict where it occurred, and to show some of the people who comprised it. “I wanted to convey the intimate stories of people who had dared to make the crossing. I wanted to capture the vastness of the phenomenon by tracking unrelated people who had followed the multiple streams of the Great Migration over the course of the decades it unfolded.” (p. 539)
Wilkerson dates the beginning of the Great Migration to 1916, but anyone who left the South as an adult in those early years would have passed away by the time that Wilkerson started her work in the 1990s. From the preliminary work that she did, she chooses to focus on three people who left three different Southern states for three different points elsewhere, one each from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Chickasaw County, Mississippi in late October 1937 with her husband and two children, catching the train out of the county for the first time in their lives and headed to Chicago, though of course no one was to know it lest someone put a stop to it and call them back to work next year’s crop as they had worked the last. George Swanson Starling left Wildwood, Florida on April 14, 1945, two days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, happy to escape the central Florida orange groves with his life. He had been organizing fellow pickers to gain better wages and better working conditions, and the white bosses did not like that one little bit. That kind of trouble was more than Starling’s life was worth in the 1940s South, and he left town on the down low, headed to New York. Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster left Monroe, Louisiana in April 1953, headed for California to escape a caste system that allowed to rise in a limited world, but never to be a full member of the whole society.
The Warmth of Other Suns follows Ida Mae, George, and Robert (Wilkerson generally uses their first names when writing about them) as they leave their parts of the South and work to make new lives in the Midwest, North, and Far West. Wilkerson begins the book with their respective departures, and then circles back to give more context, both general and particular. The Great Migration began in the 1910s and did not end until the 1970s. “Over time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s. But more remarkably, it was the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free.” (p. 10)
Wilkerson tells the stories of her protagonists’ lives in full, for they are all old by the time she meets them, and not all of them live to see the publication of The Warmth of Other Suns. Each of them is an individual, with different experiences and temperaments, different joys and sorrows, yet they are also parts of a larger story. Wilkerson shows the commonalities while respecting the uniqueness of each of them. Ida Mae leads a more settled life than she might have expected. I read The Warmth of Other Suns before I read Becoming, and now I can’t help but wonder how far apart the two women’s families lived. It can’t have been all that far, although the Robinsons came from a different part of the South than the Gladneys, so there would not have been that old-home connection to make an overlap more likely. George goes back to Florida far more often than he would have imagined when he first boarded a train heading north. Robert becomes a physician to the stars in Los Angeles, a local legend.
“[Robert] has come all this way and is living in a 5,000-square-foot monument to his success in California. But the most enduring accomplishments you cannot see: the cooks and teachers and postal workers all over southern California who would do just about anything for him because he had saved their lives or brought them into the world or repaired some broken piece of themselves. And the three daughters whom he spared from having to go to segregated schools in the South and who grew up free with their cotillions in California.” (p. 471)
George did not rise so high, but “He did not begrudge the younger generation their opportunities. He only wished that more of them, his own children, in particular, recognized their good fortune, the price that had been paid for it, and made the most of it. He was proud to have lived to see the change take place.” (p. 420) As a young girl, “Ida Mae soon discovered that, when it came to white people, there were good one and bad ones like anything else and that she had to watch them close to figure out the difference. She was too good-natured to waste energy disliking them no matter what they did but looked on them as a curiosity she might never comprehend. She learned to give them the benefit of the doubt but not to be surprised at anything involving them. This alone probably aided decades to her life.” (p. 32)
The Warmth of Other Suns is, start to finish, in general and in detail, a brilliant book.