The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2011)
This sweeping history of America’s Great Migration follows 3 characters who make their escape from Jim Crow, into the cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Among their stories, Wilkerson intersperses deeply researched history of the time (1915 through 1970), giving us a human, societal, and structural understanding of why six million African Americans fled the south and tried to make their way in northern cities.
Students will be compelled by the narratives’ emotional journey, and will glean the deep connections between The Great Migration and our contemporary struggles with racial equality, violence, and systemic oppression.
“From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.
Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.”
Why This Text Works
Length and Reading Assignments
The first thing students and instructors will notice is how long this book is–seemingly prohibitively so. And yet, the text works and can be read in a semester, partly because of the way it’s sectioned by theme and character. Students can find multiple trajectories in the text: each character’s migration story; life in the Jim Crow South progressing through the migration experience, and culminating in the new life in the North; historical successes and failures at fighting discrimination. You can think about the movements of the book in so many ways, and present the book with the narrative that most resonates with students.
Themes & Explorations
- Students’ family migration
- The Great Migration and Immigration today
- Racial profiling & stereotypes stemming from The Great Migration
- Housing, Job, and Education Discrimination
- Civil Rights Movements
- The Great Migration and the birth of traditions
- The effects of migration/moving on families
- Migration and Identity
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