publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,
In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. 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.
To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.
This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:
The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.
Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.
For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:
In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.
I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.
Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.
4/6: worth reading
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