Author Isabel Wilkerson
Updated: July 4, 2013 6:11AM
People care about their own. Their own families, their own religion, own race. We lavish our concern on people we love the most — people like ourselves — while pretending it’s the result not of some primal bond, but of a rational, logical process. When it comes to others, our sympathy often falls off a cliff. We hardly even notice.
Despite the fact that, if one thing allows this modern world to exist, it is our success at suppressing tribal loyalties and coexisting.
Thus anything that encourages empathy, anything that breaks down the wall of indifference we have for people not exactly like ourselves, is a good thing, and why I’ve been raving about Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. It escaped my notice when published in 2010. Not my people, not my table. But I opened an envelope from the Chicago Public Library, which had picked the book this year for its One Book, One Chicago program, and wanted the public to know. I shrugged my shoulders and started to read.
To say Wilkerson’s book is about the Great Migration, the 50-year exodus of African Americans from the rural South after World War I, is like saying that War and Peace is about the Napoleonic Wars. True, in a limited sense. Wilkerson’s achievement, like Tolstoy’s, is she takes something huge and historic — the movement of millions of blacks from their brutalized lives of near slavery in the South to northern ghettos in places like Chicago — and puts it on a human scale. She forces the reader to care.
Wilkerson does this by focusing on three very real people— Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster — and their serpentine journeys to become, respectively, a humble Chicago church lady, a dignified New York Pullman porter and a flashy LA doctor.
The book begins with their dramatic escapes from Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, backtracks to youths spent figuring out a cruel system of head-bowed subservience in a South where a black person “was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.” The facts in the book can still stun. In Birmingham, it was illegal for blacks and whites to play checkers together. One county in Virginia closed its entire public school system for five years rather than integrate.
Facing this reality, millions left. Quietly sold what little they had, slipped to the next town and spent their money on train tickets.
It “was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking,” and one of the book’s many joys is seeing the befuddlement of southerners when they realized their field hands and scullery maids were walking away. The book is not without fun — Ray Charles shows up, a patient of Dr. Foster (and tucks his name into a song). Barack Obama has a late cameo, lecturing a community meeting. Delta Air Lines is named for the Mississippi delta it originally served.
Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people to write this book, including her mother, and her style glows with affection for those who found the courage to leave. “There was something earnest and true-hearted about them,” she writes. “They greet people on northern sidewalks a little too quickly and too excitedly for the local people’s liking and to the stricken embarrassment of their more seasoned cousins and northern-born children.”
I thought I was an empathetic guy before. But reading The Warmth of Other Suns put the lie to that — it warmed up a frozen ventricle in what I belatedly realized was just another of the tiny cold anthracite hearts that white people typically possess when it comes to the woes of African Americans, a dynamic we see constantly in a nation that requires a Newtown massacre to fill it with enough sympathy to let a little slosh onto Chicago’s urban murders, with a senator who can find $30 million to put 18,000 black teens in prison, solving his problems if not theirs.
The book isn’t perfect; at 550 pages, some I’ve talked to found it overly long. I didn’t. I’m not ashamed to say I cried when I read parts, wiping my eyes with the heel of my hand.
The book resonates with life today. “Where can we go to feel the security which other people feel?” a lady in Alabama says in 1902, which might be asked in parts of Chicago now. Maybe it’s time for another exodus.
Or maybe the next liberation needs to come internally. As much as I think white Chicagoans ought to read this book, it should also be forced upon every African-American teen, in the hope that more will realize just what their grandparents endured to win the freedom they too often cavalierly toss away.
The book addresses — but does not really explain — how so many migrants’ grandchildren became lost to drugs and hopelessness. That’s another book, one that I’d read, now.
“No laws could make frightened white northerners care about blacks enough to permit them full access to the system they dominated” she writes. That’s true today too. But this book might, if only people read it.