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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
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The Warmth of Other Suns

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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
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Oct 04, 2011 | ISBN 9780679763888

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ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times • USA Today • O: The Oprah Magazine • Publishers Weekly • Salon • Newsday • The Daily Beast

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New Yorker •  The Washington Post • The Economist • Boston Globe • San Francisco Chronicle •  Chicago Tribune • Entertainment Weekly • Philadelphia Inquirer • The Guardian • The Seattle Times • St. Louis Post-Dispatch  • The Christian Science Monitor


“A landmark piece of nonfiction . . . sure to hold many surprises for readers of any race or experience….A mesmerizing book that warrants comparison to The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann’s study of the Great Migration’s early phase, and Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s great, close-range look at racial strife in Boston….[Wilkerson’s] closeness with, and profound affection for, her subjects reflect her deep immersion in their stories and allow the reader to share that connection.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
The Warmth of Other Suns is a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration… Wilkerson combines impressive research…with great narrative and literary power. Ms. Wilkerson does for the Great Migration what John Steinbeck did for the Okies in his fiction masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath; she humanizes history, giving it emotional and psychological depth.” The Wall Street Journal

“[A] massive and masterly account of the Great Migration….A narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars, yet so immensely readable as to land the author a future place on Oprah’s couch.” The New York Times Book Review (Cover Review)

“[A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book. . . .Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of….This is narrative nonfiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.” —Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

The Warmth of Other Suns is epic in its reach and in its structure. Told in a voice that echoes the magic cadences of Toni Morrison or the folk wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston’s collected oral histories, Wilkerson’s book pulls not just the expanse of the migration into focus but its overall impact on politics, literature, music, sports — in the nation and the world.” Los Angeles Times

“One of the most lyrical and important books of the season.” Boston Globe

“[An] extraordinary and evocative work.” The Washington Post

“Mesmerizing. . .” Chicago Tribune

“Scholarly but very readable, this book, for all its rigor, is so absorbing, it should come with a caveat: Pick it up only when you can lose yourself entirely.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“[An] indelible and compulsively readable portrait of race, class, and politics in 20th-century America. History is rarely distilled so finely.”Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)

“An astonishing work. . . . Isabel Wilkerson delivers! . . . With the precision of a surgeon, Wilkerson illuminates the stories of bold, faceless African-Americans who transformed cities and industries with their hard work and determination to provide their children with better lives.” —Essence

“Isabel Wilkerson’s majestic The Warmth of Other Suns shows that not everyone bloomed, but the migrants—Wilkerson prefers to think of them as domestic immigrants—remade the entire country, North and South. It’s a monumental job of writing and reporting that lives up to its subtitle: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” —USA Today
“[A] sweeping history of the Great Migration. . . . The Warmth of Other Suns builds upon such purely academic works to make the migrant experience both accessible and emotionally compelling.” —
The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written, in-depth analysis of what Wilkerson calls “one of the most underreported stories of the 20th century. . .  A masterpiece that sheds light on a significant development in our nation’s history.” —The San Jose Mercury News

The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written book that, once begun, is nearly impossible to put aside. It is an unforgettable combination of tragedy and inspiration, and gripping subject matter and characters in a writing style that grabs the reader on Page 1 and never let’s go. . . . Woven into the tapestry of [three individuals] lives, in prose that is sweet to savor, Wilkerson tells the larger story, the general situation of life in the South for blacks. . . . If you read one only one book about history this year, read this. If you read only one book about African Americans this year, read this. If you read only one book this year, read this.” —The Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

“A truly auspicious debut. . . . The author deftly intersperses [her characters’] stories with short vignettes about other individuals and consistently provides the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative…Wilkerson’s focus on the personal aspect lends her book a markedly different, more accessible tone. Her powerful storytelling style, as well, gives this decades-spanning history a welcome novelistic flavor. An impressive take on the Great Migration.”  Kirkus, Starred Review

“[A] magnificent, extensively researched study of the great migration… The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Not since Alex Haley’s Roots has there been a history of equal literary quality where the writing surmounts the rhythmic soul of fiction, where the writer’s voice sings a song of redemptive glory as true as Faulkner’s southern cantatas.”The San Francisco Examiner

“Profound, necessary and an absolute delight to read.” —Toni Morrison
The Warmth of Other Suns is a sweeping and yet deeply personal tale of America’s hidden 20th century history – the long and difficult trek of Southern blacks to the northern and western cities. This is an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation.” —Tom Brokaw
“A seminal work of narrative nonfiction. . . . You will never forget these people.” —Gay Talese

“With compelling prose and considered analysis, Isabel Wilkerson has given us a landmark portrait of one of the most significant yet little-noted shifts in American history: the migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West.  It is a complicated tale, with an infinity of implications for questions of race, power, politics, religion, and class—implications that are unfolding even now.  This book will be long remembered, and savored.” —Jon Meacham
“Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an American masterpiece, a stupendous literary success that channels the social sciences as iconic biography in order to tell a vast story of a people’s reinvention of itself and of a nation—the first complete history of the Great Black Migration from start to finish, north, east, west.” —David Levering Lewis

“Isabel Wilkerson’s book is a masterful narrative of the rich wisdom and deep courage of a great people.  Don’t miss it!” —Cornel West


Anisfield-Wolf Book Award WINNER 2011

Heartland Award WINNER 2011

Hurston/Wright Legacy Award WINNER 2011

Mark Lynton History Prize WINNER 2011

NAACP Image Award WINNER 2010

National Book Critics Circle Awards WINNER 2010

New York Times Editors’ Choice WINNER 2010

Sidney Hillman Prize WINNER 2011

Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award WINNER 2011

Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction FINALIST 2011

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson
1.      What is the meaning and origin of the title, The Warmth of Other Suns?
I was reading the footnotes of the Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, one day, and discovered a particularly moving passage on page 496, a passage which is a story unto itself.
When Wright wrote his 1945 autobiography, the Book of the Month Club insisted that he cut the second half (about the North) and change the title from American Hunger to Black Boy. He wanted the book published so he conceded to their request. But that left the book without the ending it needed so he hastily came up with an alternative passage. Because he was forced to write quickly and succinctly, the passage summarized in a way he had not achieved in the text itself the longing and loss of anyone who has ever left the only place they ever knew for what they hoped would be a better life on alien soil.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to excavate it. I felt it was poetry, beautifully rendered but invisible, buried as it was in the footnotes. When it came time to submit the manuscript, I pulled out the most moving phrase for the title, The Warmth of Other Suns. It was a working title at best because my editor and I were still not convinced it was the one. At a meeting of executives at Random House, however, the question came up again and someone remembered this same passage and settled on the very phrase, I had originally identified. My mother, who migrated from Georgia to Washington, D.C. during the Great Migration, and knew what it meant to leave your own sun for another, believed from the moment she heard it that it should be the title.
The question of the title set me on a course of trying to understand just what the sun means to us, what it gives us and what it takes to defy the gravitational pull of your own solar system and take off for another far away. Richard Wright consciously chose to call the cold North the place of warmer suns. It showed how determined he and millions of others like him were to leave a place that had shunned them for a place they hoped would sustain them, the need of any human being and the gift of any sun.
2.      How widespread is the Great Migration?  How many people experienced it?  Can most African-American families in cities like Chicago, LA and New York trace their origins back to similar places in the South?
Some six million black Americans left the South for all points North and West during the decades of the Great Migration, which lasted, statistically, from World War I to the 1970’s. At the start of the twentieth century, ninety percent of all black Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, some forty-seven percent were living outside the South. 
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these migrants make up the majority of African-Americans in the North and West. Most African-American families in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and elsewhere can trace their origins back to the South.
Vast as it was, however, the Great Migration is not purely about the numbers but about the lasting effects of so many people uprooting themselves and transporting their culture from an isolated region of the country to the big cities of the North and West. They brought the music and folkways of the South with them and created a hybrid that has become woven into American life as a whole.
3.      How did you find Ida Mae, George, and Robert, and why did you choose to focus on them instead of others you interviewed?  Tell us a bit about your research, and why these three people stood out to you.
It took eighteen months of interviews with more than 1,200 people to find the three protagonists in the book. I interviewed seniors at quilting clubs in Brooklyn, senior centers in Chicago, on bus trips to Las Vegas with seniors from Los Angeles. I scouted for people at union meetings of retired postal workers and bus drivers and at AARP meetings on the South Side of Chicago. I went to Sunday mass in Los Angeles and Baptist churches in Brooklyn. I went to funerals, libraries, senior dances and the southern state clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago.  Essentially, I went everywhere I could think of that would attract large numbers of black seniors who might have migrated from the South.
I went to some of these places enough times that people began to recognize me. I kept running into this one woman at Creole events and at Sunday mass in Los Angeles.  The woman had migrated from Monroe, Louisiana. She heard the kinds of questions I was asking, and she came up to me and said, “I know the perfect person for you.”  She gave me Robert’s name and number.
At a meeting of retired transit workers in Chicago, a woman signed an information sheet I had passed around to gather names of people who had come from Mississippi and Arkansas. The woman wasn’t signing for herself. She was signing for her mother who had never been a transit worker but had come up from Mississippi. Her mother was Ida Mae. George, the third protagonist, introduced himself after Sunday service at a Baptist Church in Harlem and immediately began telling his story.
The goal of the search was to find one person for each of the three streams of the Migration (East Coast, Midwest and West Coast) through whom to tell the larger story of the entire phenomenon. They each represent not only different migration streams but different backgrounds, different motivations for leaving, different outcomes and different ways of adjusting to the New World.  Together, their lives tell a more complete story of the Migration than has ever been told before.
4.      In the process of telling their stories, what did you discover about why some people thrived in their new circumstances, while others did not? 
As the stories unfold, many lessons emerge. One is insight into longevity and what it takes to survive the harshest of lives and come out whole.  Another is a redefinition of success and accomplishment. A third is the varying ways migrants adjust to their circumstances, how they learn to make peace with the past, or not and how that adjustment affects their happiness.  Each of the three protagonists adjusted to their circumstances in completely different ways. One turned his back on the South and created a new identity for himself, going as far as to change his name. He never fully found peace. Another moved between worlds, never fully reconciling one with the other. A third, Ida Mae, took the best of both worlds, never changed from who she was, and was the happiest and lived the longest of all.
5.      Could you give us a few examples of well-known people whose lives would have been different, and perhaps would not have been possible, had it not been for the courage of those who left the South?
Many famous Americans were products of the Great Migration, and there’s no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South. Some might never have existed because their parents met in the North. Among the children of the Migration are: Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, the astronaut Mae Jemison, the producer Sean “Puffy”Combs, the leading neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, the artist Romare Bearden, the playwright August Wilson and many others.
Each of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really. They were among the first generation of blacks in this country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of parents or grandparents who knew it was too late for themselves to truly benefit from the advantages of the north but knew it was not too late for their children.
One such parent, an ambitious sharecropper wife in Alabama, convinced her husband that their family should migrate to Cleveland in the 1920’s. The father was so worried that, as they were packing, he had to steady himself on the shoulders of his nine-year-old son.  The boy felt the father’s hands shaking and only then realized the gravity of their situation. The boy’s first day at school in the North, when the teacher asked his name, he told her it was J.C., which was short for James Cleveland. The teacher couldn’t understand his southern accent and just called him Jesse instead. From that day forward he was known, not by his birth name, but by the one he had mistakenly acquired — Jesse Owens. He went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin becoming the first American in the history of track and field to do so in a single Olympics and disproving the Aryan notions of his Nazi hosts.
6.      Do most of the children who are products of The Great Migration know about their parents’, or grandparents’ experience leaving the South?  If not, why do you think there is a kind of reluctance to talk about the “old country”?
Most children of the Great Migration know the basic facts of where their parents came from. But one reason the larger story of the Migration hasn’t been fully told is because many families haven’t talked about it much.
When the parents or grandparents left, many left for good. They didn’t look back – it was just too painful. Some had experienced or witnessed violence. Many endured persecution. All had suffered the indignities of caste.  Some felt shame or embarrassment over being southern and rural now that they were living in big, sophisticated cities. 
Like immigrants who change their names or choose not to teach their children the language of the old country, some migrants created new northern identities for themselves and didn’t pass along their stories to their children and grandchildren or take their children back to their homeland.
Others, however, surrounded themselves with people from back home and never left the South in spirit. So, children of the Migration grew up with differing connections to the South depending on their parents’ connection to it and their parents’ ability to make peace with their southern past, or not.
7.      How did this influx of southerners to Northern and Western cities affect the urban landscape of America, and American culture as we know it?
It would be hard to imagine cultural life in America had the Great Migration not occurred. American music as we know it was one of the gifts of the Great Migration. Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them, shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and, ultimately, the music their children and grandchildren created.
The three most influential musicians in jazz – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane – were all children of the Great Migration, their music and their collaboration informed by their southern roots and migration experiences.  Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina, for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen.  Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used alto sax once he got north.
Motown simply would not have existed without the Great Migration.  The parents of Berry Gordy, the company’s founder, migrated from Georgia to Detroit during the migration. Gordy was born and raised in Detroit, where he later recruited other children of the Great Migration as talent for his new recording company, Motown records.
8.      What was the cost to the South of this enormous migration?  In what ways was this domestic migration similar to the immigration of foreigners to the U.S? In what ways was it different?
The South lost vast numbers of its most ambitious workers to the Great Migration. In some cases, entire plantations were left empty of workers. Southern authorities responded swiftly to stem the outflow of its cheap labor. The South reenacted anti-enticement laws from the time of slavery to keep blacks from leaving. The authorities imposed fines of up to $25,000 to anyone caught recruiting black workers north or helping them to get out. Police arrested blacks from railroad platforms, shut down ticket counters to blacks trying to get out, and when those things failed, simply wouldn’t let trains stop at stations where large contingents of blacks were waiting to board.
The accomplishments of well-known migrants, such as B.B. King, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, along with the exponentially larger corps of influential children of the Migration show the cost the South paid as a result of the Great Migration. To this day, the South lags the North in many economic indices, such as wage scales, life expectancy, property values, cost of living and cultural influence in this country. These are complicated economic issues that result from many internal and external forces. But the loss of so much intellectual and creative talent and the fact that those who left comprise the bulk of the success stories of African-American life in this country can only hint at the unknowable price paid by the South as a result of the loss of so much talent and manpower.
This domestic migration was similar to most any other immigration experience in that the people had to make the hard choice to leave the only place they had every known for a place they had never seen, just as any other immigrant must do. The interior sense of loss and longing, of being torn between worlds, never quite fitting in, making sacrifices for the next generation are all universal to the human experience of migration.
The Great Migration differs and is, in fact, tragic because these people were already citizens. In a just world, they shouldn’t have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship. Birth in this country alone should have assured that for them. The realities of race and caste in the South forced them to leave to claim their citizenship. But once in the North and West, they ran into resistance and hostility and had to work even harder to prove themselves, often being pitted against immigrants from other countries, who, in fact, had more in common with them, as landless serfs themselves, than many of them truly realized.

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