Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Hardcover, 622 pgs, Pub Sept 7th 2010 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780679444329, Lit Awards: Mark Lynton History Prize (2011), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction (2011), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Nominee (2011), Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction (2011), Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction (Runner-up) (2011) National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (2010), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction (2011), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for History and Biography (2010)

In the future, people will probably mistake the the origin of the phrase ‘the warmth of other suns’ to be this big book on America’s Great Migration, when it fact Wilkerson credits the phrase to a poem of Richard Wright’s that she uses as an epigraph:
"I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom."
The beautiful, elegiac poem expresses regret one had to leave some of one’s roots behind in order to ‘transplant’ elsewhere. Wilkerson interviewed about 1,200 people and did subsidiary research to collect & corroborate enough impressions and remembrances that she felt comfortable in this period and could supply details others forgot.

I'd be willing to bet she used techniques similar to those used by the author of one of my favorite histories, the award-winning Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union. Alexievich’s journalistic technique uses the general experience to elucidate the personal, though Wilkerson also did extensive interviews with the three main subjects of her narrative.

The Great Migration covered the period 1915-1970; Wilkerson’s own attention span covers a period of about one hundred years, from 1910-2010. The three different sets of migrants whose lives she uses as examples did not know one another, and all three were alive when she began her research; all three had died before she’d finished. George Starling moving up the eastern seaboard from Florida to Harlem in New York City; Ida May Gladney moved from Mississippi to Chicago, part of the midwest migration; and Robert Foster moved from Louisiana to California, an experience about which I knew the least.

The book is huge with detail. It can’t be rushed, and those who read or listen to it regularly, recognizing it may take weeks to get to it all, may enjoy it best. There is a rhythm to the telling; it is long-form story-telling, and it adheres to an oral tradition. One can certainly make the case that, since Wilkerson conducted interviews for the bulk of her narrative, this is in a long line of family histories passed down orally from generation to generation. The experiences she recounts fills in holes some discover in our own family histories. We can now imagine what the migrants must have encountered.

In charts showing the movement of African Americans from the South to different parts of the country in the last century, Los Angeles and cities in California got only a third or smaller proportion of what Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia settled. Boston and New York were in between those two.

One incident Wilkerson recounted that shook me badly was the story of the attempted integration in the summer of 1951 in Cicero, an all-white town on the southwest border of Chicago. The mob mentality that took over the reason of the so-called white people—and it should be noted this was a broad swath of first- and second-generation European immigrants—when they learned a black couple had rented an apartment is horrifying, terrifying to recount. The couple’s belongings and the apartment were destroyed…on day one. The next three days brought a full-scale riot that needed the National Guard to subdue.

Boston is not specifically mentioned in this history, but the New York experience plays a large part. Wilkerson makes reference to the Northern Paradox, a term coined by the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal:
“In the North, Myrdal wrote, ‘almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs’—that is, by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed, avoiding social interaction overall.”
Considering African Americans apparently occupied approximately 25% of the population in these two cities, I’d have to agree that the discrimination, in Boston at least, is subtle, hidden, denied since most neighborhoods until recently were clearly segregated.

Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for Chicago October 14, 1929, and eventually ended up voting for Barak Obama as senator of Illinois. In describing cooking and eating corn bread the way it was made when she was coming up, she says
“Now you put you some butter and some buttermilk on it,” she says, “and it make you want to hurt yourself.”
I’ve never heard that phrase before, but it sure covers a number of addictive activities.

In describing Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s life in California, we get an indelible picture of the man by the way he remembered the clothing he and his wife wore at eventful moments in their lives.
“He remembered one night in particular. He was wearing a black mohair suit he ordered specifically for the occasion from the tailor who dressed Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. He wore a black tie with a burgundy stripe, a white tab-collar shirt, gold cuff links, black shoes, black silk socks, and a white handkerchief with his initials, RPF, embroidered in silver.”
He doesn't mention it here, but elsewhere he mentions this black mohair jacket has a scarlet silk lining. How can one begrudge a man who is so enthusiastic in his compositions? There is such joy there.

The last individual detailed in this book, George Swanson Starling, was memorable for what he did not accomplish. His family held him back from finishing college, so George married an unsuitable woman and left home for the North.
"It was spite," George would say of the decisions he made at that moment in his life…"That’s why I preach today, Do not do spite," he said. "Spite does not pay. It goes around and misses the object that you aim [at] and goes back and zaps you. And you’re the one who pays for it."
A truer lesson was never told.

I used Whispersync to listen/read. Robin Miles narrates and her reading is perfect in pace and clarity. Ken Burns gave an intro to the audio edition which was not reproduced in the kindle version. He says, basically, "This is must-read nonfiction, essential to our understanding of race. I loved this book" and more. We haven’t had this kind of history told in this way before. Allowing this history to inform the construct that is your life will change that life a little bit.

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