Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth Of Other Suns is one of those rare books that cracks open the world and makes you see everything you thought you knew in a different light.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist chronicles the massive migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South, where racism was still entrenched, to the North and West. This happened from 1915 to 1970 and forever changed the country, especially the makeup of the big cities.
While Wilkerson's scope is large, and takes in history, labour, urban planning and sociology, and includes some beautiful quotes from the writers of the time (the title comes from a Langston Hughes poem), she also focuses on the lives of three unique individuals who made the move in different decades.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left the cotton farms of Mississippi for Chicago in 1937; George Starling, a bright and ambitious man who was run out of Florida for organizing fruit pickers, escaped to Harlem in 1945; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster left his middle-class Louisiana family in the 1950s to become a doctor, eventually making his way to Los Angeles, where he became, among other things, Ray Charles's personal physician.
Their stories are as gripping, full of life and moving as anything in a novel. Some scenes will stay with me forever, such as the account of Foster's long and lonely drive west, where, despite being out of the south, he could find no motel or hotel who would rent him a room - all because of the colour of his skin. Years later, when he's an established professional, Foster and his wife and friends are turned away from a Las Vegas hotel, even though Sammy Davis Junior is performing there.
There are lynchings in the South, but there are fights, bombings and fires in the North. The story of how one black family is shown it's not wanted in the largely white Chicago neighbourhood of Cicero will make you weep for humanity.
Still, there is the possibility of freedom and opportunity in the north. If not in one generation, then the next. Wilkerson's list of famous African-Americans whose families migrated north reads like a who's who of success.
Wilkerson uses scholarship to quash all misconceptions. Black migrants from the South were on average better educated than those who stayed and soon would have a higher level of education than the blacks they joined. The black migrants of the 1950s had more education even than the northern white population they joined. And contrary to common belief, the black migrants were more likely to be married, remain married and less likely to bear children out of wedlock and head single-parent households than black northerners.
I also didn't realize that migration patterns were dependent on what transportation line was available. Speaking of transportation, there's a theory that Newark, New Jersey became a popular destination because Southerners, unused to Yankee accents and not wanting to miss their stop, mistook the "Penn Station, Newark" for "Penn Station, New York."
This book is filled with lots of fascinating details like this.
After reading this back in February, I've since read books by James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, both of them part of the great migration north (although Angelou's mother sent her back south to Alabama to be raised by her grandmother - a common occurrence).
I have a few quibbles. Wilkerson will often repeat stories to remind you of what's happened to a person before (understandable in a book of this scope), but if you're a close and careful reader that might irritate you.
And I wish there were some photos. On the author's website, however, you can see some fantastic shots of her three subjects so you have a visual to go along with their unforgettable stories.