Tuesday, January 07, 2014

America's Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: 
The Epic Story of America's Great Migration 
by Isabel Wilkerson

“Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration. Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.”   ― Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson's history of Black migration from the south in the twentieth century is a book from which I expanded my knowledge of this major historical event of twentieth century America. She interviewed more than 1,200 people for this grand history, focusing primarily on the personal stories of three Black Americans. While telling these stories the book intertwines a general history and statistical analysis of the entire period. The specific people were: a sharecropper's wife who left Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago, named Ida Mae Brandon Gladney; an agricultural worker, George Swanson Starling, who left Florida for New York City in the 1940s; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana in the early 1950s, for Los Angeles.

The use of these personal stories served as a means of demonstrating the overall theme of the migration of large numbers of black Americans out of the old South and into the Northeast, Midwest, and West of the United States. Each story is narrated over the course of the books in chronological vignettes of each life. Together these vignettes provide a biography of the whole of the lives of the three protagonists, if you will, and demonstrate the impact of the migration through their individual and family experiences. The author deftly interspersed their stories with short vignettes about other individuals; she also inserted general overviews of the migration into the narrative from time to time. The process consistently provided the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

The story-telling approach gave this history a novelistic flavor. However, reading the stories I felt a repetition due to overlapping material;  while some of the inserted stories were only tangentially related to the main theme of Black migration. The stories of the three individuals who provided the main portion of the book were rendered believably through sympathetic portrayals of the unique vicissitudes of their lives.  I particularly enjoyed the story of Robert Foster, the doctor who migrated to Los Angeles and, like the others, overcame much adversity to attain his personal dream. Overall the history was epic in its scope and Wilkerson's imaginative approach to the story made this an interesting and informative book.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I had heard a lot of good things about this book.

It is surprising about the repetition. One would think that Wilkerson could somehow avoid this. Of course maybe that was part of the point that she was trying to make.

James said...

The repetition occurred in part due to the organization of the book into small vignettes about the three primary characters. The author frequently repeated events she had already depicted. This may have been done as an aid to the reader (an aid this reader found annoying)or it may just be the result of poor editing. The writing style of the book is not its main attraction.
If you are looking for examples of great writing about history I would encourage you to pick up any book by Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough, to name two who set the standard.