The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

September 30, 2011 

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a testimony to the 20th Century African American struggle when the railroad to freedom was no longer underground but remaining for some a journey no less fraught with danger and resistance. Isabel Wilkerson painfully details the life stories of three migrants who escaped the oppression of the Jim Crow South. From 1915 to 1970 six million Blacks joined the exodus abandoning the confederate states for the promise of a better life elsewhere–most often northern industrial cities. It was a time of lynching, voter suppression, intimidation, systematic disenfranchisement, oppressive labor conditions and terrorism by lynching and bombings.

The title The Warmth of Other Suns is borrowed from Richard Wright’s quote
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. On a broad canvas Wilkerson paints a riveting and moving account of the racism and injustice faced by Blacks throughout the 20th Century and looking back one wonders what did Southern White America expect to gain from Jim Crowism. It ultimately hurt the South retarding its economic development.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Perching Foster, were from Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana respectively. Ida Mae was a cotten picker, mother, sharecropper’s wife and later matriarch. Dr. Robert Joseph Perching Foster a graduate of Morehouse and Meharry escaped the boondocks and bayous to live out the high life he dreamed of but not without his own tales of woe discrimination and humiliation. George Swanson Starling a fruit picker whose labor organizing activities on behalf of blacks forced him to flee Florida with white vigilantes on his heels.

Wilkerson carries us through the life stories of the three sharing their hopes and dreams. We rejoice at their milestones and achievements, despair with their loss and challenges, and finally mourn their deaths. And what do we learn? According to one reviewer “if the Civil War was fought over black freedom, then it appeared during the decades following the war that the South won. Until World War I came along, that is. The Great War marked the beginning of one of the most important and under appreciated revolutions in American history.” We learn the stereotypes of Black Southerners invading northern cities corrupting communities was not so. They brought a strong work ethic, were at higher education level than northern Blacks and Whites, and overall maintained stable married households. If anything they were corrupted.

The Warmth of Others Suns is a scholarly study delivering a history lesson and told through the eyes and in the words of Americans discounted and devalued by white society throughout their lives. It’s a moral story we should never forget. Without such works like Wilkerson’s future generations may never know the full extent of the struggle suffered by those who came before us, and no doubt we stand on the shoulders of giants.

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