Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day Two: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, is a beautiful piece of narrative nonfiction that tells the story of a mass relocation that, over time, would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people in the 1930s.

Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals -- Ida Mae Brandon Gladney in 1937, George Swanson Starling in 1945, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster in 1953, who left Chicasaw County Mississippi, Wildwood, Florida, and Monroe, Louisiana, respectively -- to chronicle the great untold story of the migration of black citizens from the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life. This pilgramage began during WWI and did not end until the 1970s and would set in motion changes throughout the country that would take nearly a lifetime to play out -- impacting music, cuisine, religion, culture, city structures, and more.

During the Great Migration, the author's parents journeyed from Georgia and from southern Virginia to Washington, DC, where Wilkerson was born and reared. She is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African American to win for individual reporting. She is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.

The people in this movement left the South because "they were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay."

"The would cross into alien lands with fast new ways of speaking and carrying oneself and with hard-to-figure rules and laws....The places they went were big, frightening, and already crowded -- New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and smaller, equally foreign cities -- Syracuse, Oakland, Milwaukee, Newark, Gary."

These migrants did not "cross the turnstile of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such." When the Great Migration began, 10% of black Americans lived outside of the South; by the 1970s, almost half did.

This is a gorgeously written story of a fascinating and little-told story in American history, and it's selling like hotcakes. And I'm not alone in thinking this is a great book: Janet Maslin of the New York Times picked it as one of her top ten books of 2010. If you're thinking about giving this as a gift this year you probably don't want to wait too long to come get a copy, or two -- I'm thinking you might want one for yourself as well!

Here is a video clip (8 minutes) of the author being interviewed on PBS.

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