By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Catching up with Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece about the Great Migration

Photo (cc) 2013 by Howard County Library System

At some point I realized I was never going to sit down and read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson’s monumental history of the Great Migration. I decided to do the next best thing and listen to the audiobook, and I’m glad I did. Told principally, though not exclusively, through the lives of three African Americans who left the South in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, “The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010) is really nothing less than the history of the United States in the 20th century.

During the Great Migration, from around 1916 until the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, about 6 million Black people moved from the South to Northern cities in order to escape the racism of Jim Crow era. Of course, they encountered plenty of racism in the North as well, but it was less deadly and less restrictive than what they had experienced back home. For instance, one of Wilkerson’s protagonists, Ida Mae Gladney, left Mississippi after a family member was beaten to within an inch of his life on a false accusation that he had stolen turkeys. The next day, the turkeys wandered back from wherever they had been — and Ida Mae and her husband, George, soon left for Milwaukee before settling in Chicago.

Also portrayed are George Starling, who escaped to New York just ahead of a lynch mob that aimed to kill him because of his work in organizing Florida’s orange pickers, and Robert Foster, a gifted surgeon who left Louisiana for California rather than settle for a career as a country doctor caring exclusively for poor Black patients.

Wilkerson writes with considerable depth and empathy. The narrator, Robin Miles, never falters during the nearly 23-hour production, sharing Wilkerson’s words with warmth. Of course, I wish had a copy of the book marked up with highlights and notes — that’s the disadvantage of listening rather than reading. But I’m glad I was finally able to experience Wilkerson’s magnificent achievement.

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1 Comment

  1. Sharon Hessney

    Wish you had the book marked up with highlights and notes.

    The book is definitely worth reading and doing this.

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