Released last year to widespread acclaim, Isabel Wilkeron’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a hugely ambitious, thoroughly humane account of the Great Migration. An exodus that saw some six million African Americans leave the South for cities to the North and West between the years of 1915 and 1970 and completely reshaped American society.
Despite its importance, the story of the Great Migration remained untold and misunderstood, and Wilkerson states that she began writing the book because of what she saw as “incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened.” The process of completing the story would take Wilkerson 15 years. In this time she would conduct over twelve hundred interviews, travel the length and breadth of the country retracing the paths of the migrants, and distill this sprawling, collective experience into a moving account of the pursuit of happiness.
At once intimate and expansive, The Warmth of Other Suns follows three participants in the Great Migration and uses their individual stories to explain the movement as a whole. Moving deftly between these small-canvas exploration of individual lives and larger historical accounts, Wilkerson describes the movement in all of its warmth and complexity. In doing so she helps complete our understanding of one of the greatest episodes in American history.
The book received many awards, among them the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction and the NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Debut. Isabel Wilkerson is the first African American woman in the history of journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting. The Warmth of Other Suns is now available in trade paperback here. Philly readers can see Ms. Wilkerson at the Free Library on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 pm.
I spoke to Ms. Wilkerson over the phone about the immigrant experience, Philadelphia, and The Grapes of Wrath.
You devoted 15 years to researching and writing this book and it’s immediately recognizable that it’s just a massive undertaking. What did those 15 years look like? When were you doing research, when were you doing interviews?
Thanks for the reminder [laughs]. You know, I didn’t actually have a schematic when I was going through those years because i never imagined that it was going to take 15 years. And it’s a good thing I didn’t know because I don’t think I would have embarked upon it. I just wouldn’t have even started if someone had told me up front it’ll take you 15 years to do this [laughs].
What ended up happening was I went out looking for the protagonists first. I knew from the beginning that it was a massive exodus of people, involving six million stories and [was thinking about how to make] 6 million stories come alive for a reader. I knew the book would have to feature three people and each of those people would represent one the three major streams of that migration; the one up the East Coast, which of course carried people from Florida through Virginia up to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York; the Midwest stream which took people from Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas to Chicago and beyond; and then the one to the West Coast.
So I knew I was going to have three people, each of whom would have left during a different decade and for different reasons in order to give the reader a sense of the breadth and the scope of the migration. They would have been in three different socio-economic groups, they would be leaving three different parts of the south for three different parts of the north and the west, based upon the route they were representing, and they would also need to be people who would stand out on the page. People you’d want to get to know, people you’d see yourseld through. And also, people who were not perfect, but were at peace with their imperfections and willing, because this is non fiction, to be up front about both their strengths and their foibles.
So I had to find three people and I spent almost two years just looking for them. That’s where the twelve hundred interviews came in, they were ostensibly auditions, you might say. It was like a casting call for the people who would be the three principles.
And after you found them?
Then I needed to get to know these people and spend time with them. At that point it was like being an ethnographer in that you’re spending time with [the characters], doing the kinds things they do, seeing what their life is like, and then going back to the South with those that were willing to do so. All of that took years, and was the great bulk of the time. They were in three different cities so I was doing a lot of interstate travel. I was also going to the three states they were from. I spent a large portion of my time hearing their stories – for many many months and ultimately years depending upon which one you’re speaking about. So all of that took a very long time, and then some of them began to get ill, and I was spending a lot of time, in some ways, as an honorary family member. I’d go in and see them in the hospital, or whatever the circumstances might be.
At a certain point I had enough information from interviews to write and then I began the work of doing the archival work. When you’re doing this kind of work with people who are of a certain generation there is the occupational hazard that they’re not going to be around forever, and there’s this race against the clock, both to find them and then to spend as much time you can before it’s too late. So I made the decision to focus in on the people even before i knew all that i might possibly know about the facts and the research about the great movement as we know it. It was the people first and the archive second.
I live in Philadelphia, and you’re speaking here soon. You mention the city a few times in the book, and I was wondering if you plan on speaking about Philly’s relationship to the Great Migration?
One of the things that’s quite delightful about a book such as this, is that i can pretty much go to any city and find a connection and it’s quite natural. Philadelphia is in the book in several places even though it wasn’t the direct route of any of the people in the book, and I mention the city everywhere I go because there’s not a single talk where i don’t mention John Coltrane.
I just got back from the Netherlands – he’s revered there – and when they hear about how he arrived in Philadelphia as a teenager, and that it was there that he got his first alto sax, people are just blown away by the magnitude of a single decision by this individual; the decision to leave North Carolina for Philadelphia and the implications that it has for people who revere him all over the world. [Because there is] the idea that he might have never discovered this genius, this great talent in himself, had he not left.
And in some ways his departure [from North Carolina and] his arrival in Philly is, in example, the very nature of the whole story that I’m writing about. The idea that [so much] might have been lost had these people not made the decision that they made. So yes, I mention Philadelphia everywhere I go.
I feel like there are so many examples of that in the book – when you note what is awakened in people when the potential for freedom is present, or when they find themselves in circumstances that allow them to pursue their dreams. Having conducted all of these interviews, did you find that this was a common experience?
Do you mean in the interviews with the twelve hundred people? Yeah, it’s in there, but there were six million people who participated in this migration, and that means there were six million precipitating events that would have lead each of them, on their own, to make the decision to become part of something that was so much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
In talking with those initial twelve hundred, spending so much time with the three that I ended up focusing on, and then looking at the few interviews that had been done at the time it began, the word that comes up a lot is freedom. Freedom to pursue whatever dreams they had, freedom to be able to just walk down the street and not be fearful that they must step off the sidewalk for someone of a different caste, freedom to be able to get paid for their work when many of the people in the South in this era were sharecropping and not being paid for their work.
So the idea of freedom and all that that means for any individual would be the unifying motivation for what they did, based on what I heard when I was interviewing people.
I also think it’s interesting that the freedom you write about is, in large part, a positive freedom. That it’s a freedom to do something, not only a freedom from persecution. I feel like that’s a concept that is typically absent from discussions of freedom in this country and I was wondering if that is a distinction you considered while writing the book?
I think that that is a really good idea, and I think the story of Dr Foster is a perfect example. He wanted to be able to, not just escape the oppression of the caste system that existed at the time that he was growing up and became a doctor, but he wanted to be able to practice as a doctor with all the accoutrements that any physician would need in order to do a good job. And also to be able to experience life in a bigger, freer, more cultured place than he felt he was leaving. He wanted to be able to be his fullest self, to be whatever he was supposed to be, and he felt he couldn’t do that where he was coming from.
Sometimes that meant the freedom to make a mistake. People don’t think about that. I mean, [Foster] became and extremely successful as a physician, but he also had his own deep insecurities and personal challenges and he became this inveterate gambler. But the freedom even to do that, to make of your life what you will, is what people were seeking.
I look at it this way, this migration was a singular, watershed moment in American history because it was the first time people who had been legally, forcibly held back for centuries were actually able to make a decision on their own, to leave, and to have the potential to live out their God given talents and gifts, whatever that might mean.
That’s why you have this flowering of all these people, the children who ended up being able to do these amazing things. August Wilson – the playwright from Pittsburgh – all of his work was about the Great Migration. Almost every single one of his cycles of plays was an examination of what is gained and what is lost by leaving your homeland and setting off for someplace else. Every single one of those plays. There was Romare Bearden, who went with his family to New York from North Carolina, and Jacob Lawrence, also a child of the migration, who created some of the iconic imagery of 20th century urban life. Toni Morrison, whose parents were form Alabama, had the opportunity to do something that they would never have been able to do which was just go into a library and get a library book.
That exposure would have been absolutely necessary for one to rise to the level that all these people have risen, even though that talent had been there all along, as it would be for any group of people. Any group of people that you might identify will have amazing, creative individuals, but if they never get a chance to make use of their gifts, then the gifts go unknown and unrecognized…they remain invisible perhaps to the person who has them.
You manage to describe the Great Migration as singular and specific but at the same time, in line with a common migrant experience. Did you make a conscious decision to describe it as such?
I always viewed it as a kind of immigrant experience within the borders of our own country because of my own childhood growing up in Washington DC where I was surrounded by the children of people from other countries. I always identified with them and found I found myself gravitating toward those who were first generation in this new world, just as I was. I was a child of course, and I didn’t think about it in those terms. I didn’t think about it sociologically or ethnographically or politically, I just naturally gravitated toward them and it was only in hindsight, in beginning work on this book, that I felt very much like the child of immigrants.
My parents were part of this Great Migration and the culture, the language, the values that i grew up with, that my parents naturally had and tried to instill in me, were the values and culture of the old country, whatever that country might be. They were strict, the food was different from whatever other people had in their lunchboxes when I went to school, there were turns of phrases. Although they became cosmopolitan as a result of their migration, there were aspects of their culture that entered my life growing up. And so it was kind of odd, living in two worlds in a way most people don’t think of African Americans as living in two worlds. You might think of people being in one world and then the main stream, but you don’t think of it in terms of an immigrant experience and then going into the mainstream. Even as a child, I perceived it as that.
The other thing that happened was as I began to conceive of the idea for the book and embark on the interview process there were several cultural stories that came out at around the same time. One was this book, and ultimately the movie, called the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, in which these Chinese women who immigrate to the United States deal with cultural and generational tension while raising their daughters. There is this generational tension because one is growing up free in the West and the other has memories of the challenges of growing up in the old country. As I was watching that movie and reading that book I so identified with that story. I said to myself, “that is my story.”
But no one would ever think that. So I was aware from the start that this theme would be a driving force in my approach to telling the story because I felt that there was such a strong connection and it was such a universal human story. Everybody has it in their background, to one degree or the other, it is a classic American story. Everyone can connect to the sense of loss and longing when you leave one place for another. I just felt it was a way to have everyone recognize the human, universal story underneath something that maybe we thought we knew about but really truly didn’t.
Did you read fiction and poetry during the research process to compliment, or was it mostly nonfiction?
I read Black Boy and I read The Street by Ann Petry, and of course Zora Neale Hurston. Many of those works do make an appearance in the book, either by direct reference or as the epigraphs for sections of the book. They’re almost like a Greek chorus, and they help to reinforce the universality and the scope of this migration because so many people we might recognize were a part of it.
But the book that probably had the greatest influence on me was The Grapes of Wrath. I read it like a textbook. We all know about the Dustbowl Migration, but as big as this Great Migration was there was no Grapes of Wrath for it. I’m not a fiction writer so I would not have even attempted such a thing, but I did feel the connection to the Grapes of Wrath because I wanted to be able to see what it was like to be on a journey like the Joads had been and I felt that this Great Migration, going in all these different directions to all the cities of the North the Midwest and the West, 6 million people going by train by bus, hoboing, driving, every which way that you could leave the south, that you could escape one place to another, they were taking it. And i thought that there must be a way to make it come alive as one experiences it in The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s what I set out to do.