Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
While I found The Warmth of Other Suns enlightening in many ways, I was truly astonished by the revelation that African Americans leaving the South during the early years of the Great Migration (a period from about 1914-1970), had to escape in the same manner as slaves did earlier. Plantation owners, housewives, owners of citrus groves and industrialists all depended on cheap African American labor to maintain their lifestyles. When African Americans wanted to go north to seek social freedoms, some regions enacted laws to prevent their leaving. Others used intimidation and violence. People left in the dead of night, abandoning their goods for fear that if they had been seen packing, they’d be arrested. Some even tried tricks out of the pre-Civil War days such as hiding in coffins and having those shipped north.
The Warmth of Other Suns largely follows three migrants who left the South in three decades–the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband picked cotton and raised turkeys in Mississippi to scrape out a living. They were sharecroppers, and thus had to give the plantation owner half of all they raised. While their balance sheet at the end of each year wasn’t in the negative as many sharecroppers’ were (most sharecroppers were consistently cheated and had no means of redress), they decided to leave after a cousin was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and severely beaten for it. When the vigilantes discovered that they were wrong, they showed no remorse. Ida Mae herself was nearly slashed with a chain during the incident. And so the couple left to Milwaukee and then Chicago in 1937.
George Swanson Starling (not Ida May’s husband, whose name was also George) was a good student and had completed his sophomore year of college. But his father said he wouldn’t continue to pay for George’s schooling. In a fit of anger and hoping to get back at his father, George married a young girl who was a bad match for him. He had to work picking oranges in Florida groves. Tired of the work and of being taken advantage of, George tried to organize for better wages during World War II. At the time, many men were away at war, and there was a shortage of workers, giving African Americans some hope for leeway in their working conditions and wages. But George became known as a troublemaker, and, fearing for his life (he’d heard grove owners were planning a ‘necktie party’ for him), he fled to New York in 1945, later bringing his wife.
Pershing Robert Foster was the bright son of educated parents. His father was a high school principal and his mother a teacher at a segregated Black school. Though Pershing’s parents only made 43% of the salary of white teachers, they managed to save and send their kids to college. Pershing’s older brother was a doctor, but he could attend only to Black patients, who had little money to pay. Pershing had dreams of financial and social success. He married a girl from the Atlanta African American upper crust, one whose father was an university president. He enrolled in the Army as a surgeon. After his tour of duty, he decided that California is the land of dreams and moved there in the 1953, hoping to bring his wife and children out after he established a practice.
All three families had a very rough go, even after they left the South. Prejudice still existed, even if it wasn’t written into the law. (A good example is the way all motels were always ‘full’ when Pershing Robert was looking for a place to sleep as he drove to California. Another is how African American neighborhoods in the North had very steep rents while apartments were substandard.) Life in the big cities was rough in ways new to country people who knew nothing of the drug abuse and crime that could (and did) swallow their children. Nevertheless, looking back, they were glad for their decision to flee. They had more control over their lives once out of the South. They could vote and had better jobs.
High school housekeeping: The Warmth of Other Suns covers an important aspect of American history. It is very much worth reading. A high school student who reads at grade level should have no problem enjoying the book as background information is included. In addition, by following the lives of three people, the author increases the readers’ interest in their fates because we feel like we know them. There are enough facts and statistics to prove that some of the bias against African American migrants from the South–such as the sense that they had high birth rates and less education than others in the cities to which they fled–are not based in reality. The author’s comparison of the Great Migration of African Americans to immigration to a new country is also an interesting parallel for students.
Note: The author uses the terms colored, Black, and African American to describe the people whose stories she tells because she wants to situate the reader in the time period she is addressing. So–don’t be surprised at the use of outdated vocabulary.
It’s always great to hear about engaging non-fiction writing. This book is a great documentation of the injustices in the past. The parallels between those past problems and todays troubles make this book is an important read.