Monday, October 10, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson's ( National Book Critics Circle award winning book was the perfect companion piece to my tour of South Africa. The irony of the fact that sanctions were placed on South Africa's Apartheid regime (by most civilized countries but notably NOT by the United States), while our own citizens were suffering under the more sinister, unspoken rules of Jim Crow, was not lost on me.

 In fact, while I was drawn to and loved the quote from Richard Wright's Black Boy regarding the "warmth of other suns," I wondered toward the end of this phenomenal book whether or not Ms. Wilkerson was using the title sarcastically. The truth is that the families whose lives she scrupulously follows over a forty year time period were not welcomed with warmth as they migrated from the cotton fields of the south to the factories of the north. Because the prejudice was more nuanced than the do's and don't's of the south, they wounded even more deeply and were more difficult to navigate.

It's no mystery why Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. The Warmth of Other Suns reflects years of in-depth research yet there isn't a dry moment in this almost 600 page volume. For those who like to catagorize things, this is one of those "non-fiction that reads like fiction" type of books. It's one that needs to be read in sections and then put aside for a while for something lighter, then returned to. These stories are true and they're not easy to take.

How does one begin to tell the story of "America's great migration?" The subject matter is so enormous, the task of getting her mind around it must have been daunting. Ms. Wilkerson wisely chose to follow the lives of three disparate families as representatives of the whole, a theme that personalizes the struggle for readers the way no history book could. I'll admit to having had some  knowledge of the flight of black families from the south as my friend Don's mother was one of those who followed an aunt from Mississippi to Los Angeles, California in the late 30's.

George Swanson Starling's story was the most eye-opening for me. A citrus fruit picker from Eustis, Florida, George was an early activist for better pay for field workers and, with a couple of years of community college under his belt, was seen as "too big for his britches." He chafed under the harsh treatment he suffered and knew himself well enough to understand that he'd end up at the wrong end of a rope if he didn't escape. Harlem was his destination.
Florida, I'm sorry to say, has an abominable history of civil rights violations, lynchings, and burnings of whole towns, just read about Rosewood, yet it doesn't often suffer the stigma of the so-called deep south of say Alabama or Mississippi.

Ida Mae Gladney had family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but put down roots in Chicago where the South Side was becoming home to a future black middle class like Michelle Obama's parents. Dr. Robert Pershing, a surgeon good enough to operate on soldiers during WW II, but not able to touch a white patient in his own hometown, Monroe, Louisiana, endured the humiliation of the cross country drive to California without the respite of a bedroom or a bathroom along the way, only to find that LA would not greet him with open arms. It took him several years to achieve his goals and bring his wife and children west to join him in the land of mild and honey.

These families are not set up as gods but are portrayed with all the warmth and humanity of any family just trying to do better than the previous generation. They give honest interviews and Wilkerson does not shirk from illuminating their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are simply fellow Americans with all the foibles and nobility of each of us.

Please, do yourself a favor and delve into this incredible book. If we are ever to learn from our mistakes, avoid repeating a shameful piece of our history, or want to understand why some believe that reparations in the form of education or a leg up is due to the families of sharecroppers and former slaves, then books like Wilkerson's or Rebecca Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are must reading. It's easy to visit other countries and shake our collective heads at the rights violations that we see but it behooves us to remember that "he among us who is without sin can cast the first stone."

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