Developing empathy, studying history, and listening to the stories of people different from me is vital to be a flourishing citizen. And books like The Warmth of Other Suns by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson have helped me, as a white woman, begin to understand history and develop such essential empathy for minorities in America. This book is one of the most profound and needed historical books about the African American struggle in our country anyone could read at this moment.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a captivating, gorgeously written book of African American history. It’s not about the horrors of slavery or the Civil War. It’s not primarily about famous African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks (although they do make appearances). The Warmth of Other Suns is about the period from 1915–1970 when African Americans began what historians now call the Great Migration from Southern states to Northern states. This phenomenon did not ring a bell from my history classes in high school.
Writes Wilkerson about the migration:
Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.
Six million African Americans would migrate from the South to the North over the course of a few decades. That’s a staggering number—and the numbers themselves beg the question, why? Why did I not learn of this in school; and why did six million African Americans flee the only homes they knew in vast numbers that match the death toll of Holocaust victims?
Both are important questions, and the stories about this Great Migration are important to our nation’s current dialogue.
Wilkerson aptly describes the reasons for the Great Migration throughout her book, but she doesn’t give only facts. She tells stories. This is why The Warmth of Other Suns stands out to me more than any other book might on this topic. Wilkerson interviewed over a thousand people to find the heart behind statistics and facts.
With vivid storytelling, Wilkerson lays out the lives of three very different individuals—from their impoverished childhoods all the way to their deaths almost a whole century later in newfound homes. Through her interviews, she paints the stark background of corruption, violence, and poverty many African Americans endured in the South.
On lynching, a common occurrence in Southern states, Wilkerson relates the realities of growing up an African American man. Describing horrors such as the case of Claude Neal—who suffered torture, lynching, and dismemberment after being accused of raping a white woman whom, it was later discovered, was possibly murdered by her relatives—helps me understand the historical context of the fear that plays into the lives of African Americans to this day.
In recounting the story of George Starling, one of the survivors Wilkerson highlights, she says, “Surrounded as he was by the arbitrary violence of a ruling caste, it would be nearly impossible for George or any other colored boy in that era to grow up without the fear of being lynched.”
In fact, many historians have argued that the Great Migration has more similarities to a mass immigration (i.e., immigration—when people flee their own country to another country because of war, famine, etc.; as opposed to migration—when people simply move to another place for varying reasons).
“The Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world. Where oppressed people…go great distances, journey across rivers, deserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”
However, many African Americans suffered the same kinds of injustices that refugees tend to face when they tried to resettle in the North. Wilkerson relates the exploitation from Northern companies, the violence and poverty that greeted many African Americans in big cities, and the fear of white neighborhoods that reacted strongly to African Americans purchasing homes in their areas.
In other words, finding their way to the North was not necessarily a Happily Ever After for many African Americans.
This all sounds familiar. The stories that fill my newsfeeds are similar. History has a way of repeating itself if past errors are not addressed. It seems to me that if I don’t understand where a whole people group has come from, and what they dealt with both in the South and the North, then I cannot understand the context of the conversations unfolding today.
For example, I didn’t understand the pain and sometimes questioned the cries of African American mothers whose sons were brutally murdered, nor the concept of police brutality. But grasping the historical context of lynching and brutal violence (which was completely legal) toward African American men brings a glimmer of empathy and causes me to start asking questions and delve deeper into complex modern issues. Is violence okay when it has to do with African American men, and do I (even if subconsciously) view them as more disposable?
Another example: Because of poverty, it was hard for African Americans to afford houses. They faced unfair landlords and real estate agents who many times refused to give them decent prices. When an African American did succeed in owning and finding a home in a decent neighborhood, then the white neighbors would panic (sometimes violently, with riots akin to anything African Americans experienced in the South). In fact, white people began fleeing to new suburbs to avoid having to associate with black people, which they felt made neighborhoods depreciate. Thus segregation continued in a more passive form in many major cities. This is a cycle repeated today. Is this right? And maybe it’s worth checking my heart and wondering why, as a white person, I would ever think minorities are somehow a threat to my neighborhood?
Some object and say, “Well, all immigrants have it hard! It’s just that way when you’re settling in somewhere new.” Yes and no. Being Irish, I’ve studied Irish immigration. They were a people who suffered intense discrimination as they made their way to America fleeing gross tyranny, starvation, and violence at the hands of the English.
Being “white” is not a free pass on hardships. It can be rough for many immigrants who try to settle in America. I don’t think any story of oppression should be left out, because that does us all disservice. However, because many immigrants were Caucasian, “white,” as long as they assimilated quickly they were eventually forgotten. An Irish immigrant’s family could become another safe, clean, white family with enough hard work.
This is not the case for minorities with black or brown skin. They forever stick out, no matter how hard they work to make better lives for their children. I think this is something I need to acknowledge, pondering the implications.
The cycles of injustice are there—even today—simply because of someone’s ethnicity. And as a white person, it is my duty to understand history, to ask hard questions of myself, and to fight systemic injustice wherever I may find it. For only when all are treated fairly will dysfunctional cycles stop in society. The Warmth of Other Suns is a good place to start when wanting to deeply look at issues still reoccurring today.
My final summary: If you read one book this year, make it this one.