Chances are, many book groups have already read and discussed Isabel Wilkerson’s marvelous The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). But, if you’re anything like me, and read more fiction than nonfiction, then you could have missed it.
I will confess that I often find nonfiction harder to read, so I read it more slowly. In the average year, I probably read 5% nonfiction and 95% fiction. But when I picked up The Warmth of Other Suns, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I turned the pages. I raced through it in about three days, swallowing up 500-plus pages while shaking my head, dog-earing pages, and crying. This compelling book chronicles the migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West from the 1920s through the 1970s, detailing the hardships and prejudice they faced through the stories of three individuals whose experiences highlight the bravery and fortitude it took for them to leave their families behind.
Through the personal stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert George Pershing Foster, Wilkerson illustrates how the Jim Crow South’s racist dictates had a ripple effect, creating deep inequities in housing and employment whose legacy is felt today. But these personal stories also illustrate the strength of character required to make it during America’s racist past and how the American Dream was never truly afforded to all at most points of our shared history. Wilkerson’s narrative includes the stories of men and women striving to raise families and to create better working conditions for themselves and others, while seeking the freedom that was promised in the Emancipation Proclamation but that was denied at every turn by racist laws and ideologies.
Black history is America’s history and
it’s time we started treating it that way.
In one story, medical doctor Robert George Pershing Foster treks across the country to start a new life in California. Despite his growing distance from the South, he still finds no hotels that will let him, a black man, stay overnight. His exhausting, 3,000-mile drive over several days and nights as he is turned away from refuge is a heartbreaking record of the perseverance it took for many to relocate in this country.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a triumphant work of narrative nonfiction, informative, emotional, intimate, and utterly engrossing. This would be a perfect book-group selection for Black History Month, or any time of year, as black history is America’s history and it’s time we started treating it that way.