There are moments in American history that everyone knows from their textbooks like the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights Movement.
But there are events from America’s past that have yet to be explored. Author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years recovering stories of African-Americans fleeing the South during the Great Migration, one of the underreported stories in United States history.
Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, said without uncovering these stories, seeing the world through the eyes of others — and empathizing with their journeys — it is impossible to rid the underlying racial and ethnic segregation that still exists in America today.
At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, Wilkerson will discuss where the U.S. stands on racism and the “unconscious caste system” that the country has fallen into since the Civil Rights Act “eradicated” segregation in 1964.
Wilkerson does not believe that the term “racism” accurately describes the current state of development in the U.S. She said it is much more complex than that.
“Everyone has such a strong feeling about what racism is and isn’t, and it can actually get in the way of moving forward because people don’t agree on what the definition is,” she said. “The term ‘caste system,’ for me, is more relevant in describing the multiple levels and layers that our country’s hierarchy of ethnicities, colors, genders and national origins get bound up in.”
Wilkerson’s July 18 op-ed piece in The New York Times, “Our Racial Moment of Truth,” relates the new Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman to recent events in America. The book reveals the fictional character, Atticus Finch, may not have been the moral hero that Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird made him out to be, which caused a “reassessment of who we were and what we might become.”
“Coming to terms with Atticus Finch as Harper Lee originally imagined him to be means confronting what the country wishes to believe it stands for,” Wilkerson wrote in the Times.
Although laws have been changed, there are unconscious biases embedded in America’s history that influence the thoughts, beliefs and actions of its citizens. Wilkerson relates these biases to the recent documented cases of police brutality against unarmed African-Americans and the massacre of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Because we have become so accustomed to this as our reality, we often don’t question why things are the way they are,” she said.
The number of people killed at the hands of police in other developed countries in Europe and Asia are far less than in the U.S., and Wilkerson said if Americans were to look at the country from the outside, they would be appalled at some of the things that occur.
However, there have always been and will continue to be people who push past the boundaries set by color and caste, Wilkerson said. Empathy — rather than sympathy — for another’s experiences can challenge those unconscious biases.
“I truly believe that if an individual can get inside the skin and inside the heart of another human being and see what it is like to be another human being then and only then can true empathy, compassion and understanding occur,” she said.
Wilkerson has seen this since the release of The Warmth of Other Suns, which was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection in 2011. Although the three protagonists are African-American, Wilkerson has received letters from people of all races and backgrounds who related to the characters’ struggles. The book, she said, is more about people who want to be free, not just African-Americans.
“As they were reading, they cried, felt fearful and cared about these people that society told they had nothing in common with,” she said.
For The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people and traveled all across the country to learn their stories and uncover the untold stories of the people who took part in the Great Migration. Unfortunately, none of the three protagonists lived to see the book published, but one said he would be “copy editing from heaven,” she said.
“It was my honor to be able to get to spend that time with them and for them to have the trust in me to share experiences that were so painful that some had not even told their children,” Wilkerson said.
The Warmth of Other Suns is only an example of the untold and undercovered stories of America’s history. There is still much Americans have to learn about themselves as a country, Wilkerson said.
“The last few years are a reminder that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done,” she said. “We as a country had come to believe that all of this had been settled and in the past two years have shown us that what we thought had vanished had actually never disappeared.”