“I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown …
To transplant in alien soil …
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And perhaps, just perhaps, to bloom.”
“Black Boy” (1945)
The above poem is the titular origin of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a book Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years working to bring to life.
Since its publication in September 2010, Wilkerson has continued bringing her book’s message of immigrant potential and class divide across the entire U.S. — including the Institution in 2011 as part of the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle — and abroad, from Singapore to the U.K. House of Parliament. On Thursday, she brought the message to the Amphitheater for the morning lecture.
This past year has made her book timelier than ever as America grapples with the intertwined issues of race and class, Wilkerson said. She listed a “metronome of names” of African-Americans killed this past year: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, among many others.
Then there was the tragic shooting of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing debate over the modern display of the Confederate flag. She cited even the reconsideration of literary hero Atticus Finch in the wake of the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
“Our country is like a house, hundreds of years old,” Wilkerson said. “It takes work to maintain, as many of us who own an older house know so well. It needs tending, work and effort to restore and renovate. We will continue to relive the past until we address the fundamental infrastructure upon which our country’s society is actually based.”
Throughout her extensive travels at home and abroad, the most common comment Wilkerson received from readers was: “I had no idea.”
But the way forward isn’t through pity or guilt, she said. Instead, it is necessary to ask hard questions. It’s essential to take a “historical X-ray of the DNA” of institutional racial divides, of the caste system Americans have inherited and the dehumanization it engenders.
Despite the book’s subtitle, Wilkerson said it was not about the Great Migration itself, but the quest for freedom and the lengths gone to by the disenfranchised to achieve it.
“I wanted to write this book about an era that never gets written about: that yawning gap between Civil War Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “The point of it was not only was there so much going on, but that that bridge helped create and produce much of American culture as we know it.”
The Great Migration, which is an umbrella term for the movement of 6 million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North, occurred roughly from the time of World War I to the 1970s.
“They were the only group who had to make the heartbreaking choice to act like an immigrant [in order to] to act like a citizen,” she said.
What they were seeking was a form of political asylum from the enforced hierarchy of the Southern states.
They were leaving a culture that denied them dignity and refused to recognize their basic humanity, she said. For example, in Alabama, it was illegal for a white person and a black person to simply play checkers in public. Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 because he made the mistake of acting like a white person.
Wilkerson was careful not to use the word “racism” in her book outside of references because, in her view, the word is “inadequate and incomplete” to justify the intense level of codified hierarchy. It was a system so arcane, the Bible was segregated into two different versions. Not in the textual form — the same King James Version was used by whites and blacks — but in simple use.
During her research, she discovered a 1940 court case that had to be suspended because they couldn’t find a “Jim Crow Bible.” The idea of letting a black person touch a white person’s Bible was unthinkable.
In her travels with the book, she said high school students have the hardest time grasping the past she documented: For example, an African-American could not legally pass a slow Caucasian driver and most certainly could not honk or tailgate as the students suggested.
The caste system held in place by the economics of cheap labor kept white people in line as well, she said.
“If you are going to hold someone down in the ditch, you have to get in the ditch with them,” she said. “And while both are down in the ditch, nothing is being done that can elevate either. While both are down in the ditch, all the wondrous things that could have been happening were not happening. Because no one in a ditch can live up to their fullest potential.”
The economic structure of the South was brutal to and yet dependent on African-American workers. When the U.S. entered World War I, the North faced a labor shortage. Black sharecroppers recruited from the South would be arrested at train platforms to prevent them from making the journey. Movement north then took place in secret or in the dead of night.
The Great Migration followed three predictable streams: the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast, with some going as far as Washington and even Alaska. As with all migrations, Wilkerson said it was a referendum on the circumstances of their homes.
It was the first time in 12 generations that African-Americans had the opportunity to choose their home and their livelihood.
The greatest tragedy, Wilkerson said, was the missed opportunities for human potential to flourish in those generations. What the Great Migration did was give those opportunities for the first time to African-Americans.
She told a story of one such opportunity. The city of Cleveland was a fabled destination among African-Americans in Alabama, so much so two parents named their son James Cleveland, or J.C. for short. The mother convinced the father to make the trek to the lakeside city. The child’s first day of school, the teacher pronounced J.C. “Jesse.” Soon, his parents took to calling him Jesse as well.
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, under the glare of the Adolf Hitler and his growing Nazi regime, Jesse Owens won four gold medals, crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority.
Among other examples, she said Toni Morrison wouldn’t have been able to borrow a library book if her parents’ had stayed in the South. Berry Gordy Jr. wouldn’t have started Motown, the legendary record company. And Miles Davis wouldn’t have had access to the instrument that would trumpet his musical genius.
Change begins with the laws, but it ends in our hearts and minds, she said.
“When you have a storm, you might not want to go into the basement because you don’t know what you might find,” she said. “But if you ignore it, you ignore it at your own peril. Whatever rises up will come back to haunt you. Whatever we have ignored will not go away until we face up to it, examine it, address it and resolve it.”