The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

6 Feb

warmth of other suns

The Great Migration, the time between 1915 and 1970 when over six million African Americans moved out of the Jim Crow South to dozens of large cities across the country, was one of the biggest demographic shifts in American history. Cities like New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles would develop thriving black neighborhoods that continue to shape the culture and politics of the United States. From Harlem to Watts, these newly changing neighborhoods would experience an explosion in art and culture during the Great Migration, with African Americans from the South bringing their musical, artistic, religious, culinary, and folk traditions with them.

My neighborhood, the Central Ward in Newark, was a major point of settlement for African American migrants and the city would shift from a majority European immigrant population to a majority black population over the course of just a few decades. Local legend always held that the reason Newark became a hub for these arrivals from the South was that people would mishear train conductors calling for “Newark Penn Station” with “New York Penn Station” and get off at the wrong stop. Whether this piece of lore is true or not, I was curious to learn more about how the Great Migration affected my city and so many others across the country. I could not have picked a book more epic in scale than The Warmth of Other Suns to explore this topic.

Wilkerson alternates between the narratives of three different migrants, each of whom settles in a different part of the United States during a different phase of the Great Migration. Their stories all start in the segregated South and their reasons for migrating North were common to millions of others. Fleeing racist violence, leaving behind the abusive sharecropping system that replicated some of the conditions of slavery, and desiring to live in a place where one could have a more liberated existence were all reasons why millions left for northern and western cities. Similar to the immigrant experience, many African Americans were eager to travel thousands of miles to what they hoped would be a better life.

Following Wilkerson’s three migrants is exhilarating and the reader experiences the ups and downs of the journey with each character. Crowded cities with public transportation and industrial jobs would have been foreign experiences to those leaving small, segregated towns in the rural South, but despite the sense of community northern cities provided to African Americans, the Great Migration is not a simple story of upward mobility. While less systematized than the South, racism was still prominent in northern cities. Many migrants were forced into poor quality housing in segregated neighborhoods and worked dangerous industrial jobs for poverty level wages. Some felt that they had simply traded rural poverty for urban poverty. By the end of the 1960’s Newark, Harlem, Watts, and many other northern cities would experience urban great unrest caused by these conditions.

Wilkerson’s book still has many uplifting moments. Lots of African American migrants did experience newfound freedoms and success. Robert Foster, one of the three figures whose narratives Wilkerson highlights, left Louisiana to pursue a medical career. He became one of California’s most respected surgeons and the personal physician to Ray Charles. History is never black and white and The Warmth of Other Suns treats this epic story with the depth and nuance that it requires.

We are celebrating African-American History Month this February at the Hoboken Library and hope you can join us!  You can see all the great events on our calendar page including Black Comedy: No Tears, Just Politics on February 19 at 6 pm and  Thinking In Full Color Empowering Women of Color Through Education & The Arts on February 21 at 7 PM.  All the Maker Mondays in February will have special activities for kids so they can learn about important African American Inventors.

Written by:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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