Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Book Reviewed by Connie Bradley

I finally finished the 620-page The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, and it was a trip! Literally, - its subtitle being "the epic story of America’s great migration." This was an amazing, magnificent book chronicling the history of great numbers of Blacks who began leaving the south to seek a better life in the big cities of the North during the time period between 1915 through 1970. I was particularly interested in checking this book out because my mother was a part of this exodus, having left her home town of Franklin, Tennessee, in 1916 to seek her fortune in Chicago. My father, who was a midwestern farm boy from Kansas, had a little different history, arriving in Chicago in 1914 after having been kidnapped by his father, who came back to Kansas to rescue him from an abusive aunt in whose care he had been entrusted after his mother died. But - that’s another story.

Anyway, many of the anecdotes related in this book perfectly described the experiences I remember my parents talking about when they reminisced about their early years in Chi-Town. This is one of the reasons I found this book so engrossing as it followed the adventures of 3 migrants during 3 different decades, a young woman who came to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1930s, a youth who fled to New York from Florida in the 1940s, and a doctor who left Louisiana for Los Angeles in the 1950s. Dispersed between their stories is a wealth of interesting history about the life and times of black folks struggling to improve their living conditions during the 85-year period that encompassed the great migration.

What was most compelling and depressing about this documentary was how hated Blacks were both by their southern oppressors and the working class northerners who viewed them as a threat to their status. What was inspiring was how these pioneers persevered, kept on pushing, their eyes on the proverbial prize, as they drew from the inner strength that 400 years of degradation couldn’t kill.

I can’t say enough about the skills and artistry of the author a young black woman from Washington DC, whose parents were migrants from the south. As dense as this book was, it was a "painless" read with its seamless narrative and characters that came to life. The only problem I had was how she made no mention of the black migrants who after coming north, left the metropolises to settle in their suburbs. My parents moved from Chicago in 1922, becoming members of the black colonies who occupied their own little sections of the villages and towns that ringed the big cities, removed from the hazards of urban life, leading less stressful existences. This once again reminded me of how the black experience varies, and how mine is not that typical.

In any case, I actually grew sad as the book drew to a close because I was going to have to bid farewell to the 3 main subjects, friends whom I had come to love and admire and empathize with as I accompanied them through the ups and downs of their quest for freedom.

Needless to say, I highly recommend "The Warmth of Other Suns". Even its title impresses me. It says so much, and is a quote from a Richard Wright poem. This book is well worth the time it takes to read, and I give it 4 out of a possible 4 stars. ****

Read Knopf’s description of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration .
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