Happy Pi Day! I am here to regale you with my thoughts on February's Nonfiction Challenge #Hottread, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.
I'm clearly behind in life as we're already racing through March but it's frickin' snowing in NYC today so honestly, what are months and seasons anyway, except constructs of humanity created in a vain attempt to control the whims of Mother Earth?
Is your mind blown? I thought so.
Ok, back to February we go! First thing's first, this book is very, very, very long. I'm not saying this to discourage you from reading - oh no - but rather giving you a warning up front to allow yourself some time to tackle it, perhaps alongside a reading group with whom you can discuss all you're learning. Don't be like me, basically, foolishly assigning yourself to read the longest book in the shortest month and then panicking when it takes you longer than you thought to finish because you told the internet you'd read it in February and god forbid you let down the internet!!! Don't worry, I saved myself from the brink of meltdown when I remembered this is a one woman book club and literally no one cares. And, luckily for my pride and the consistency of this book-a-month thing, I managed to finish this baby the night of February 28th, with not a moment to spare.
Ok wow I'm really doing a great job of selling this book, huh?
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS tells the epic but largely untold story of The Great Migration, the mass exodus of Black Americans from the south to the North, Midwest, and West in the first half of the 20th Century. It was a movement with no defined beginning and no real leader which would completely change the American demographic fabric. Until 1910, more than 90% of Black Americans lived in the South, and most of them in rural areas, and by the 1970's, just under 50% of Black Americans lived in the North, West, and Northwest, with the majority in all regions living in urban areas. This mass migration of Black Americans led to the cities we recognize today - and read about last month in Evicted - ushering in the era of white flight, urban segregation, and broad racially based injustice in housing, education, and employment.
Wilkerson follows the stories of three everyday Americans: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper's wife who moves from Mississippi to Chicago with her young family; Robert Pershing Foster, a brilliant doctor with big ideas and an ego to match who chases his dreams to Los Angeles; and George Starling, whose rabble-rousing and attempts at unionizing under violent Jim Crow rule in central Florida send him fleeing to New York City for better opportunities, and to not get his ass locked up or much, much worse. She weaves the life stories of these three, from childhood until very old age, exploring their lives in the South, their motivations for moving, and the lives they built in their new homes. Interspersed with their stories she tells the broader tale of the Great Migration, full of facts, figures, and anecdotes. The main story lines help to give a propulsive, central plot, but this is not a book you can just race through, every page is dense with information.
I'll admit, I did find this a challenge for me, this isn't a book you can flip through easily on the subway, while trying to balance a coffee and hold onto the pole at the same time. But, again, again, I feel I'm not being a very compelling book reviewer here - I'm just keeping it real about my own shortcomings. I'm very glad I read this book and, if anything, think I did myself a bit of a disservice by trying to cram it into a challenge rather than take my time and absorb the information. I would highly recommend everyone read this and do suggest, as I said up top, bringing in a group to dive into discussion. And invite me? I HAVE A MILLION THOUGHTS.
Two main takeaways that have lingered with me in the few weeks since I've read:
1) Why didn't I know about like, any of this? Granted, it's been a minute since I sat in a high school or college US History class but I don't recall The Great Migration ever being taught. We spent weeks on things like the Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail - white people boldly going where no white people have gone before! - but The Great Migration would have been a footnote, at best, though it did as much to shape the country we live in today. And it's got me thinking about the lens through which history (and let's be real, everything) is taught, and that lens is for sure white, and probably also straight, male, and Christian. Black History - along with Women's History, LGBT+ History, Native History, etc - is always kind of taught as a sidebar, like, here's Real America, kids, and then over here are some other stories. If you're only ever reading books by and about white men, except for a special Black History Month dip into the works of Langston Hughes, or a permission-slip needed, one-day-only lesson on the Stonewall Riots, it is hard, even for the most well-intentioned PBS watchers among us (ahem!) not to subconsciously absorb the narrative of certain people being inherently other.
And by other, I mean lesser.
And again, it's been a while since I was in school and I don't know jack about teaching or textbooks but I feel like there's gotta be a better way. Maybe some teachers in the crowd with insights? I'd (TRULY!!) love to discuss and learn more.
2) Speaking of other people's history, goddamn if Americans ever learn from the past. This book is, of course, chockablock full of anecdotes of immigration and migration, of folks refusing to accept newcomers to their cities, even when recently newcomers themselves. This rejection is especially aimed at those who don't look quite like them, and always, ALWAYS, entirely out of self-interest and fear.
There was one story that really crystallized things for me, a brief interlude into the 1800's to touch on the Civil War Draft Riots in NYC in 1863, when a war draft led to five days of violence by Irish immigrants against Blacks living in their city. Wilkerson writes: "Anger rose among Irish working-class men, in particular, who couldn't afford to buy their way out of a war they felt they had not stake in. They saw it as risking their lives to defend southern slaves, who would, in their minds, come north and only become competition for them."
Wait, when was that again? 200 years ago? Or last week?
In the past few months, as we talk about refugee crises and border walls, and America turns in on herself, as we debate which lives matter, and how much, I often hear people, usually of the privileged idealist liberal bent, righteously arguing that Trumpian white nationalism doesn't represent "true American values." Unforrrrrrtchhhhhh it kinda does. Those certainly aren't my values, and they may not be yours, but America, for all of her great melting pot rhetoric, does not have the most flawless track record for inclusion. In fact, if there is one trend we see repeating itself over, and over, and over again it is the vilifying and suppression of those we view as other.
How quickly we forget. How easy it is to lean into our fear.
It would be nice to think that we've come a long way since 1863, when these scared Irishmen rioted, or 1953, when Robert Pershing Foster arrived in LA and wasn't allowed to practice medicine on white people buuuutttt...have we? IDK, dudes. IDK.
ANYWAY clearly this book has resonated with me in a major way and I'd encourage you to give it a read, too. I know I made it sound pretty dense and intense and it definitely is both of those things, but it's also incredibly readable and compelling and even moving. I fell so in love with the three people she profiles, and this is going to sound corny, but felt like, honored to get to hear their stories. At the end of the day, these were just straight up regular people - they weren't celebrities or headliners, they were unremarkable, but sharing their stories was a remarkable act. Another key trait of history lessons is that we tend to focus on only the big players, the game changers. And those people are important, obviously, but there's so much to be learned from the lives of everyday people, too. And I'm so grateful for the opportunity to learn from Isabel Wilkerson and from these three remarkably unremarkable stories.
THE END! Two thumbs way up, would recommend. Have you read it? What did you think?
xoxo Liz Ho