Book review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

by Emily

Wilkerson’s book shot to the top of my to-read list this fall based on the enthusiastic recommendations of people I work with at a small local historical society. The society launched a series of book discussions this summer, and when they read The Warmth of Other Suns, the building had standing room only because so many members were thrilled by the book’s resonance with their own family histories. “This book is incredible,” I was told. “You have to read it.”

I spent my first two days of power loss last week doing just that, and if I had to describe the book in one word, that word would be “’Epic” with a capital E. Wilkerson’s history of the Great Migration is a brilliantly crafted history that explores a phenomenon with huge scope through the personal narratives of three migrants. She describes an exodus of African-Americans from the South during the Jim Crow era from 1915-1970, in which millions of individuals and families moved along railroads and highways to the cities of the North and West.

Her stated missions include, first, understanding the boundaries and composition of the Great Migration, since she writes that its size and decentralization have made it difficult for historians to even recognize as a movement. Short chapters on the demographics and history of the migration scattered throughout the book put the personal stories in a broader context, as to statistics and additional anecdotes woven into the individual narratives. On this front alone, the book was worth reading, since it fleshed out an area of recent American history I knew little about, yet has great significance for millions of American families. Second, she argues throughout the book that even though African Americans were citizens within their own country, their movements to places like New York, Chicago, and California share the structural patterns and demographics of international migrations, such as “leapfrogging” to distant destinations based on the knowledge of previous migrants, stronger educations and employment records than those in the destination cities, and struggle with new forms of discrimination and hierarchy in those destinations. This, I believe, was a deft and well-supported insertion of an anthropological argument into a work of popular history, which I wish we saw much more frequently! Moreover, based on this argument, she debunks the assumptions of prior authors that “urban social problems” in the North and West are due to the influx of southern migrants.

The book is readable because it is anchored in particularities, not abstractions, though. Wilkerson writes that she was inspired by her own mother’s experiences, and she conducted oral histories and interviewed 1200 people. Yet she chose three people for her focus, and the book is most fundamentally the story of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and their journeys to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles from the 1930s through the 1950s. Wilkerson writes their biographies from birth to death, and all three are fascinating, representative of different threads of the migration, and too complex to sum up in a blog post. Any anthropologist should envy her combination of historical breadth, theoretical argument aimed toward non-specialist readers, and most importantly, close long-term relationships with her three central subjects. As an archaeologist, I was also excited by the quiet impact of materiality in Wilkerson’s writing; she often describes the physical environments or material products of her subjects’ labor, making her history feel more real, and connecting individual lives to larger economic systems and broader experiences.

This impressed me so that it left me wrestling with how to teach it. There are numerous ways it could inform an anthropology curriculum: from providing a fine example of the use of oral history, material descriptions, and ethnographic writing, to exploring the structure of migrations, to considering the social roots of inequality close to home, to supplementing lessons in African-American historical archaeology. At a basic “101” level, Wilkerson’s narrative could help students struggling with the concepts of structure and agency: she stresses how each individual saw his or her migration north or west as an isolated and personal decision, yet the shared experiences that drove them to leave and the sum of their individual decisions reshaped the social landscape of the United States.

Make no mistake, I would love to teach from this book! The problem is that it is a long book, over 500 pages, so it would require a significant portion of an undergraduate level course to cover completely. Yet the theoretical arguments and personal narratives are woven together throughout the book, so excerpts of one or a few chapters would detract from the work’s overall power. This is the drawback of something Epic.

What do you think of Wilkerson’s book? Would you work it into a syllabus, and if so, how?