If life is a journey of self-discovery in which we are all lost and looking to find ourselves, then our search will always lead us backwards to our parents, grandparents and more–that is, our roots. My second Sunday Read is The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, a history of the African-American great migration that illuminated my understanding of the past in many ways.
Everyone must explore their heritage, but for black people and second generation immigrants (I am both, btw) this task involves some pioneering because the story hasn’t been told. I know many, many professional black people whose understanding of their grandparents, even their parent’s lives, is limited, like mine. We know they lived in segregation. We know they were waiters, shop owners, domestics. We know the Klan harassed them, but we don’t know what it was like. There is a fog over many parts of our past that hides from us the lives of our ancestors.
The Warmth of Other Suns helps to change that. The book, written by a woman whose parents migrated north, explains fully and with humanity, the lives of three members of the Great Migration. It also writes with authority on the common experiences, hopes and emotions faced by all those who made the journey and how it affected those who stayed behind. Wilkerson comes by her authority the hard way. She interviewed over a thousand people. The book took her over a decade to write.
I’ll leave the details of the book to other published reviews. I’ll just say that the migrants move to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. They reap extreme, moderate and meager professional success, but more interestingly, they each have different emotional experiences. One is bitter, one is anxious and one finds peace. But in the end, we are all glad they made the journey.
For me, the most compelling details were the lives and hardships they experienced in the south and how they were and weren’t able to overcome these challenges in the north. And by the end of the book we are very much in the modern era even though the characters childhood experiences are ones that are out of another time. The book is really the missing link between our modern Age of Obama era and our shameful segregated past. Yet this book makes clear how the relative successes found in the north are layered over what happened back in Dixie. And we ignore that at our peril.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a masterful, beautiful, intelligent, powerful and epic read. It’s long, yes, but it can be read easily in stages and it goes fast. And I hope that Wilkerson, who is now a journalism professor, writes another book soon.