Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: Warmth of Other Suns

Title The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
Author Isabel Wilkerson
Rating ****1/2
Tags blacks, africa-americans, migration, south, new york, chicago. los angeles 

This book has been receiving well-deserved rave reviews and been on several lists of best books of the year. It is a marvelous work of scholarship, yet well-written enough to appeal to the lay reader.

The book tells the story of the great migration of blacks from the American South to the North and West. It lasted from around World War I up to the seventies, when conditions for blacks in the South began to get better. The migration was partly in hopes of better economic opportunities, but primarily to escape the harsh rule of Jim Crow with its strict segregation and a caste system maintained through violence.

Part of the book gives the facts and statistics about the South and about the migration. At its core, however, is the tale of three people, told in alternating chapters. One is George Starling, who left Florida after death threats when he tried on a small scale to organize labor to ask for better wages. He went to New York an became a baggage handler on the railroads, never able to use his brain and some college education to get a better job.

Second was Ida Mae Gladney, who married young and lived as a sharecropper in Mississippi. She and her husband moved to Chicago.

Third was Robert Pershing Foster from Monroe, Louisiana, a doctor who married the daughter of the President of Atlanta University, who moved to Los Angeles where he hoped to be able to achieve more as a doctor than he could under the limitations on black doctors in the South.

Wilkerson does a masterful job of weaving the strands together, combining oral history with material from primary documents. It is not a book for white Southerners seeking to prove the South under Jim Crow was not that bad - Wilkerson shows in detail how bad it was. She manages to tell the individual stories so that each chapter tells of parallel experiences, even though each story is unique. It is a long book but holds the interest of the reader throughout. Highly recommended.

Publication Random House (2010), Edition: 1St Edition, Hardcover, 640 pages
Publication date 2010
ISBN 0679444327 / 9780679444329

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