AFRICANGLOBE – When Isabel Wilkerson began working more than 15 years ago on her critically acclaimed epic, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” she did so in large part to educate. The story of the Great Migration, the treacherous and often exhausting journey of blacks leaving a South that oppressed and too often brutalized them for northern cities where they hoped for “the warmth of other suns,” was a story many Americans weren’t aware of.
Yet between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans fled their southern homeland, seeking a better life. Wilkerson brings that history to vivid life through the riveting stories of three who made the journey. Wilkerson sums up the lessons of this journey in the book’s epilogue: “The Great Migration was the final break from an abusive union with the South. It was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed. … By their actions, [these migrants] did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into action.”
The first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, Wilkerson will be in Charlotte Dec. 1 to discuss the book and the significance of the Great Migration. She shed some light on the public reaction to the book in a weekend interview. Here are excerpts:
Q. What has been the reaction to the book?
So many people have some migration as part of their family story. So they’re reacting to that. They’re reacting to the memories – maybe even unspoken memories of ancestors, grandparents or whoever it may have been who might have had these same experiences. So the reaction is often extremely emotional.
I was at this one event on Long Island last year. I gave a talk. And at the end of the talk, a signing line formed and there was a woman, a grandmother, who was at the front. She had tears in her eyes and books in her arms, and she was telling me. “I read the book. I so loved the book. But I can’t talk about the book… If I talk about the book, I’ll cry.” She said “I’m an immigrant from Greece, and the book is my story.”
I felt so heartened and gratified because that was what I’d always hoped would happen – that there would be this bridge between cultures of people. Here she was living proof that that was possible.
This is really the story of three people who made the decision of their lives and were people like you and me, who were faced with an untenable situation. The book asks the question: What would you do? You get to go through their decision-making. I think that’s why people are reacting the way they are.
Q. You talk about the similarities between immigrants and blacks who were part of the Great Migration. Are you hearing a lot about that?
Yes. I’ve heard that a lot. In fact, I’ve made reference to the food that some brought with them, and the memories of the recipes that people brought from the South, certain parts of the South. The connections between how people re-created their culture here in this country, how they had the experience of dislocation, the homesickness, of alienation in the new world – all of those were experiences that immigrants had but that people who were part of the Great Migration experienced too but there was never a name attached.
Overlay that with the fact that these were citizens who were forced to leave their homeland for another part of their own country. That adds irony and a complexity that is different from the immigrant experience. But what they did was similar to what any immigrant might do.
Q. Some whites have said the book made them feel guilty. Are you getting that reaction?
I personally worked very hard not to invoke the emotions of either guilt on the part of groups that appeared to be benefitting from the caste system or shame for those who were targets of the caste system. Those two emotions I was seeking to rise above because the goal is to have the readers see themselves in the journeys of the people willing to share their stories.
You know, the overarching response I get from people – from blacks and whites – is that they had no idea.
Q. Is that “I had no idea” about the migration?
It’s “I had no idea” that all of this happened during a time period that overlapped with my life. It’s the totality of what happened. What people were bearing up under in the South, the magnitude of their decision to leave, the numbers of people who were part of it. The reception that they got once they arrived in the North. Putting it all together in this way can be overwhelming to some people who had never really thought of it in this way.
Q. What was the great lesson of the Great Migration? What did you hope readers got out of the book?
There are so many. One of them is that all of us have so much more in common than we’ve been led to believe. All of us have someone in our background who did or wanted to do what these people in this book did. This was the first time in American history that large numbers of African-Americans had options and showed they were willing to take them. This was the first time that many of them had a chance to go all the way through the 12th grade. It’s the first time they had a chance to be something more than what the South said. They had a chance to become musicians like John Coltrane who came from North Carolina. He was one of the thousands of well-known people and millions who are not known who had a chance to do something other than the menial work that caste system had consigned them to. That was a breakthrough moment for African-Americans. That’s why it had such significance. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Jacob Lawrence, August Wilson, Romare Bearden – all these people were products of the Great Migration. They are evidence of all that the Great Migration gave to this country – and to the world.