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The Warmth of Other Suns

 

 

 

For most critics the indispensable American novel celebrating African American life is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Now, with Isabel Wilkerson’s stunning new book, The Warmth of Other Suns, we inherit another seminal text—and it is no less important. Deftly integrating 1,200 interviews with historical documentation and her personal family history, The Warmth of Other Suns is a brilliant account of the Great Migration, the epic story of the 6 million black people who, between 1915 and1970, escaped the brutal dehumanizing American South to move to Harlem, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Newark, and Chicago. It is a story of courage and resiliency, disappointment and salvation—of dreams deferred and waylaid.

Placing the Great Migration alongside the story of pilgrims throughout history fleeing the untenable, Isabel Wilkerson’s book makes us understand what was involved in that great calculus when millions abandoned their homes, families, and upbringings to escape lynching, economic privation, and abject racial brutality. The Warmth of Other Suns is not a book for the squeamish; Wilkerson does not sanitize the legacy of injustice or state-sanctioned terrorism that suffused both the South and the North. In her cinematic writing, we anxiously wait at the train station, afraid that the Mississippian landowner might see us, force us back into servitude, or maim or kill us; we travel towards locales we could only dimly imagine (the mythic Promised Land of the North), following the caprice of the railroad’s offerings, some of us stopping in Syracuse, Chicago, or Philadelphia, others of us, the uninitiated, getting off at Newark because Newark sounded like New York to our untrained Southern ears. Each of us—no matter how furiously impassioned—carrying shards of our past like an amulet, sweet potatoes, a jar of filè, anything that might remind us of home. This, as Wilkerson powerfully shows, is the truth of migrants everywhere—fleeing from terrorism. Fleeing but still longing for home.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a book of grand, larger-than-life personalities. One will never forget the flamboyant Dr. Joseph Robert Pershing Foster; the hard-working George Swanson Starling; the wise, indomitable, churchly Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who, like so many others, had abandoned the South to live in Chicago, create a life, and forsake (however uneasily) the cotton fields. As Wilkerson writes, with a poet’s delicacy:

A heavy snow fell outside. In a symbolic kind of way, snow was to Chicago what cotton was to Mississippi. It blanketed the land. It was inevitable. Both were so much a part of the landscape of either place that where you saw snow you by definition would not see cotton and vice versa. Coming to Chicago was a guarantee that you would not be picking cotton. The people sitting at this dining room table this late winter night had chosen snow over cotton.

For many of us, who have family members who were born in the South, Wilkerson’s book provides us access to what remains largely unspoken. For others, Wilkerson’s work evinces a true appreciation of what American segregation was — how it shaped us as a country — and how its pain still endures. Yet The Warmth of Other Suns is, most importantly, the elegantly rendered chronicle of everyone—in America, Burma, or Libya—who struggles for human dignity.

- Kenneth McClane, 2011 finalist judge
Cornell University


2011 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Click to see award video
Click to see award video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson, who spent most of her career as a national correspondent and bureau chief at The New York Times, is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in the history of American journalism and was the first black American to win for individual reporting.

Inspired by her own parents’ migration, she devoted fifteen years to the research and writing of The Warmth of Other Suns. She interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival works and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the relocation of an entire people in The Warmth of Other Suns.

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