Part I of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson On Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’
One of the best nonfiction reads of my life is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A journalist by trade, Wilkerson proves herself a historian of the first order with her exhaustive, compelling, always insightful, and often moving work about the sprawling, decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, West and points in between. This epoch movement of people and culture transformed the nation but went largely unreported in the mainstream media because it was not organized in any formal sense and it played out quietly in countless streams and currents and eddies over such long time and across such a vast expanse. The Great Migration had no leader or organization. Instead, each individual, couple, family, and group that made the courageous leap of faith to leave Jim Crow for a strange promised land far away acted independently in asserting their self-determination. The mere act of leaving was as brave and militant a thing to do as any recognized civil rights action. The book has been out now for more than a year, but it took me awhile to catch up with it. I am so glad I did. As Wilkerson will be speaking about her book April 12 in Omaha, where I live, I recently interviewed her. I am presenting the interview here in a four-part Q & A that will also run in The Omaha Star. If you haven’t read the book, do so. It manages to do the seemingly impossible by taking on this epic story in all its complexity and scope and yet makes it an intimate journey by focusing on three individuals, Ida Mae, Robert, and George, who become the prism through which we experience the migration journey alongside them. I thought I knew a lot about the black experience until she immersed me in this world, and now I realize how little I really do know and how much more I have yet to learn.
Part I of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson On Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’: Author to Speak in Omaha April 12
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the Omaha Star
This is the first of a four-part interview Leo Adam Biga conducted with award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her 2010 best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Her critically praised book explores the mid-20th century African-American migration from the South to all points North and West.
LAB: What were your hopes for the book?
IW: “I have many hopes for the book when it comes to the potential impact on the reader. This migration and demographic experience had been discussed primarily in scholarly terms until recently. My goal was first to try to understand what people who never spoke about what they had endured had actually been through. I really wanted to be able to hear the stories and make it possible for anyone who would listen to know what they had endured so it wouldn’t be lost to history.
“I felt the migration had such magnitude and impact on our country and yet it was not an entire chapter in 20th century history books. It did not command the attention I felt it deserved given how massive it was and how much it affected our culture. I find it surprising even now if you look at a high school history book that it’s just a paragraph if mentioned at all. I felt it needed to take its rightful place in history and that perhaps one way to do that would be to actually go back to the people who lived it and to convert their stories into a narrative people would want to read and live through the journey with them.
“I wanted to hear the stories before it was too late and to in some way validate the experiences of the people who lived it but who had been unwilling or unable or in too much pain to even talk about it.”
LAB: Has the book sparked more migration inquiries?
IW: “I have been reading newspaper stories from around the country where journalists have been inspired to go and interview people in their own communities who were part of this. Every single city in the North, the Midwest and the West was affected by this migration, so there would be people alive in all these cities that have been part of the migration. They’re getting up in years and their stories would need to be captured soon if they’re to be captured at all, and that’s the urgency with which I went about interviewing the 1,200 people I did. Because I was aware with each passing, day, month, year we were losing them, and with each person passing away you’re losing part of the archives before it can even be recorded.
“The interviews were in some ways like a casting call. I was auditioning people for the role of protagonist in the book, but in doing so I was also hearing many stories and building my own understanding and archive of what people endured. Not all of them clearly made it in the book but they all helped to inform the work and provided insight into some aspect I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Hearing these things many times from different people helped make it a more authentic, richer work.”
LAB: Did the fact your parents were migrants add import for you?
IW: “Yes, my mother was from Georgia and my father from Virginia and they would never have met had there been no Great Migration, which is one of the realities that really inspired me to want to write this book. The majority of African-Americans and Americans on the whole had somebody in their backgrounds do what the people of this book did. Whatever the migration stream, whole new lineages and cultures were created. That’s what happens in a migration.
“I became really inspired by the idea a single decision can literally change certainly a family line but also even a country. I realized this was so much bigger than a simple move and I think perhaps it’s been misunderstood as that.”
The Star and The Reader are collecting African-American migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email email@example.com or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.
- Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (chalkthesun.wordpress.com)
- Best Books of 2011 (sparklemotion18.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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