Part III 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’
The most significant book I have read in the past few years is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I recently interviewed the author in advance of a talk she’s giving in Omaha, where I live. The Omaha Star newspaper is running the Q&A I did with her in a four-part series, and I am sharing the series here. If you’re anything like me and you thought you knew what African-Americans faced in the South that compelled so many to leave and migrate North and West, well, you soon find out in her book that there is a great deal about that experience that you didn’t have any clue about or any real undestanding of. She tells this important story in a way that will capture your mind and your heart and prompt you to ask, “Why have I never heard of this before?” I highly recommend the book and if you have a chance to hear her speak, I heartily recommend you listen.
Part III 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‘
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in The Omaha Star
Part III of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson describes how she came to focus on three protagonists in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The late Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling represent the major migration streams from the South.
Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in Omaha.
LAB: These three figures provide an intimate, inspiring prism into the migration.
IW: “I actually get inspired when I hear readers say they feel a connection to them because the goal was to have the reader see themselves in these people and imagine what would I have done had I been in this situation they were in.
“It’s a leap of faith to even settle on one person…that their story will carry forth in this narrative. I interviewed over 1,200 people. I narrowed it down to about 30, any of whom could have been the three, and then I narrowed it down to these three on the basis of multiple things. I needed to have one person to represent each of the migration streams. I needed to have people who left during different decades. And I needed to have people who left for different reasons.
“And I also needed people who would be distinctive on the page, people who you would recognize when you first get to them. I needed to have three beautifully flawed and yet accessible and full human beings through whom to tell the story. And people who were at the point in their lives when they would be willing to tell their story. And finally there had to be this connection between them and me because I was going to be with them for a very long time. It actually ended up being years. So you might call it chemistry.
“They were just delightfully full human beings who had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through.”
LAB: What do you most admire about them and what do you carry from each?
IW: “Each of them had distinctive survival techniques that gave a window for how anyone could survive any challenge they might face, even today. And I think I took something away from each one of them as a result of how they discovered what worked best for them to get through what they were enduring.
“For George it was this stalwart effort to confront and question and deal with the challenge head-on, no matter what the consequences. He chose the path of integrity whenever he was confronted with injustice and I think that is a tremendous lesson for anyone. It takes a great deal of courage to do that, to stand up for what you believe is right and to stand up against what you know in your heart to be wrong, and he did that, and he paid something of a price for it. He ended up having to flee for his life. He knew when to let go of a fight that was not winnable. The gift of perseverance and integrity I take from him.
“From Dr. Foster one learns the importance of excellence in all that you do. His view was it’s not worth doing unless you do it the best. He took it to an extreme.
“And from Ida Mae it’s a completely different message. It’s the one I often find myself turning to. I often hear people say, ‘I love Ida Mae,’ and I think they’re saying that because she’s the one who had the least resources of the three. She was born poor. She was a sharecroppers’ wife. They worked from sun-up to sun-down with very little in the way of renumeration. Her clothes were burlap sacks. She knew poverty beyond what most people can even imagine. The unpredictability and dangers faced on a daily basis would be beyond the comprehension of modern day Americans
“And in spite of all that she had a way of looking at the world that was without judgment and rancor and bitterness and a sense of shame. She lived every day in the moment. It was second nature to her. She had a way of walling off negative emotions. She always looked at the world as the best it could possibly be in spite of all that she had seen, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone.”
- 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’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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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