Best Book of the Week!
The Warmth of Other Suns is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s remarkable book about the migration of nearly 6 million rural African-American southerners to northern and western cities from 1915 to 1970. Wilkerson began her research because of her perceptions that the migration was largely unrecognized and that when recognized was misunderstood.
What makes this book so remarkable is how she manages to humanize it. Although she presents us with facts and figures and results of studies as well as examples of experiences taken from newspapers and the like, the bulk of the book is taken up with three representative case histories. She identified and interviewed three people who ended up in three of the cities usually targeted for migration. Their stories are both representative and extraordinarily interesting.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was the wife of George Gladney, a sharecropper in Mississippi. The state of sharecroppers was deplorable. After a solid year of work, the sharecropper would hand over half the crop to his landlord and then settle up accounts, the plantation owner subtracting the cost of the seed and supplies from the sharecropper’s share. The records were the landlord’s, and even if the sharecropper kept his own books, he didn’t dare oppose his landlord. Many of the plantation owners routinely added extra goods onto their tenants’ accounts and otherwise cheated them. George’s plantation owner was considered a good one simply because George ended up with a couple of bucks for the year instead of breaking even or ending up in the red.
Still, it was not because of the unrewarding grind of sharecropping that George decided to leave but because his cousin was beaten nearly to death for stealing turkeys that had just gone to roost some way away. Though George felt safe enough to tell the plantation owner he was leaving, he and Ida Mae still had to sneak away from home, taking the train to Chicago in 1937.
George Starling also had to sneak away from his job picking oranges in Florida but because he was in peril for his life. During World War II, oranges were at a premium and so many laborers had gone north already that the growers had difficulty finding pickers. Still, they wanted to pay the pre-war wage of 10 cents a basket to the pickers. George and two of his friends who had worked briefly in Detroit talked the pickers into letting him bargain for them and got their pay more than doubled. But some of the pickers were terrified and informed the growers what was going on. George heard that he and his friends were going to be lynched, so he had to smuggle himself out of his home county before he could take the train to Harlem in 1945.
Robert Foster was a surgeon from Louisiana in 1953 with a need to succeed. He had married Alice Clement, the daughter of a prominent African-American family in Atlanta. The Clements made it clear that they thought Foster was inferior and did their best to control Alice during the early years of their marriage. After serving as a surgeon in the army, Foster found he couldn’t get admitting privileges to any southern hospitals unless he accepted his father-in-law’s help and settled in Atlanta. Knowing that his family would always be under Clement’s domination, he decided to go to California, where he had always wanted to live. He set off for Los Angeles in 1953, driving in his car.
Wilkinson’s contention is that the causes and the results of the migration have been misunderstood. For example, some studies posited that mechanization in the cotton industry was a major cause. But Wilkinson shows that the industry was forced to mechanize as a result of losing the bulk of its laborers, not the other way around.
Similarly, she shows that contrary to belief, the families who migrated were in general better educated than white emigrants, less likely to divorce, and more likely to have a work ethic than African Americans born in the north, putting to shame the idea that the migrating families ruined their host cities. In fact, many of those who failed did so because of the conditions that already existed in their new home cities.
This history is an amazing book that will keep your interest from beginning until end. I became totally involved in the stories of these three people and wanted to know if they would succeed.