According to my Goodreads account, I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste on December 30, 2020. I searched my blog for a review, but I had the same trouble with that one as I’m having with The Warmth of Other Suns, which is that it’s hard to do truly great, important books any justice.
The full title of the book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. In it, Wilkerson tells the personal case studies and field research (interview series) of three individuals who migrated from the American South to three of the most popular flight points in the country, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. These personal accounts are interwoven into a thoroughly researched history of the Great Migration, and this approach is successful because it provides the reader with two of the most important features of historical record: first-hand accounts and broader context.
One of the more affecting parts of the work are details about the individual experiences of these three migrants after they moved to Northern cities. There’s a tendency to believe that everything was bad in the South, and everything was good in the North, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As many historians have noted, while racism might be more overt in some places in the United States, it is no less present and influential in the supposedly more liberal and “free” cities. This was demonstrated with brutal clarity in the story of Dr. Robert Foster whose migration was a bit different from the others in this book. While Ida Mae Gladney and George Starling fled by train, Foster drove himself from the Southeast to Los Angeles. It’s heartbreaking to hear his account of trying to search for a safe place to stay along his journey only to be repeatedly rebuffed and forced to continue driving (even in “free” states) when he was well-beyond the point of exhaustion. Foster, incidentally, would eventually exceed anyone’s expectations for success when he became a wildly popular and revered medical doctor in California, including personal physician to the singer Ray Charles, but even this success and stature didn’t shield him, decades later, from the racism of certain patients and the impotence of a system unwilling to stand up for one of its best.
The stories of Ida Mae Gladney, who ended up in Chicago, and George Sterling, who settled in Harlem, were equally revealing in explaining how the North really treated Southern black migrants and in the resulting “white flight” in cities across the country after black migrants started to buy homes in Northern cities and suburbs. Alongside these personal stories, Wilkerson incorporates historical evidence about red lining, city officials’ and residents’ responses, and the forced creation of “ghetto” neighborhoods due to white intolerance and white legislators’ indifference (or worse, active antagonism) to black neighborhoods.
Wilkerson’s study helps to explain the cause for the great migration of black Southerners to Northern cities but also the complex and complicated responses of both Northerners and Southerners to this migration. The book counters long-held assumptions about the supposed failures of black migrants (in work, family, and education) by integrating secondary comparative evidence that demonstrates migrants (as we know from any reputable study of immigration) tended to be more highly educated, more successfully employed, and more stable in marriage/family settings.)
Overall, this is an important and eloquent study that illuminates the depths of migratory history, its causes and effects, and it’s a notable precursor to Wilkerson’s stunning follow-up, Caste.
The Warmth of Other Suns is Book 5 for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.