“I was leaving the South/To fling myself into the unknown…./I was taking a part of the South/To transplant in alien soil,/To see if it could grow differently,/If it could drink of new and cool rains,/Bend in strange winds,/Respond to the warmth of other suns/And, perhaps, to bloom.”
– Richard Wright
There’s a great analogy at the end of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia that applies to the way we Americans, at least, learn history. In book context, it’s the way that Lewis describes his philosophy on the afterlife, that it’s like an onion but as you peel it away, every new layer is grander and deeper and better than the layer before. It’s a really great, hopeful way to try to understand a pretty weighty philosophical issue.
I’ve also used that analogy to conceptualize the way I’ve learned history. There’s the first layer that I learned as a child, the layer where white men did things and there were wars and America happened. Then, as I got older the details started to be shaded in and nuance started to develop, I learned that it wasn’t about names and dates, it was about stories, about who people were and why they did what they did. I learned that there was a reason for every action, even if that reason wasn’t readily apparent, and I learned that our Great Men weren’t as great as the childhood stories had led me to believe and that the American Dream was just that, a dream. History’s reality is complex and difficult and “we” (be that Americans, white people, Christians, or any combination of the three) weren’t always the good guys. In fact, we were often anything but.
As I studied history I learned that there is history and there is how we interpret history and the two are definitely not the same.
Which brings me, in the most convoluted way, to this book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The Great Migration that Wilkerson chronicles is not the one that my white, Baby Boomer dad thought it was when I mentioned the title to him, it’s not about the Irish. Rather, it’s about the migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and the West. Wilkerson’s primary thesis is that this wasn’t simply people moving from one place to another, instead that it fits the same criteria as all of the other immigrants who crossed oceans or trekked over the land to enter America, that they were refugees from the South just like Jewish people fleeing oppression or the Irish fleeing a famine. The people who made up the Great Migration were fleeing their homeland, not because they wanted to, but because they had no other choice.
It’s a solid thesis and she uses it to not only point out the oppression suffered under Jim Crow, but to place African-American migrants squarely into one of America’s favorite myths, that of migrants fleeing to a land of opportunity, where they could care for their families and dreams could come true.
To expand on her idea, Wilkerson went straight to the source. Or, well, sources. She interviewed hundreds of migrants and by focusing on three of their accounts, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, three very different people with different lives who all, for reasons both similar and distinct, migrated from the South during this Great Migration. She presented their lives in context with the events swirling around them. They all left the South, not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t stay.
Wilkerson doesn’t pull any punches. She sets it all out there with no equivocation or euphemistic words. She describes lynchings and deaths, how no one was safe, how terror and white supremacy froze people in place. They might have been free on paper but they weren’t allowed to live free lives. They left because they had no other choice.
She’s not here to make us white people feel good about ourselves, she’s here to honestly depict these migrants lives and the reasons why they left their homes and families behind.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a comprehensive history of a migration that happened over the period of around 70 years, from WWI to the 1970’s. It’s a history of a people and the history of America, the kind of history they should teach in schools but they don’t. It’s the history of the ways people survived white supremacy, and the lengths to which white people would go to secure that supremacy. It’s a book that makes you stop and re-examine all of the inner-city narratives you’ve heard, all of the myths about welfare queens and laziness. It opens your eyes to how long and treacherous the road has been and how much further we have to go to make things right.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Wilkerson has crafted a work that is both intimate and expansive, that will help you recontextualize the events of the 20th Century and open your eyes to the same old injustices that continue on to this day.
As we sit here in Trump’s America, it’s important to remember, to realize that the American Dream, that dream that called to the migrants that shape our country, isn’t just a white person’s dream. It’s our dream, all of our’s. We have to stand up and stand firm and make that dream a reality for everyone.