Critical Family History Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns

Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

Can you re-theorize history based mainly on oral history interviews with elders who may not appear in many other historical records? That is exactly what Isabel Wilkerson did in her award-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West during much of the twentieth century.

Wilkerson explains that because her parents had been migrants, she grew up surrounded by African Americans who had migrated to the North. As a result, she was aware that the Great Migration was a much larger and more profoundly important story than historians had recognized. She also grew up around children of immigrants, and as she learned their experiences, she began to see parallels with experiences of the six million African Americans who migrated north from the Jim Crow South in search of a better life. In fact, this is the only account I know of that situates African American migration within the common human story of immigration and struggles of newcomers as they adapt to a new (and often hostile) environment.

Wilkerson set about seeking out as many African American migrants as she could find, to hear their stories and attempt to piece together a larger picture. Over about fifteen years, she was able to conduct oral history interviews with more than 1200 people, many of whom she lists in the back of the book. Based on the interviews, she selected three people whose stories exemplify experiences that differed in various ways, in order to offer detailed portraits of the lives of migrants. She then added to their stories by interviewing people who knew them, and by checking other records such as newspaper accounts and scholarly reports. With her parents, she even recreated the drive one of her protagonists took from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles, in order to understand what it felt like to experience this excruciating journey in the context of Jim Crow.

The Warmth of Other Suns tells a highly compelling story that Wilkerson periodically sets within a larger historical context. Through her skillful storytelling, readers vicariously experience the pain, anger, and fear associated with Jim Crow that prompted people to leave their homes; their dreams of a better life for themselves and their children; the hardships, hopes, and losses they experienced during and as a result of migration; and the hopes and possibilities migrants found within the cracks of racial discrimination in the North and West. Readers may also come to see the resilience of the human spirit within terribly dehumanizing contexts, and (I hope) more readily recognize the common humanity in others around them today.

For family historians, The Warmth of Other Suns brilliantly shows a rich portrait that can be constructed based on oral histories with elders, involving people who otherwise might not have left a trail of documents. It is a mark of White privilege that in the U.S., people of European descent are more likely to find records of their ancestors than are people of color and immigrants. While oral history interviews do not wipe away that privilege, they provide a powerful entrée into ancestors’ lives, as Wilkerson so capably shows.

This is a wonderful book every American should read. Wilkerson tells a very humanizing history that most Americans do not know, and does so with the skill of a talented journalist. As I kept turning the pages wanting to know what happens next, I was also learning a great deal, as underlines and highlights in my copy of the book attest. Readers of this blog will find The Warmth of Other Suns inspirational, particularly readers who aren’t sure how to access stories of earlier generations.

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