The Warmth of Other Suns

by Isabel Wilkerson

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson utilizes the technique of immersion journalism to fully encapsulate the experience of those who partook in the Great Migration. Through numerous, exhaustive interviews, she immerses herself in the memories of her three protagonists and weaves them into detailed narratives and stories, closing the gap between the reader and the events of the Great Migration. Thus, the text portrays the Great Migration not merely as a historical phenomenon or a collection of facts and statistics, but also as a lived reality the reader can connect to emotionally. Creating this vivid reality is important because, as Wilkerson notes, the Great Migration is often neglected and underestimated as a momentous historical event. In comparison, the Dust Bowl Migration, in which almost 2.5 million Americans shifted out of “dust bowl” states like Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma during the Great Depression, has historically received more attention. Yet the Great Migration was longer-lasting and larger in scale, seeing over six million people migrate from the American South to the North and the West. 

One manner in which Wilkerson builds the evocative reality of the Great Migration is by furnishing the text with sensory and emotional detail, such as when recounting Ida Mae’s work in a cotton plantation. The cotton fiber is described as light as “lint”; this detail is presented alongside the image of hundred pounds of cotton, a day’s desired “good haul,” evoking the back-breaking labor which would be involved in picking enough lint to make a hundred-pound load. Wilkerson notes in an interview that through her text she wanted readers to be on the train with Ida Mae and George Starling to and race across America with Robert Pershing Foster in his Buick. The crowded Jim Crow cars, packed with “chickens,” and “egg crates,” the shiny chrome of Pershing Foster’s car, the citrus groves of Florida and the tenements of Chicago—these are all sharply recreated spaces which allow the reader to experience the lives of three protagonists.

Further, the sensory details also help capture the movement of the migrants as they navigate the unfamiliar. The movement represents a rebirth of sorts, and indeed George Starling, a conductor on a train ferrying many new migrants to New York is described as a “midwife,” helping their passage into a new world. Because the migrants are experiencing a new world, their senses are extra keen to the new sights, sounds, and smells. The sensory details also place their destinations in the North and West in contrast to the languid, warm South the migrants left behind. The cities they come into are “polyglot”—with the sounds of “clipped accents”—and chilled and concrete in feel, whereas the South they have left behind is a place of “syrupy” accents and “velvet” nights. Thus, the sensory contrasts show that leaving the South is a painful process for most migrants. However, they must leave, because, in the poet Langston Hughes’s words, the South’s “warmth” is exceeded by her “cruel[ty],” driving the Blacks to the “cold-faced” but “kinder” North. 

Isabel Wilkerson punctuates her text with epigraphs taken from the writings of Black American authors such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, as well as from the Bible and from Black spiritual songs. Apart from throwing light on the themes of the text, these passages from Black writers offer a meta-comment on how the Great Migration changed American society and culture, including literature, for the better: most of the passages are written by writers who were Southern Black migrants or their descendants. Thus, the epigraphs show that the Great Migration was an event which reshaped America...

(This entire section contains 957 words.)

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as a whole, not just the lives of some Southern Blacks. It gave America the writings of Richard Wright and Toni Morrison and the music of Tupac Shakur. Statistics back the cultural shift with marked demographic changes. The Migration would increase the Black population of Chicago to one third of its total population—and to over forty percent of Detroit’s. It was a central event of American culture, what Wilkerson terms the unspoken “immigration” of America.

The migrants faced racism in the Northern cities that had more clear economic causes than the Jim Crow racism of the South. Unbridled capitalism forced the migrants and poor whites into competition with each other. The resentment against the Blacks, the newest workers to arrive on the scene, was therefore likely, given the economic context. However, white workers could not parse the macroeconomics behind their predicament: that it was racist laws that kept Blacks at lower wages, thus lowering fair pay for everyone. Interestingly, it was not just the poor whites who resented the newcomers; so did the assimilated Black migrants, or the “old-timers.” The new arrivals seemed to threaten their carefully cultivated place in the city with their Southern manners. Further, Black migrants found it more difficult to assimilate because they wore their ethnicity on their skin. White immigrants from Europe who did not know much English and carried foreign names could slip relatively seamlessly into American society with the change of a name. Assimilation was far more difficult for Black migrants. 

The class which had the fewest economist options consisted of Black women migrants, such as Ida Mae Gladney. Most often their only option was domestic work, and even educated Black women were often refused clerical jobs. Because of the abundance of Black women looking for work, domestic work paid as little as “five dollars a week in the 1930s.” Even for these undesirable jobs, Black women were competing with women from other minorities. Thus, the very qualities that attracted diverse populations to American cities, their polyglot and mixed nature, also created unique economic challenges for Southern Blacks and other migrants.