One of the many cool things about being in a book club is sometimes it forces you to read those great books you’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t yet. Thanks to my book club, this spring I was tasked with reading David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic and before that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Recently, one of my book club members suggested we read Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This is a book I’d heard nothing but great things about from a variety of sources, including one of my favorite bloggers Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness. (Not only did she give the book a glowing review, she also interviewed its author.) Upon hearing his suggestion, I seconded his nomination, adding my two cents that the book had “won a sh*it load of awards.” Then, with surprisingly little discussion and absolutely no debate, we selected The Warmth of Other Suns as our next book. And my goodness, did we make the right choice.
The Warm of Other Suns is the story of the nation’s largest human migration of the 20th century. From approximately 1915 to 1970 close to six million African-Americans fled the South for the cities of the Northeast (especially the Harlem neighborhood of New York), Midwest (Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland to name a few) and West (Oakland and Los Angeles). Pulled both by the lure of promising jobs and the chance to live in communities free from such hallmarks of Jim Crow oppression like lynch mobs, debt slavery (or peonage), state-sanctioned racism and voter disenfranchisement these multitudes came north and west in search of freedom and opportunity. The first waves came by train and many wound up working in factories, fulfilling the demand for workers during the First and then Second World War. During the later years of the migration, as America moved away from train travel many fled via bus and private automobile, taking advantage of the nation’s new Interstate Highway System. Wherever these new residents settled, they helped remake the cultural and political landscape of America. According to Wilkerson we can feel the lasting impact of this migration to this day.
In addition to Wilkerson’s excellent writing, probably what makes this book great is its masterful blend of the personal with the “big picture.” Not only does she take the historian’s approach in telling how this migration evolved and its significance, but she compliments it with the highly detailed and personal stories of three African-American migrants and their families. By telling their life stories, she makes this epic yet sadly overlooked part of America’s history feel alive and tangible.
This is a terrific book and should easily make my year-end best of list for 2015. Without a doubt it’s great book for any readers seeking a deeper understanding of America and how we as a nation got to where we are today. Please consider this book highly recommended.