In Pursuit of a Better Life

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
640 pp. Vintage. $18.

Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Isabel Wilkerson! Talk about dedication! How many years must it have taken Wilkerson to research and write this? In the afterword she talks about researching this book in the mid-90s. The 90s!!! This thing was published in 2010!

And it shows, too. The breadth of detail, nearly all of it going back several decades … it’s just astounding, really. No wonder this work of art won the Pulitzer. I’d be outraged if it hadn’t!

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about the Great Migration before this. I had heard OF it, but I didn’t know the details, had certainly not thought about the fact that the lives of so many great men and women — James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Michelle Obama, John Coltrane, among many others — would have been altered, drastically, had their parents not made the decision to emigrate from the south.

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” definitely gives you those details, gives you all those facts, and yes, it is indeed EPIC!

You don’t need to have a keen interest in the history of African Americans in the United States in order to enjoy this one either, because as Wilkerson makes so clear, this isn’t just a book about African American history — it’s a book about American history.

There’s a lot here that made me just shake my head in horror at what black people had to go through to achieve the simplest things, things that the rest of us take totally for granted.

This is as authoritative a text as can be written on this fascinating topic, but it doesn’t at any time feel scholarly in the sense of its pacing. Wilkerson shows us the Great Migration in the stories of three African Americans, all three of whom made the decision to escape the racism they experienced on a daily basis in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, to try and make a new life for themselves in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, respectively.

In all three cases, our heroes, Robert Foster, Ida Mae Gladney, and George Starling, left unspeakable circumstances — and it was clear that leaving was in no way easy — only to experience additional discrimination when they finally made it out to the west and the north.

At times heartbreaking, at others deeply inspiring, “The Warmth of Other Suns” is a triumph that will make you appreciate the strength of the human spirit and of these brave men and women who made the fateful decision to risk everything when they couldn’t be certain of what awaited them on the other side.

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