By Dave Jones
In reading “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the recently announced Campus Community Book Project for 2012-13, third-year UC Davis student Samantha Huynh said she especially liked the personal accounts of people who participated in the Great Migration.
It was an event that changed the face of America: 6 million blacks fleeing the South from 1915 to 1970, an exodus that had been vastly underreported until Isabel Wilkerson came along with “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tells the story through the lives of three people:
* Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, the free-spirited wife of a sharecropper. She leaves Mississippi after a family member is nearly beaten to death over the disappearance of a white man’s turkeys. She and her family end up in Chicago where she sees things she never imagined and inspires all who meet her.
* George Swanson Starling, a headstrong college student, forced by circumstance to work the citrus groves of Florida. He marries impulsively, leads strikes for fairer wages — and is threatened with lynching. He heads to New York where both triumph and tragedy await him.
* Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, an ambitious surgeon who journeys from Louisiana to California to escape the caste system of the South. He chafes because he can perform surgery for the Army but is not permitted to do a simple tonsillectomy in his hometown hospital. He struggles at first in the New World, but eventually rises to high society in black Los Angeles and becomes personal physician to the singer Ray Charles, but pays a price.
Besides encouraging people to read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the Campus Community Book Project will pull together a long list of related activities: talks and panel discussions and films and the like, with the help of faculty, academic departments and other campus organizations.
Then, on Feb. 12, Wilkerson is scheduled to participate in a campus forum and give an evening talk.
Born out of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the book project inspires people to look at the world in different ways, to acknowledge and consider different perspectives around a single theme (as embodied in a single book), and to engage in respectful discussion. The more people on campus and in the wider community who read the book, the more opportunity for talking and thinking, and for learning from one another.
For 2012-13, the selection committee looked at books in the category of civility and civil rights.
“ ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ touches on a time period that had a significant impact on race and culture in U.S. history, and this topic will appeal to many students, faculty and staff,” said Huynh, a double major in history and political science, who served on the selection committee.
The book project is sponsored by the Office of Campus Community Relations, which maintains an online catalog of every book in the series — 10 of them so far.
The next one, The Warmth of Other Suns, earned a spot among The New York Times Book Review’s 10 best of 2010, and won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and numerous other awards. The NAACP honored Wilkerson with an Image Award, for best literary debut.
Life without the migration?
In presenting the Gladney, Starling and Foster stories, Wilkerson interweaves quotations from Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and historical journalism, as well as scholarly sources, said Sharon Knox, who also served on the selection committee.
“The book is a great choice because it looks at a relatively unexamined, hugely important part of American history with ongoing significance,” said Knox, assistant to Patricia Turner, vice provost for undergraduate education. “Wilkerson challenges us to imagine what America would be like without the migration: I picture a culture as anemic as American music would have been without the blues.”
She said Wilkerson sets the migration against this question: “What did the people who left the South take with them? They had a mixed legacy of the brutal racism that forced them out, but also positive qualities and values different from those they found in the North, Midwest and West, which were important to how they thrived in their new homes.”
Knox cited another factor that made this book stand out: It is the work of a black author (whose parents, from Georgia and southern Virginia, participated in the Great Migration, settling in Washington, D.C., where Wilkerson was born and reared.
“I didn’t have a political agenda — I read the books on their own merits — and what I discovered was that the two other books we considered also dealing with African-American experience rendered black speech in dialect and white speech without dialect. That’s a huge problem, because dialect implies ‘other,’ and the absence of dialect does not. For me, that undermined those authors’ agendas of challenging historical wrongs.”
Telling the full story
Jill Van Zanten, who has served on the book selection committee since 2008, frequently evaluates student presentations in English and history at Da Vinci High School.
“This has sensitized me to the limitations of even the most current presentations of U.S. history to high schoolers, which may actually perpetuate racism,” she said by email. “This is why I am really, really keen on the Wilkerson book.”
Van Zanten, a former lecturer in English and linguistics at UCD, said Wilkerson “shows that this migration was bigger, longer and more complex than the typical textbook explanation of the boll weevil plague and the invention of the cotton harvester (which accounts for only one subset of the migrants, cotton sharecroppers, later on in the migration).
“We learn of the extremely violent suppression of blacks in the South following Reconstruction and the extreme dangers involved in leaving, so that it often had to be done with a great deal of resourcefulness and in secret.”
To not tell the full story, Van Zanten said, is to perpetuate the racism that was responsible for the differential outcomes for these migrant-immigrant groups in the first place.
In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” she said, many telling comparisons emerge between African-Americans and the southern and eastern Europeans who, in their new environments, are jockeying for the same jobs and living spaces in the same time period.
White privilege and Jim Crow
Van Zanten continued: “White privilege allows the European immigrants to shed their surnames, join labor unions, get the better paying and less dangerous jobs, purchase homes at uninflated prices, and blend in. Blacks are systematically excluded from these privileges.
“We learn about the existence of Jim Crow in the North and in the West, only in these cases it is unspoken (and therefore sometimes more dangerous). The racial attacks on blacks in Chicago and Harlem are as violent and frightening as anything experienced in the South, not to mention rigid housing restrictions and exploitive renting policies.
“When black residents finally can break into segregated white neighborhoods bordering their own, white flight takes place immediately and devastatingly. Later pathologies of the industrial inner cities would forget about the solid strength and pioneering spirit of the original migrants.”
Most of the first generation is deceased now, making “The Warmth of Other Suns” more poignant and urgent — as Wilkerson captures her stories just in time. “Shortly after publication, the last of her interviewees passed on,” Van Zanten said.
The book’s publisher, Random House, declares on its website that Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people, and gained access to new data and official records to write “this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country and ourselves.”
Wilkerson writes about Gladney, Starling and Foster with “stunning historical detail,” according to Random House, capturing their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train, and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with Southern food, faith and culture, and improved them with discipline, drive and hard work.
Pulitzer for feature writing
Wilkerson won the 1994 Pulitzer for feature writing, while working as the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times. The award recognized her profile of a fourth-grader from Chicago’s South Side and for two stories reporting on flooding in the Midwest in 1993.
She was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. Her other honors include a George Polk Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
She has lectured on narrative writing at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and has served as the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and as the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University.
After spending most of her journalism career at The Times, she is now a professor of journalism and director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University.
She has written extensively on issues of social policy and the human condition, as well as on major stories of the day, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the challenges of upward mobility for The Times’ 2005 series and book, “Class in America.”
— UC Davis News Service