The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson [Review]

I’ve mentioned before that, after the 2016 election, I began a new reading agenda. (I essentially sacrificed November and December’s reading budgets for this.) One puzzle, which I discussed in my review of Justin Gest’s The New Minority, was why people voted for Trump. The other was why Hillary lost. And after time spent reading a lot about the first puzzle, I was informed that I should probably be spending some time on the second one. That, in turn, led me to books such as Carol Anderson’s White Rage (my review here), as well as others not yet reviewed in this space. So I came to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a Christmas present, with an agenda: how could it help me understand the country in which I live?

Wilkerson’s book–a vast and awesome, in the fullest sense of the term, work–helped me answer that, but it is much more than that. It is a bold and welcome telling of a story that was given, I believe, a paragraph in my high school history textbooks; certainly I recall “The Great Migration” as being a boldface term that I had to learn. In Wilkerson’s hands, though, the extent of that migration–the degree to which this voluntary movement of a people reshaped the United States–becomes clear. Wilkerson’s real aim here is to introduce Americans, or I should say White Americans, to their country, because its story has never been told.

One of my principal reactions to Hidden Figures was anger. That anger flowed both on behalf of the women who had had their contributions to the space race ignored (and the many qualified would-be astronauts denied the chance to walk on the Moon on account of their race) but also toward the unknowing conspiracy that had hid their contributions from the rest of us. Really, it is amazing tho think of how much African-American history is unknown to White Americans. Partly, that is because of the legacy of institutional racism (yes, school and university curricula were racist); partly, that is because of continuing race prejudice; and partly it’s because there remains a sense that American history is distinct from African-American history, and that African-American history therefore is not (for White Americans) “ours”.

Except this is–in at least one key respect–dead wrong. The history of African-Americans is a history of Whiteness in reverse. It is a story of what was done to erect privilege and maintain boundaries. It is, therefore, just as much “our” history as the figures that wind up on pedastals, currency, and the sides of mountains.

Wilkerson writes beyond this narrow point. She chronicles the story of the migration through a focus on those who made the trek from the South to California, Chicago, New York, and points beyond. She details the paradox of the migration: how it was, in one sense, a move upwards from rural Louisiana, rural Alabama, rural Florida toward the richer, freer environments of the urban North and West — but she also recounts how, when the migrants arrived there, they discovered that racism and racial codes were present where they arrived. African-Americans worked for longer hours and lower pay than their White colleagues, even the immigrants from Europe; they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

[E]ven in the low-status laborer and domestic positions that were the caste-ordered preserve of colored people in the South, colored migrants to California faced stiff competition from the many immigrants already there, the Mexicans and Filipinos working the loading docks, the Europeans in personal service to the glamorous and the wealthy. “Even the seeming inapproachable shoe-shining field was competed for by the Greeks,” observed a report by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s on the challenges facing black workers in Los Angeles. “Trained English servants succeeded them as valets and butlers.” (p. 233)

And yet. These migrants created the world in which Americans — certainly me — have always lived. The urbanization and Norhternization of African-Americans inverted the historical association of “Blackness” with the rural South. (There’s a reason why it was only in the late twentieth century that the “inner city” became a codeword.) Culturally, Blackness is now not only a part of American identity–it is, I think, far more central than most Americans recognize. I don’t want to trivialize or marginalize anyone, just to bring up an example: the dominant musical styles of the past century have been jazz, rock, and hip hop. Appropriated and tamed as they have been, they nevertheless retain the core of their roots.

Wilkerson writes almost as a novelist. We learn of the doctor who fled Louisiana for California, succeeded professionally beyond his wildest dreams, and yet was marked indelibly by the scorn of White society and the disdain of the aristocratic Black society of the South from which his wife sprang. We see the tensions between the generations of migrants, those who had arrived and urbanized first looking askance at those continuing to pour off the railways. We learn about the ways that racism cut through every dimension of society–how trains crossing the border from America to the South had to rearrange their seating to conform to states’ laws about segregation. And we see the very partial redemption of the American Dream for those who made and completed the journey–and the cruel ways that the war by drugs and the war on drugs wrecked the accomplishments of many who had sacrificed, or been sacrificed for, at the end of the process.

This is a great American work of history. It deserves as wide a readership as possible. I regret only that I did not read it at its publication.