Isabel Wilkerson is a Pultizer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” “Warmth” is historical nonfiction documenting the relocation of 6 million Black people from the South to the North, Midwest and West from 1915 to 1970.
The book follows three protagonists: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, who moved to Chicago in 1937; George Swanson Starling of Wildwood, Florida, who moved to New York City in 1945; and Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster of Monroe, Louisiana, who moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1953. Wilkerson interweaves their personal narratives with historical events to give greater context to the suffering and limited mobility they faced in the South. The conditions included lynchings, racism, unequal pay and lack of jobs. They, like millions of others, had nothing to lose and everything to gain by fleeing. Upon arriving to their final destination, the “Whites only” signs forever linked with the Jim Crow South were gone but they still encountered segregation through redlining, restrictive covenants and resistance from Whites.
Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people and spent 15 years researching the award-winning book. Wilkerson is discussing her book and the migration at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) March 29 in conjunction with a display of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series.”
Because she developed a close relationship with the three protagonists, they shared experiences with her that they hadn’t told their own children.
“It’s a gift to anyone who reads the book that they were willing to share their lives with all of us,” she said.
Released in the fall of 2010, the book is still relevant and will likely be in the decades to come. At nearly 600 pages, it gives a comprehensive look at the unrecognized movement. At the beginning of the Great Migration, 90 percent of the Black population lived in the South. By the end, nearly half were living in other parts of the country. “Warmth” is the written authority of the Great Migration and evokes empathy for those who took a monumental risk for a better life.
The lives of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Serena and Venus Williams, Jesse Owens, Nat King Cole, Jacob Lawrence and countless others could’ve taken a different course had it not been for the Great Migration.
Wilkerson talked with Real Change about her book, her talk at SAM and Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” which was completed in 1941. Wilkerson’s and Lawrence’s works are a perfect pair. Wilkerson provides a look back at the Great Migration through the eyes of three people and historical documents, while Lawrence’s work showcases what it was like to watch it from the sidelines.
What can people expect to hear from you at your talk at SAM?
They can expect to hear the connection between the not-too-distant history of migration and the search for freedom and African-Americans in this country. A connection between that history and our current day. They can expect to hear about how The Great Migration affected almost every aspect, certainly of urban America as we know it, music, theater, art — as in Jacob Lawrence’s tremendous work, seminal work — and even politics because we live with the after effects to the response to the Great Migration.
The other thing that I often speak about and will be touching on is the universal nature of migration. The universal human connection that we all have in the desire to be free, the desire to be able to live out one’s dreams, the desire and willingness to go however far we have to in order to realize those dreams because that’s really what the Great Migration was about.
You just mentioned the after effects of the Great Migration. What were the biggest ones?
It was an uprooting of millions of people and that uprooting of people, that scattering, that diaspora of people had a massive effect on every city that they migrated to. There was resistance to their arrival as there is resistance even to this day. Migration is a worldwide issue that we’re facing right now. This Great Migration in some ways is sort of a cautionary tale of what happens when people migrate and they’re migrating to places that are resistant, maybe uncertain and in many cases even hostile to their arrival. The social geography of every city that they went to began with the arrival of African-Americans in the Great Migration. They ended up settling in often overcrowded, least desirable neighborhoods in the cities that they went to. They were often hemmed in or restricted as to where they could go outside of those neighborhoods to which they had been confined.
The other thing the Great Migration did was it became the advance guard for the Civil Rights Movement. In other words the modern Civil Rights movement really got under the way in the mid-1950s. It was preceded by decades and decades of African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, defecting the conditions that were ultimately being fought in the Civil Rights Movement. The exodus of millions of African-Americans to places outside of the South put pressure on the North and the South to finally pay attention to what was going on in a caste system, a very violent caste system in the American South.
African-Americans for the first time in their history in this country had options and were acting on those options to seek their freedom outside of the region that their forbearers had been enslaved. It’s a watershed moment and that’s one of the reasons why I think the Jacob Lawrence “Migration Series” has such enduring magnitude in our culture, not just in art. It was one of the first representations of this major shift in our country demographically, geographically, culturally. He was capturing it while it was in motion, while it was actually occurring. He himself was a child of the Great Migration. His mother was from Virginia and his father was from South Carolina. They both migrated to the North and they met in the North.
You’re a child of the Great Migration. Did your parents talk to you about their movement to the North?
No, not very much. That’s one of the reasons why I did this book and one reason why the book has captivated people in the way that it has because the majority of African-Americans in the North, the Midwest and the West are descendants of the Great Migration, but the people didn’t really talk about it. It’s a measure of all that they suffered and endured that they very rarely spoke about that world that they had escaped. They just didn’t talk about it. When they left, they left for good and they didn’t look back. It was too painful. They didn’t want to burden their children with what they had endured — the sadnesses, the frustration, the danger, the violence that they had endured.
What made you choose to highlight the lives of Gladney, Starling and Foster in the book?
I narrowed it down to about 30 and any of the 30 could’ve been the three. These were people with very strong personalities. Strong storylines, open or at least willing to contemplate what they had endured, what they had gone through, willing to open up and to share. I narrowed it down to these three because I needed to have them coming from different parts of the South and going to different parts of the North, the Midwest and the West. The three of them together give you a sense of the multi-layered character of the entire migration. Each one of them is coming from a different circumstance, different socioeconomic place in their worlds, they had different precipitating reasons for leaving although all of them are leaving for the overarching desire to be free from the restrictions of where they were in the Jim Crow South.
The other reason that ties them all together is that they were all self-reflective. They were willing to see their lives with a candor and honesty meaning that they were willing to talk about the mistakes that they made as well as the triumphs that they had experienced. They were frank and open about their experiences. Each one of them had a sense of humor that allowed a kind of levity, an escape valve for the heaviness of the era.
Did you talk to them mostly in person?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s one reason it took a long time. It was imperative that I be there with them. I went places with them. I went to the racetrack with Dr. Foster; I dropped him off at the race track, I should say rather, which was his request. I went back South with Ida Mae and George Starling. There’s a tremendous amount of time that had to be spent with all three of them in order for them to feel comfortable to share their lives.
They wanted to know you were really committed to honoring their story and getting to know them.
Absolutely. I worked as a journalist for my entire career up until that point. This was work that actually involved ethnography, involved psychology, sociology, history. There are many, many things that had to come into play. A lot of this was participate observation where you’re just spending time with them.
How has writing the book impacted your life?
For a work of history — it’s accessible and it’s a story and it’s a narrative — but it is a book of history and for it to have the life span that’s it’s had, it’s really kept me on the road all these years since it came out. It’s now in its seventh year, and I’m still on the road talking about this book. I could not have anticipated that. It’s taken on a life of its own and it’s carried me along with it.
Did it change your outlook on where we’ve been and where we’re going as Black people?
It might’ve taken me an entire month in order to come up with something that a person might read, maybe a page or two, that you might read in a matter of minutes.
It was not an overnight transformation for me. In other words, I slowly absorbed the depth of the challenges that African-Americans have faced in this country from the time of arrival in 1619 and how it has been an uphill battle, against the wind, to rise above the station to which African-Americans have been confined which was the bottom of a caste system that they did not create and did not wish to be part of.
To me it’s about the enduring search for freedom and recognition for our common humanity. That is what stays with me.
This caste system that was put in place to hold African-Americans in a fixed place did not happen overnight, and so the journey out of that caste system, out of the restrictions that were placed and continue to be in place for African-Americans that is not going to be overnight either.
The goal and purpose of this was to allow anyone from any background to be able to put themselves in the hearts and minds of American citizens who had to escape a caste system in one region of the country and put their hopes in another part of the country just to be recognized as full human beings and citizens of this country.
Wilkerson’s talk at SAM on March 29 at 7 p.m. is sold out but a simulcast will be available in Nordstrom Lecture Hall.
Family ties: Artist Inye Wokoma follows his family’s history through the Central District at NAAM
Capturing flight: Jacob Lawrence Migration Series comes to SAM