Isabel Wilkerson Talks About Generations of Black Immigrants

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author discusses her definitive new study of the Great Migration with ColorLines.

By Greg Varner Oct 01, 2010

Some historical events unfold so slowly, over so many years, that their precise contours are hard to define. America’s Great Migration, in which some six million black people fled the South for cities north and west between 1915 and 1970, is such an event. Writers have claimed the Migration was a phenomenon restricted to World War I, or focused on only one of its streams (say, to Chicago), or blamed it on the boll weevil and changes in the cotton industry. Migrants have been undercounted and pathologized, blamed for bringing unemployment, single parenthood, and other problems to northern cities. In these and other ways, the Migration’s reach and impact have been distorted and minimized.

"This is the biggest underreported story of the 20th century," says Isabel Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times in 1994 (thus becoming the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer). Her monumental new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns," is an attempt to see the Migration in its full dimensions. It has reached the bestseller list of her old newspaper and will likely become the definitive, canonical work on its subject–and may well win its author more prizes.

Readers of this magisterial work, like so many black migrants gazing upon Northern or Western cities for the first time, are apt to think they have gone to Heaven. Wilkerson’s book is radiant with pleasures, not least among them her powerfully empathetic writing. In alternating sections, she looks at life through the eyes of three unforgettable individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who went from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937; George Starling, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Foster, a surgeon who migrated from Monroe, Louisiana, to Los Angeles in 1953. 

Getting to know these three characters is a privilege. Wilkerson’s writing is beautiful, as when she describes Foster’s reaction to seeing Los Angeles for the first time: "The whole effect was like a diva with too much lipstick, and he loved it. The too-muchness of it all." 

The story of the Migration, as Wilkerson tells it, has an uncanny way of becoming the story of national experience writ large, supporting her claim of its centrality in American life. Her book moves swiftly, yet seems to encompass everything in its sweep, pausing for delightful and informative mini-essays on how African Americans name babies, or a just-so story of how Newark came to have its black population. Her masterful research shows on every page; "The Warmth of Other Suns" will be an authoritative source for readers who want to know what it was like to be a sharecropper at settlement or a day worker in the Florida orange groves–and, above all, what it was like to leave the South of Jim Crow for a new world. In doing so, Wilkerson shows, the people of the Great Migration were like countless other immigrants to America.

"This book is not just about black people leaving the South," Wilkerson says. "It’s about the yearning of anybody who wants to make a life-altering change for something better, for which there’s no guarantee of the outcome. I’m hoping that if nothing else, people take that from this book–that they will see that we’re all, in this case, Americans seeking the American dream, and African Americans are no different from that. They all shared the desire, when they were participants in the Great Migration, of the immigrant heart–of someone leaving the only place they’ve ever known, for a place they’ve never seen, with no guarantees."

America’s black migrants, however, were crucially unlike other immigrants in searching for political asylum within their own country, where they were nominally already citizens. Leaving the South was a collective act of resistance, despite being seen by many as an act of cowardice, at worst, or capitulation, at best. It ended up changing the South, the entire nation, and arguably, the world. 

"The civil rights movement might have been delayed had there not been this Great Migration," Wilkerson says. "The Jim Crow caste system was untenable and unsustainable. If you have to lynch someone in the lower caste every three days in order to maintain the system, it’s untenable. Making this decision to leave was the only thing people could do at that time."

The migrants exerted a collective pressure on the South that made it better for those who were left behind. The number of lynchings declined in each decade as the number of migrants increased.

"The people leaving were the first indication that the workers, the cheap labor, of the South had an option and were willing to act upon that option," Wilkerson says. "They were making a statement by leaving in the first place, and they provided leverage for those who stayed–first, by showing them that there was an option to flee, and also by exposing them to the freedoms of the North, where there were people able to walk freely on the streets, or work in integrated settings. Even though life in the North was far from perfect, it showed there were options. And so the migration helped open up doors and dreams of possibilities. And the people who migrated, because they were making higher wages than the people in the South were making, were able to send money back home that could be used to help finance the effort toward civil rights."

Resistance, of course, was met with reaction. Many people had to sneak away as if they were passengers on the Underground Railroad. There were cases of black people being arrested on railroad platforms, and thus prevented from boarding the trains that would carry them north. Anti-enticement laws from the time of slavery were re-enacted, punishing people who recruited black workers to move north. Other, gentler responses included paying workers a little bit more to keep them from leaving. But the tide was unstoppable, and would forever change American culture.

"The majority of African Americans that you meet in the North, Midwest, or West are descended from the Great Migration," Wilkerson says. "I think it’s important to know how the country came to look as it does. Why is it that there are suburbs and then there are inner cities? That is a result not of the migration itself, but of the reaction to it. The geographies of the great cities of this country are the way they are because of the reaction to the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the South, and by the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of them were living in all other parts of the country. This was a demographic sea change, and we’re still living with its aftereffects.

"In literature, in music, in sports, in politics–almost every aspect of American life was affected by the Great Migration."

Without the Migration, Wilkerson contends, there would have been no jazz as we know it. Louis Armstrong and B.B. King were migrants. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were all children of the Migration. Coltrane was given a used alto saxophone, his first, after moving north to Philadelphia from High Point, North Carolina, at the age of 16. Pop music would have been different, too. Motown founder Berry Gordy is a product of the Migration, as were many of the acts he signed to his label, including Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Athletics was changed by the Migration, which included or spawned Jesse Owens, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell. Literary migrants and their children included Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison and August Wilson, among others. Astronaut Mae Jemison, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and artist Romare Bearden were children of the Migration. And there are many additional examples, including Michelle Obama.

"Any immigrant experience is often judged by what happens to succeeding generations, and by whatever institutions are left by those succeeding generations," Wilkerson says. "These people in the Great Migration deserve their due for what they helped create–and their greatest contribution might be said to be the children who ended up going off to do things that changed the culture. You’re not talking about insignificant people. You’re talking about people who changed music as we know it. Motown is the soundtrack of an entire generation. Jazz is an art form that has fans and aficionados around the world. These people are icons and legends around the world."

In other ways, large and small, directly and indirectly, the Migration changed our lives. Psychological studies of migrant children by Otto Klineberg of Columbia University showed that exposure to life in New York, with its greater range of opportunities, raised their intelligence to a level equal with their scholastic peers. These studies became foundational in the Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional.

Martin Luther King, Jr., migrated from Atlanta to Boston, where he attended an integrated university and met his future wife, Coretta Scott. "The fact that he did not have to step off the sidewalk when a white person passed," Wilkerson points out, "had political ramifications."

Migration, of course, did not automatically solve one’s problems. People who left Jim Crow in the South all too often encountered "James Crow" elsewhere. But its virulence in the South, as Wilkerson’s book makes plain, brought Jim Crow’s harshest effects–economic and social–to that region. Oppression and injustice affect everyone, black or white, as shown on the simplest level by laws like the one in Birmingham, Alabama, decreeing that a black person and a white person couldn’t play checkers together. The maintenance of the caste system under Jim Crow required the enactment of Byzantine rules that kept both black and white people confined, if unequally so. The shift in the labor force as a result of the Migration helped insure that the South remained economically inferior to other regions.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Migration, Wilkerson contends, is that it was leaderless. Many members of the black elite, including Booker T. Washington, warned against abandoning the South. Still, people found they could not abide the caste system under which they were living. Thus, the Migration highlighted the power of the individual.

"The idea that you have to turn to a leader to tell you what to do, or to save you, is in some ways a myth," Wilkerson says. "In this case, the leaders were out of touch with their so-called followers, and it was the followers who were doing the leading. Some of the ministers had to follow their flocks north. To me, it’s so inspiring, because it shows the potential of individuals to make a decision without looking to a leader to tell them what to do."

Listening to the life stories of her three principal subjects, Wilkerson says, helped her redefine success. Robert Foster, the Louisiana surgeon who went to California, achieved material success beyond that of most Americans, but never fully recovered from the wounds suffered under Jim Crow. George Starling, who went from Florida to New York, achieved a kind of psychological success, becoming able to function in both worlds. Ida Mae Gladney, the Mississippi sharecropper who moved to Chicago, achieved the least amount of material success, but lived the longest and was the happiest of Wilkerson’s three main characters, making her a spiritual success.

"She had the least education, she lived modestly, and yet she was perhaps the most successful of all," Wilkerson says, "because she had managed to make peace with the North and the South, as difficult as they both were. You might say for any immigrant that there are good things in the old country and in the new place. She could tell you everything about what Michael Jordan was doing, and yet she could still make sweet potato pie with the best of them in Mississippi."

Wilkerson’s love for her trio of migrants can be felt in the way she tells their stories. She renders their experiences with heartfelt care, choosing just the right details that help readers understand what the lives of these extraordinary people–who miraculously weren’t consumed by bitterness–were like.

"I love the beauty of the people who told these stories," Wilkerson says. "After all that they had been through, they were able to look past the ugliness that was a part of the Jim Crow system and not judge individual people on the basis of that. They were open to the prospect of befriending and being close to people who might have looked like people who had been oppressing them, but they recognized that they were not. If only we could all see ourselves as individuals, we would see that we have so much more in common than we have been led to believe."

Finally, Wilkerson came to reflect on the title of her book, taken from a passage by Richard Wright. In a revised version of "Black Boy," Wright wrote, "I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns…."

"I believe that there are no other suns," Wilkerson says. "Not that they found that these other suns were not as warm as they had hoped–they managed under them, because they got just enough of the rays from these other suns in order to thrive or survive–but there are no other suns. I think the lesson, in some ways, from Ida Mae, in particular, is that the sun is within you."