The Great Migration—I honestly do not recall having this as a topic of discussion at any point of my education. Not even during Black History Month lessons. I just assumed that eventually, newly freed slaves just sorta drifted to their permanent location. Well, this book was the history lesson I never had and never knew I needed.
The Warmth of Other Suns follows three young people who decided that it was time for them to look for a better life than what the American South could offer. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster set out for the North and West with the hopes of escaping the lingering effects of the slave mentality of the South. This book seamlessly weaves their stories along with general history and facts to give you the ultimate summation of the Great Migration and what that phrase really means.
While there is so much to touch on in this book (it is 640 pages after all) one of the main things that struck me was the chapter that focused on segregation in Chicago. As a Chicago native, this hit home with me. If you’ve never understood how Chicago got to be the most segregated city in the country, this gives you a succinct overview.
Specifically, one thing I never knew was that Martin Luther King Jr. actually lived in Chicago. Following his calling to come to the North, King was able to meet with Mayor Richard J. Daley who vowed to protect protesters “with heavy police presence that sometimes outnumbered the marchers.” Very similar to the heavy police presence provided when #BlackLivesMatter protestors gather around the Thompson Center (a city building located in downtown Chicago) to protest the murders (at hands of the police) of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sarah Bland etc…
One expert from the book reads: “he had marched in the deepest corners of Alabama but was unprepared for what he was in for in Chicago. ‘I have seen many demonstrations in the South’ he said that violent day in Promised Land. ‘But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today’.” These are King’s words in response to the August 5, 1966 protest against segregation of Marquette Park, a predominately white neighborhood of Chicago’s southwest side. Today, Marquette Park is comprised of mostly people of color.
There were so many eye-opening moments in this book that prompted me to want to do my research on various topics. By far, the best part of the book was the end. There were (and probably still are) many who feel that the Great Migration should not be counted as a pivotal moment in our Country’s history. Many believe that it just wasn’t that big of a deal and it does not make a difference that the generations before us migrated to get to a better life. The last few chapters of the book discuss all of the pros of the Great Migration. For example, there are census records that show that migrants were “better educated than those they left behind in the South”. Also, many migrants did better in school than those who were already born in the north. This is all proof that the Great Migration was transformational in more ways than can be expressed in my review.
It’s interesting the way this book affected me. I finished reading it while on a road trip to Memphis, TN. My family loaded up the truck and drove to attend the funeral of my mother’s father – a grandfather, I’ve never met before. At the funeral, we essentially learned about his life in Tennessee from his childhood. On the car ride home, we learned about how our family migrated from Tennessee to Chicago. The family history I learned, was laced in scandal and was defiantly something I wish I had learned sooner. I think back to my Latin Religion college class, where we were assigned to write a paper explaining how our family “migrated” to the United States. While I tried to explain to my professor that my story would be more complicated and that I would not be able to pinpoint my country of origin like some of my classmates with Latin roots, I submitted a historical fictional essay of our journey from Africa. I got a C and I was upset. And I always felt resentment and maybe jealousy for not knowing exactly where my family is from. Even understanding the great migration while I was taking this class may have helped my paper a bit. I feel like our migration stories are so sacred that sometimes our families do not want to talk about it. Hence, why I learned bits of our family’s history during a funeral. As crazy as it sounds, the funeral opened my mother up to talk about things she’s never shared before. Now, her grown children have a little bit more information on our family’s past. I don’t know if all black families can relate, but I am looking forward to more discussions with my parents about our past, just disappointed it took this long.
Overall, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a must read to anyone who is looking for a history lesson that will inevitably cause a paradigm shift in how you think about the generations that came before us. This book is highly recommended to all!
Candice P is a marketing professional born and raised in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a librarian and on a quest to fulfill one of her biggest goals – to read more books for personal pleasure, than was required for school purposes.