By Lissa Jones
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010) is authored by Isabel Wilkerson, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (1994), and the first African American to win the prize for individual reporting. In this work, Wilkerson makes the story of the Great Migration, a Black movement that changed the face of the United States of America, come alive.
The title, the author advises, was inspired by none other than another Black legendary great, author/poet Richard Wright: “I was leaving the South/To fling myself into the unknown/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/And, perhaps, to bloom.”
Wright’s poem oozes the essence of Wilkerson’s work in this novel — Black people, many of them sharecroppers, almost all barely able to afford a ticket North, resisted anyway. Literally at risk of death they packed up everything they could carry and went North hoping for a future free of the devastation of the segregation in the Jim Crow South.
Wilkerson tells this tale so vividly, and she makes it personal — she tells the story through the lives of three of the brave souls who helped change the face of this nation: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney resisted, migrated, sparked by the hanging of the Carter boys, accused of looking at a White woman, hanged at age 13.
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a surgeon of great talent who wasn’t even able to escape Jim Crow segregation when he was stationed as a military doctor in Austria, was so wounded by Jim Crow that he migrated looking for a place where his skills would be honored and his color not seen as a barrier. The Jim Crow South didn’t allow for any Black doctor to treat any patient in a hospital.
George Swanson Starling has a special place in my heart, for he left because he resisted Jim Crow: He insisted on organizing the workers who picked the fruits of Florida for little to nothing. He resisted and organized them, not only leading them to a more livable wage, but also helping to restore their dignity. This went on for some months before Jim Crow and the fear his laws generated took hold in the hearts of the workers and they betrayed George, giving him no choice but to leave.
“The grown people’s whispers of unspeakable things seeped into George’s subconscious like a nursery rhyme, even though he was too young to know the particulars or understand the meaning of it all. Surrounded as he was by the arbitrary violence of the ruling caste, it would be nearly impossible for George or any other colored boy in that era to grow up without the fear of being lynched, the dread that…he might be accused of something and suddenly find himself in a circle of tormentors with no one to help him.”
In a poem authored by Richard Wright: “This was the culture/from which I sprang/This was the terror/from which I fled.”
The nation was taking notice — it’s cheap labor, frankly still free labor — Black people, were leaving, and nothing the South did, nothing the plantation owners did, could keep the masses from seeking a new destiny in the North, where they believed they could be free of Jim Crow and the suffering of daily indignities. Do not doubt, as is true of our nation today, that the government and the people of the South did many things to keep individuals from reaching freedom, but in the end they couldn’t stop the Great Migration.
“Everybody seems to be asleep about what is going on right under our noses. That is, everybody but those farmers who have wakened up on mornings recently to find every Negro over 21 on his place gone.” — Editorial, The Macon Telegraph, September 1916
The Great Migration gave birth to Richard Wright and Mahalia Jackson to name just two. Black people, our people, changed the face of this nation, spit on Jim Crow and migrated. Celebrate our resistance, honor our ancestors, buy this book and tell our story, the story of the Great Migration.
Lissa Jones welcomes reader responses to [email protected]