Isabel Wilkerson will speak at the FedEx Global Education Center at UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday, Feb. 18, at 5:30 p.m. The event is free, but register online.
From 1915–1970, more than 6 million African-Americans fled the cruel caste system of the South, making the difficult choice to leave the land they knew for a land they had never seen.
In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson chronicles the exodus to the North and West through the stories of three main characters. While their bravery shaped their individual destiniesand those of future generationsthe collective act of African-Americans to abandon the South galvanized the civil rights movement, indelibly changing the social, cultural, political and economic fabric of America.
In 1994, Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing as the Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. She is the first African-American to win a Pulitzer in journalism.
The Indy spoke to Wilkerson by phone about her book.
Independent Weekly: The three protagonists in the book are very compelling. In the book, you write that you chose them because their stories were emblematic of different aspects of the Great Migration. Could you elaborate on these three people and what made their stories rise above the rest?
Isabel Wilkerson: In some ways it has to do with the need to represent the experience of 6 million people in three. That’s a tall order. I interviewed 1,200 people to get 30 people to get three. I needed to have three people from the three major streams of the migration and three people who would have lots of different reasons for leaving. And I needed people from different decades to represent the fullness of the migration.
Beyond those basic parameters, I was looking for people who were interesting personalities on their own, and people who, by this time in their lives, were comfortable talking out difficult experiences.
I was really interested in how you characterized Ida Maethat “her success was spiritual … and because of that she was the happiest and lived the longest of them all.” She was very resilient and emotionally portable.
The book is about more than the migration. It’s about longevity and survival. It’s about fortitude in all kinds of crises. You can look at how the [characters] responded to the pressures of their lives and get clues today of how to survive what we’re facing now.
Ida Mae had the least opportunity and the least education and financial and material comfort of the three; yet she lived the longest and happiest. There are coping mechanisms to learn from all of them. Their lives alone allow you a window into 20th-century life.
What struck me were the gender differences in the migration experiencethe distinctions between Ida Mae and George, who went as a couple with their children, or Inez and Alice, who were left behind while their husbands pioneered the New World. What were the pervasive, lasting social effects of these extended separations?
I have such admiration and awe for that generation. They were born into World War I. Their childhoods were during the Great Depression and they came of age and began courting during World War II. Their lives were so hard beyond the caste system. It was understood that life was hardship. Life was so incredibly harsher than we can imagine now. We are spoiled by comparison. I am still humbled by the rigors of the lives they had to lead as young people. Put yourself in that world: You’re 23 years old and wondering, when is this going to end? If they can survive that, we can survive what we’re up against now.
A major point in the book is that while the North and West were certainly an improvement over the South, these areas were not Shangri-la. The discrimination was coded, but nonetheless damaging. There were even conflicts between Northern blacks and Southern black migrants. Tell me more about what caused this tension.
I have concluded that economic insecurity is at the core of so much of human tension in today’s world. The conversations about health care and immigration and red states and blue states have an economic underpinning. That what was going on there. The arrival of these underpaid people from the South put immense pressure on workers in the North in that they were competing for jobs. And the people who were there already were not as well positioned, so they were economically at risk themselves. Insecurity exists when there’s a feeling that there’s not enough for everyone. People will try to fight to maintain their position when they feel threatened by newcomers who might take away something they worked very hard to achieve.
The migration changed America culturally, economically, socially. It’s clear what was gaineda fairer if not perfectly equitable societya culturally rich country. But what was lost?
I don’t think it’s always been clear [what was gained]. The focus quickly turned from who the people were and why they left to overcrowding and the transplantation of Southern culture. People looked at the alien nature of the people instead of what potential they had.
One of the biggest losses is that they didn’t share their experiences with their families. The legacy wasn’t fully passed down to succeeding generations. People didn’t talk about it. There was a great deal of heartache, even shame, for what they had endured in the caste system in the South. They were wiping the slate clean. That’s how it was for me growing up. My parents didn’t talk about what happened in the South. Every reference about my family in the book, I knew nothing about until I began the book. I had to interview my parents.
Some of those Northern cities that were the migrants’ original destination are losing population: Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee. What are the social and economic implications of that reverse migrationalbeit on a smaller scale?
Kids and grandchildren have the option of moving anywhere, even to the land of their ancestorsthe Southbecause the South has changed. The South became more welcoming to all people because of the changes that occurred after the 1960s. I talked with many former Northern whites who said they would not have moved to the South had the South stayed the way it was before the 1960s. The impact of these demographic shifts opened up the whole country in a way that isn’t fully appreciated.
We now have greater social and geographical mobility, so it’s hard to imagine a migrationwithin Americaof this significance happening again. Perhaps it would happen if there were environmental factorsrising sea coasts or natural disastersthat would displace people. What can we learn from the Great Migration that could prepare us for a subsequent one?
It would require great vision, foresight and leadership to prepare people in receiving cities to recognize why it’s going on and to recognize the needs of the people as they’re arriving. We would need to do work on both sides of the equation: the cities where people are leaving and arriving. It’s almost like the massive shifts of people in other parts of the world due to drought or famine. There is a basic human response to competition and that doesn’t do us well. There would need to be a sense of humanity and empathy. We are all one people.