A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson
1. What is the meaning and origin of the title, The Warmth of Other Suns?
I was reading the footnotes of the Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, one day, and discovered a particularly moving passage on page 496, a passage which is a story unto itself.
When Wright wrote his 1945 autobiography, the Book of the Month Club insisted that he cut the second half (about the North) and change the title from American Hunger to Black Boy. He wanted the book published so he conceded to their request. But that left the book without the ending it needed so he hastily came up with an alternative passage. Because he was forced to write quickly and succinctly, the passage summarized in a way he had not achieved in the text itself the longing and loss of anyone who has ever left the only place they ever knew for what they hoped would be a better life on alien soil.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to excavate it. I felt it was poetry, beautifully rendered but invisible, buried as it was in the footnotes. When it came time to submit the manuscript, I pulled out the most moving phrase for the title, The Warmth of Other Suns. It was a working title at best because my editor and I were still not convinced it was the one. At a meeting of executives at Random House, however, the question came up again and someone remembered this same passage and settled on the very phrase, I had originally identified. My mother, who migrated from Georgia to Washington, D.C. during the Great Migration, and knew what it meant to leave your own sun for another, believed from the moment she heard it that it should be the title.
The question of the title set me on a course of trying to understand just what the sun means to us, what it gives us and what it takes to defy the gravitational pull of your own solar system and take off for another far away. Richard Wright consciously chose to call the cold North the place of warmer suns. It showed how determined he and millions of others like him were to leave a place that had shunned them for a place they hoped would sustain them, the need of any human being and the gift of any sun.
2. How widespread is the Great Migration? How many people experienced it? Can most African-American families in cities like Chicago, LA and New York trace their origins back to similar places in the South?
Some six million black Americans left the South for all points North and West during the decades of the Great Migration, which lasted, statistically, from World War I to the 1970’s. At the start of the twentieth century, ninety percent of all black Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, some forty-seven percent were living outside the South.
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these migrants make up the majority of African-Americans in the North and West. Most African-American families in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and elsewhere can trace their origins back to the South.
Vast as it was, however, the Great Migration is not purely about the numbers but about the lasting effects of so many people uprooting themselves and transporting their culture from an isolated region of the country to the big cities of the North and West. They brought the music and folkways of the South with them and created a hybrid that has become woven into American life as a whole.
3. How did you find Ida Mae, George, and Robert, and why did you choose to focus on them instead of others you interviewed? Tell us a bit about your research, and why these three people stood out to you.
It took eighteen months of interviews with more than 1,200 people to find the three protagonists in the book. I interviewed seniors at quilting clubs in Brooklyn, senior centers in Chicago, on bus trips to Las Vegas with seniors from Los Angeles. I scouted for people at union meetings of retired postal workers and bus drivers and at AARP meetings on the South Side of Chicago. I went to Sunday mass in Los Angeles and Baptist churches in Brooklyn. I went to funerals, libraries, senior dances and the southern state clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago. Essentially, I went everywhere I could think of that would attract large numbers of black seniors who might have migrated from the South.
I went to some of these places enough times that people began to recognize me. I kept running into this one woman at Creole events and at Sunday mass in Los Angeles. The woman had migrated from Monroe, Louisiana. She heard the kinds of questions I was asking, and she came up to me and said, “I know the perfect person for you.” She gave me Robert’s name and number.
At a meeting of retired transit workers in Chicago, a woman signed an information sheet I had passed around to gather names of people who had come from Mississippi and Arkansas. The woman wasn’t signing for herself. She was signing for her mother who had never been a transit worker but had come up from Mississippi. Her mother was Ida Mae. George, the third protagonist, introduced himself after Sunday service at a Baptist Church in Harlem and immediately began telling his story.
The goal of the search was to find one person for each of the three streams of the Migration (East Coast, Midwest and West Coast) through whom to tell the larger story of the entire phenomenon. They each represent not only different migration streams but different backgrounds, different motivations for leaving, different outcomes and different ways of adjusting to the New World. Together, their lives tell a more complete story of the Migration than has ever been told before.
4. In the process of telling their stories, what did you discover about why some people thrived in their new circumstances, while others did not?
As the stories unfold, many lessons emerge. One is insight into longevity and what it takes to survive the harshest of lives and come out whole. Another is a redefinition of success and accomplishment. A third is the varying ways migrants adjust to their circumstances, how they learn to make peace with the past, or not and how that adjustment affects their happiness. Each of the three protagonists adjusted to their circumstances in completely different ways. One turned his back on the South and created a new identity for himself, going as far as to change his name. He never fully found peace. Another moved between worlds, never fully reconciling one with the other. A third, Ida Mae, took the best of both worlds, never changed from who she was, and was the happiest and lived the longest of all.
5. Could you give us a few examples of well-known people whose lives would have been different, and perhaps would not have been possible, had it not been for the courage of those who left the South?
Many famous Americans were products of the Great Migration, and there’s no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South. Some might never have existed because their parents met in the North. Among the children of the Migration are: Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, the astronaut Mae Jemison, the producer Sean “Puffy”Combs, the leading neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, the artist Romare Bearden, the playwright August Wilson and many others.
Each of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really. They were among the first generation of blacks in this country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of parents or grandparents who knew it was too late for themselves to truly benefit from the advantages of the north but knew it was not too late for their children.
One such parent, an ambitious sharecropper wife in Alabama, convinced her husband that their family should migrate to Cleveland in the 1920’s. The father was so worried that, as they were packing, he had to steady himself on the shoulders of his nine-year-old son. The boy felt the father’s hands shaking and only then realized the gravity of their situation. The boy’s first day at school in the North, when the teacher asked his name, he told her it was J.C., which was short for James Cleveland. The teacher couldn’t understand his southern accent and just called him Jesse instead. From that day forward he was known, not by his birth name, but by the one he had mistakenly acquired -- Jesse Owens. He went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin becoming the first American in the history of track and field to do so in a single Olympics and disproving the Aryan notions of his Nazi hosts.
6. Do most of the children who are products of The Great Migration know about their parents’, or grandparents’ experience leaving the South? If not, why do you think there is a kind of reluctance to talk about the “old country”?
Most children of the Great Migration know the basic facts of where their parents came from. But one reason the larger story of the Migration hasn’t been fully told is because many families haven’t talked about it much.
When the parents or grandparents left, many left for good. They didn’t look back – it was just too painful. Some had experienced or witnessed violence. Many endured persecution. All had suffered the indignities of caste. Some felt shame or embarrassment over being southern and rural now that they were living in big, sophisticated cities.
Like immigrants who change their names or choose not to teach their children the language of the old country, some migrants created new northern identities for themselves and didn’t pass along their stories to their children and grandchildren or take their children back to their homeland.
Others, however, surrounded themselves with people from back home and never left the South in spirit. So, children of the Migration grew up with differing connections to the South depending on their parents’ connection to it and their parents’ ability to make peace with their southern past, or not.
7. How did this influx of southerners to Northern and Western cities affect the urban landscape of America, and American culture as we know it?
It would be hard to imagine cultural life in America had the Great Migration not occurred. American music as we know it was one of the gifts of the Great Migration. Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them, shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and, ultimately, the music their children and grandchildren created.
The three most influential musicians in jazz – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane – were all children of the Great Migration, their music and their collaboration informed by their southern roots and migration experiences. Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina, for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used alto sax once he got north.
Motown simply would not have existed without the Great Migration. The parents of Berry Gordy, the company’s founder, migrated from Georgia to Detroit during the migration. Gordy was born and raised in Detroit, where he later recruited other children of the Great Migration as talent for his new recording company, Motown records.
8. What was the cost to the South of this enormous migration? In what ways was this domestic migration similar to the immigration of foreigners to the U.S? In what ways was it different?
The South lost vast numbers of its most ambitious workers to the Great Migration. In some cases, entire plantations were left empty of workers. Southern authorities responded swiftly to stem the outflow of its cheap labor. The South reenacted anti-enticement laws from the time of slavery to keep blacks from leaving. The authorities imposed fines of up to $25,000 to anyone caught recruiting black workers north or helping them to get out. Police arrested blacks from railroad platforms, shut down ticket counters to blacks trying to get out, and when those things failed, simply wouldn’t let trains stop at stations where large contingents of blacks were waiting to board.
The accomplishments of well-known migrants, such as B.B. King, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, along with the exponentially larger corps of influential children of the Migration show the cost the South paid as a result of the Great Migration. To this day, the South lags the North in many economic indices, such as wage scales, life expectancy, property values, cost of living and cultural influence in this country. These are complicated economic issues that result from many internal and external forces. But the loss of so much intellectual and creative talent and the fact that those who left comprise the bulk of the success stories of African-American life in this country can only hint at the unknowable price paid by the South as a result of the loss of so much talent and manpower.
This domestic migration was similar to most any other immigration experience in that the people had to make the hard choice to leave the only place they had every known for a place they had never seen, just as any other immigrant must do. The interior sense of loss and longing, of being torn between worlds, never quite fitting in, making sacrifices for the next generation are all universal to the human experience of migration.
The Great Migration differs and is, in fact, tragic because these people were already citizens. In a just world, they shouldn’t have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship. Birth in this country alone should have assured that for them. The realities of race and caste in the South forced them to leave to claim their citizenship. But once in the North and West, they ran into resistance and hostility and had to work even harder to prove themselves, often being pitted against immigrants from other countries, who, in fact, had more in common with them, as landless serfs themselves, than many of them truly realized.