review: The Warmth of Other Suns

When I got my job in South Carolina, my friend’s step-father took me aside and warned me to always watch my back in the south and to never feel safe. Since then, I have been wondering what Jim Crowe was like for those who lived through it and, quite simply, how they did it. The Warmth of Other Suns describes  one of the consequences of this system, the great migration of African American southerners to the industrial cities of the north and west and its impact on the receiving cities, the south, and the migrants themselves.

The book tells this story by following the lives of three migrants. The oldest was Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife who moved to Chicago in 1937. George Swanson Starling left the citrus groves of Florida for New York in 1945 after failing to organize his fellow fruit pickers and became a train porter, his hopes for a college education dashed. Her last example, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster moved from Monroe, La to  Los Angeles in 1953. A medical doctor, he became quite the bon vivant, and was immortalized in a song written for him by a patient’s husband, Ray Charles:

Many of these migrants–Wilkerson likens them to immigrants–created virtual landsmanschaften, communities organized accordingn to their places of origin, and many were better educated and formed more stable families than the people who stayed behind.

It’s a warmly-written book, and Wilkerson clearly has fallen in love with her subjects, in particular with Ida Mae who, in her mind, succeeded the best and therefore enjoyed the happiest and longest life. It is also a painful book, and full of details about life under Jim Crowe, the sheer effort it took to make it through the day and the damage this life inflicted on those who lived it. While the Great Migration petered out decades ago, this history is not over yet. Many of these migrants’ grand-children are returning to the south as well educated professionals, often with ties to the community. Today, there are, I read, entire churches in Atlanta comprised of people who have grown up in Detroit or Chicago, forming new landsmannschaften in an intriguing dance of upward mobility.

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