The Lives Gained by Fleeing Jim Crow
By Janet Maslin
AUG. 30, 2010

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
622 pages. Random House.

“We pray for the lady visitor and the book she’s trying to put together,” said the spiritual leader of the Monroe, Louisiana, Club of Los Angeles at a meeting that Isabel Wilkerson attended in 1996. Ms. Wilkerson was there as part of her monumental research job for The Warmth of Other Suns, work that seems to have lasted the better part of twenty years and taken a piece of Ms. Wilkerson’s heart in the process. Her hard work, keen insight and passionate personal commitment make The Warmth of Other Suns a landmark piece of nonfiction.

In a book that, quite amazingly, is her first, Ms. Wilkerson (a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times who is now professor of journalism and director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University) has pulled off an all but impossible feat. She has documented the sweeping fifty-five-year-long migration of black Americans across their own country. She has challenged the dismissive assumptions that are sometimes made about that migration, treating it as a briefer and more easily explained event.

Ms. Wilkerson makes a case that people who left the South only to create hometown-based communities in new places are more like refugees than migrants: more closely tied to their old friends and families, more apt to form tight expatriate groups, more enduringly attached to the areas they left behind. She argues that these people, among them her Georgia-born mother and Virginia-born father who raised Ms. Wilkerson in Washington, D.C., were better educated and more closely tied to their families than other scholars have assumed. She works on a grand, panoramic scale but also on a very intimate one, since this work of living history boils down to the tenderly told stories of three rural Southerners who immigrated to big cities from their hometowns.

She winds up with a mesmerizing book that warrants comparison to The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann’s study of the Great Migration’s early phase, and Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s great, close-range look at racial strife in Boston. (But it should not go unnoticed that The Warmth of Other Suns also tells the kinds of stories that have made such a tenacious best seller out of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s wide-eyed, indignant novel of racial injustice.)

With a glimmer of the big, unwieldy story she wanted to tell but no set method of how to frame it, Ms. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people whose lives had followed the same basic pattern: early years in the South followed by relocation in either the North or the West. She winnowed this group down to three, each of whom had left home during a different decade.

The oldest, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, was a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife who moved to Chicago in 1937. Next was George Swanson Starling, who relocated to New York in 1945 from the Florida citrus groves after his efforts to organize fellow workers earned his employer’s ire. Finally, and unforgettably, there was Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a 1953 transplant to Los Angeles from Monroe, La. Called Pershing in his early years and then morphing into Bob the West Coast bon vivant, this doctor warrants a book of his own. Dr. Foster’s most famous patient, Ray Charles, would record a song about Dr. Foster’s way of running off with Mr. Charles’s women.

These three left their homes for very different reasons. But what they had in common was an inability to accept the illogic of the Jim Crow world in which they were raised. The single greatest strength of The Warmth of Other Suns lies in its anecdotal examples of how the rules of segregation, whether spoken or unspoken, actually worked on a day-to-day basis. It’s one thing to know that Southern blacks faced bias in all aspects of their lives. It’s another to know that when an esteemed black doctor from Louisiana needed to perform surgery on a black patient, he couldn’t do it in a white hospital. Driving around with his own portable operating table was easier.

Although the book contains its share of much rougher stories, it is these seemingly workaday ones that hit hardest. One interviewee’s remark that leaving the South “was like getting unstuck from a magnet” best sets Ms. Wilkerson’s tone in a book sure to hold many surprises for readers of any race or experience. The Warmth of Other Suns, whose title was taken from a Richard Wright quotation, does a superb job of capturing the way whole lives can be changed by small outrages, and the way those changes are neither irrevocable nor simple. For Ida Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster, the act of leaving home meant the end of one set of troubles. It just as surely meant the beginning of another.

Dr. Foster’s epochal journey is the most devastating, partly because of his storytelling style. Years after the fact, he would remember in vivid detail the exhaustion of driving west across Texas without knowing where segregation actually ended, where he could find a place to sleep, where he could even safely stop his car. (He kept an eye out for Confederate flag bumper stickers. He also wound up traveling desperately across three states without rest.)

It says a lot about Ms.Wilkerson that she retraced Dr. Foster’s steps by driving west herself, with her parents in the car to provide commentary. Because they are her parents and three black people can now stop wherever they want to, her mother and father cut short this experiment before their daughter’s exhaustion could even begin to match what Dr. Foster went through.

“I’m looking for a room,” he told Ms. Wilkerson he had said after being turned down wherever he stopped along the way. “Now, if it’s your policy not to rent to colored people, let me know now so I don’t keep getting insulted.” In a book that spans a century, Ms. Wilkerson describes both youthful dreams and late-life losses. There may be things about her three principals that she will not say (Dr. Foster’s obsession with appearances, particularly with his wife’s, goes well beyond anything that racial inequity can explain), but there does not appear to be anything she didn’t know.

Her closeness with, and profound affection for, her subjects reflect her deep immersion in their stories and allow the reader to share that connection. It creates a wide swath of human drama. And it shapes a new understanding of why Southerners’ new lives in strife-torn cities far from home may not have been easier than the lives they left behind.