The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Isabel Wilkerson addressed a very serious situation of the black migrants in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book addresses African Americans within the United States who chose to relocate from the south to the north. With the south being heavily populated with the mentality of blacks being property, once the laws changed granting freedom the inequality still remained making it virtually impossible for them to claim that newly given freedom.  The exodus during this time was a continual occurrence that continued for sixty decades in America.  It also has stems over several geographical streams determined simply by available route. This book does not only address not only history, but also the overall experience of a population and how a personal choice and dictate the outcome.

Wilkerson addresses the arguments associated with poverty and ignorance as society saw it.  It has been argued that the black families that migrated, dividing from their original southern roots, were simply thrown into what they classify as a dead-end option.  The blacks who migrated north had far more education than those who stayed in the south.  Migrants had better employment, fewer divorces, and a more stable family life than the northern born black.  This indicated that the migrant advantage has worked for all Americans of color. However it separates the black still by geographic location.  This means that a black in the north had more opportunities and societal class than southern blacks.  It also argues that education and opportunity is given based on these same factors.  For Americans of color, this has to be a very confusing and frustrating concept.  How can one northern society hold value on “equality” and the southern society still view these individuals with disregard?

Addressing the past of American history as it associates with black migrants, is not an easy task.  Wilkerson shows the southern black migrants in different lights, following three main character’s journey to the north.  Wanting a new life and opportunity is not necessarily viable if you lack the education and simple ability to blend into this new life.  “The migrants were cast as poor illiterates,” Wilkerson says, “who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went.” (Wilkerson, 2011)  They are seeking a life in another place virtually unarmed.  They may not be in danger of white men killing them for their ability or desire to make a decent life, but they are going to be easily accepted by blacks and whites equally.  It is clearly shown that they are viewed as a lower class simply because they are void of what is considered as uneducated.

At this point, it would be essential to intervene to show the overall social ecological consideration.  These individuals left their life as they knew it to start all over.  They went into the unfamiliar with hopes of being treated as equals.  Their lack of education did not directly affect their work ethics or their ability to do whatever it took to make a better life.  Education is not something that was given to these migrants, so having the opportunity to take advantage of this was something that set them outside of the norms.  It would not be an easy transition, but it is an obtainable one. It would be easy to see that these individuals life would be continually controlled and there would be no better option, however that was not reality.

Part of these migrant’s obstacles were based on the stereotypes that went along with them.  The southern society owned blacks for so long, that changing the mentality that blacks are people not property is something that modern society is still struggling with decades and decades later.  “The immigrants see themselves as hard-working, ambitious, militant about their racial identities but not oversensitive or obsessed with race, and committed to education and family. They see black Americans as lazy, disorganized, and obsessed with racial slights and barriers, with a disorganized and laissez faire attitude toward family life and child raising.” (Water, 1994) This mentality posed an obstacle that an entire society had to overcome. Being classified by the worst characteristics associated with a race was not easy to matriculate oneself into any given situation whether that be society, religious, or into a work-force.  Interaction with southern black migrants in a society that viewed such inequality was not necessarily physically dangerous, but mentally demeaning in a way.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration she follows the journey of three very different paths taken during this black migration. She did a good job with these characters incorporating a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  The first one is a sharecropper’s wife Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was a mother of three who lived to serve her husband.  Every year her husband George would meet with a white man to over his business, and every year the white man would tell him that his expenditures were almost equal to his profit.  George did not have the education or the knowledge to know if the numbers were right so had to settle for the minimal pay for his hard work.  Her husband George was continually robbed by a white man partially because of the fear of questioning a white man and partially because he didn’t have the education to know if what he suspected was correct or not.  They migrated north for a better life and to escape the fear of addition persecution if they stayed.

After the Civil War, George helped cultivate the southern agriculture that replaced slavery.  A cousin down the road was nearly beaten to death after being accused of stealing the same white man’s turkey.  This was a point when migration seemed to be the best option.  Working for pennies a day and long hours he told his wife to pack up the kids and be ready to move.  Fear of change and the unknown did not stop them from boarding the Jim Crow car headed to Illinois.  Getting a job in Chicago, George noticed there were no longer “white” and “black” signs hanging in this facility.  Ida Mae who worked at a hospital was challenged with the decision of joining the strike or not.  She crossed the angry picket line because not working was not something she was ok with.  These southern migrants may not have had the ability to argue based on their education, but survived because they worked hard.

The second character George Swanson Starling was educated valedictorian of his class and dropped out of college due to a lack of money.  He worked as a citrus farmer and decided that working for minimal pay in the south was trivial in comparison to what he was worth.  Having married impulsively and fear of lynching he had to make a decision.  George boarded a train and headed to New York to make a much better life for himself than the possibility he was able to get if he stayed in the south.  He left his wife to find a much better opportunity, which he had no idea what he was going to do.  But the options were far more favorable than staying in the south with little opportunity to separate themselves from the color of their skin.

Education did not play a role in creating equality for Starling in the south.  Neither did his family name that set him apart from being “another black man” in a society that devalued blacks.   His mentality went past this demented norm that he had to be ok with being subservient to the white man.  That his education was not enough to set him apart and allow him to successfully provide for his family. Even though this took place decades ago, it sets precedence for all black migrants.  Inequality does not change who an individual is inside, if they choose to overcome the obstacles that are thrown at them and make a better life, they are changing their own history.  Changing their own destiny that was written for them decade prior with slavery.

The final character was Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, an educated Louisiana surgeon. He was not allowed to do a tonsillectomy in his own hospital, but was allowed to operate in the United States army.  Tired of the racism and limited options given to him from the south, he migrated to California in hopes of a better life.  It was not an easy journey and acceptance was not immediate.  Robert chose to fight against the resistance and rose to be a well-established California doctor.  In fact, he became a personal assistant to singer Ray Charles.

Even in today’s society, doctors are viewed as some of the highest-class elite population.  Seeing that Robert, a surgeon, was discriminated against shows the realms of the racial battles that individuals faced at that time.  Robert demonstrates that African-Americans were literally immigrants within their own country.  They had to fight for the same rights and opportunity that were handed to so many others without reservation. However they were unwilling participants in the racial struggle for equality.  As Robert demonstrated, there were no limitations to finding his success that he worked hard for.  Money and education did not make it any easier for him, than it did for Ida Mae Brandon Gladney or George Swanson Starling.

Addressing a group about America’s darkest chapter in history is no easy feat. No matter which part of history you look at there is an entire race that has continually had to fight to remove the immigrant status that was incorrectly placed above their head.  The simple factors that we assume creates equality and opportunity were virtually irrelevant as this book clearly dictates.  These same obstacles are prevalent still to date, but the difference is there is more opportunity to fight them.  It is easy to say I can’t because of this reason or this reason, however if there is something that an individual wants, and they are willing to work against all odds to obtain it, the possibilities are endless.  Even though the group being addressed is a minority group, this can be directed at everyone regardless of their ethnicity, education, or personal belief system.

Writers during the post-slavery era often describe these black migrants in different ways.  “Some of these and other authors use the term ‘ethnic’ unqualifiedly to describe these immigrant communities and related forms of social organization. Others critically examine the ways discourses and identities of .ethnic difference are strategically employed by black immigrant groups as a way of transversing the affects of anti-black racism and racial discrimination.” (Perry, 2002) Wilkerson addressed them as Americans of color and black migrants.  Having clearly shown the struggle associated with the black population; primarily in the south it was important to distinguish this group from the others.  In order to address this group it is important to determine the parameters.  The black community, as a hole, still had many obstacle and racial issues to address, but the southern blacks had many different concerns than those in the north.

This book does not only address not only history, but also the overall experience of a population and how a personal choice and dictate the outcome.  Had the three main characters stayed fixated in the life they were given, they would not have found the outcome they desired.  Their decisions came with a price and success was not handed to them.  Educate or ignorant, black migrants were not looked upon as equals in the north or the south.  These individuals decided that opportunity was greater than the unknown that they were wondering into.  And the outcome shows that their personal decisions did not come without struggle or resistance but in the end they found the success and life they knew they deserved.  Settling for what society deems as adequate is not a good life for anyone and those norms need to be changed.

 

References:

Water, Mary. (1994) Ethnic and racial identities of second-generation black immigrants in New            York City.  International Migration Review Winter 1994 v28 n4 p795(26).

Perry, Marc. (2002) Diasporic Racisms: Racial Processes in the Americas and the           Transformation of U.S. Race Relations.  Retrieved from  http://www.utexas.edu/research/blackdiaspora/BDC-%20Bibliography.pdf

Wilkerson, Isabel.  (2011) The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

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