'The Warmth of Other Suns': A Time When the Bible Itself Was Segregated

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson's powerful narrative, The Warmth of Other Suns, is vital to understanding the plight of African Americans, vital to understanding the United States, and should not be ignored.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson

Penguin: Random House

September 2010


In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson sheds light on the mass migration of African Americans who fled the South in the first half of the 20th century in search of a better life. It's a powerful and heartrending story built on thousands of personal interviews and impressive research, carried by three intertwined migrant narratives that provide a rich, personal connection to this epic story.

Wilkerson's protagonists include Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who left Mississippi in the late-'30s for Chicago, George Starling, who escaped persecution in '40s Florida and ended up in Harlem, and Robert Foster, an ambitious Louisianan who headed for the promised land of '50s California. We follow their stories from cradle to grave, share in their travels and travails, and thanks to Wilkerson's brilliant storytelling, become deeply attached to them. Their stories help us to better understand a world that seems far in the past, and reminds us that the past really wasn't that long ago.

The enormity of the oppression meted out to African Americans under Jim Crow cannot be overstated. Many southern blacks toiled in virtual slavery as sharecroppers, indebted to white landowners who shamelessly cooked the books to keep their workers in bondage, with the threat of violence hanging over those who'd challenge their integrity. Lynchings and executions were carried out to punish blacks for slights, real or imagined, toward whites—entire black communities could be wiped off the map by mob violence that was not only overlooked, but often abetted by law enforcement.

Wilkerson details the racial protocol of the Jim Crow South with a coolness that demonstrates the banality of their evil and emphasizes their absurdity. "In one North Carolina courthouse," she explains, "there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on."

Despite the great lengths Southern whites went to in order to separate themselves from African Americans, they paradoxically took extreme measures to prevent the objects of their scorn from fleeing north. The vast numbers who joined the migration were a cause for alarm, as black labor was a crucial element of the Southern economy. "No other," claimed the South Carolinian newspaper Columbia State, "would work long under the same conditions." Laws were passed to prevent Northern recruiters from soliciting blacks, and those trying to emigrate were labeled fugitives subject to arrest. In the face of such intimidation, the urge to escape only intensified.

Though plagued by racism and prejudice as virulent as in the South, the North offered greater opportunities for employment and legal protections that would at least give African Americans a fighting chance. Though Ida Mae, George, and Robert didn't have to fear the most extreme injustices prevalent in the South, they were subject to what sociologist Gunnar Myrdal named the "Northern Paradox", the idea that while most white Northerners were against discrimination on principal, they often practiced it in their personal affairs.

Ida Mae encountered this when she moved to a predominantly white community and her new neighbors swiftly moved out. George spent 35 years as a baggage handler on a train with no opportunity for advancement or promotion. Robert cultivated a successful medical practice, only to be shamed in the twilight of his career by whites who resented his success and confidence.

Wilkerson highlights the greatest indignity of the pervasive prejudice that reigned in the United States, in many places, right through the '70s. The dreams and aspirations of an entire race were stymied for no good reason, their hopes and desires thwarted at every turn simply because of the color of their skin. She brings this out most effectively in her depiction of George Starling. Growing up in Florida, Starling had big ideas, and even attended college for a few years before he was forced to give it up and join his father in the orange groves.

In his middle age, having been out of the South for a quarter century, George would look back on his life with regret. "He would never be the chemist or accountant he had seen himself in his mind," writes Wilkerson, "would never work a white-collar job or any kind of job that would make use of his intellect." He could see that things were changing for young African Americans. They would be able to pursue what was denied to him. He was proud of that, but the victory was bittersweet. "The revolution had come too late for him."

Though it succeeds in its goals of dispelling the misconceptions and distortions that have grown up around the Great Migration and demonstrating the progress made by the intrepid African Americans who challenged the status quo, The Warmth of Other Suns is at heart a tragedy. It's a chronicle of lives torn apart by prejudice, a nation senselessly divided by race. It's a story vital to understanding the United States and should not be ignored.







Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.