2010 Texas Book Festival

Isabel Wilkerson on the Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson has received scads of well-deserved praise for The Warmth of Other Suns, a scholarly but supremely moving account of what she calls the Great Migration: the exodus of some 6 million African-Americans from the repressive Jim Crow South to the North and West, transpiring from roughly World War I to the 1970s. Wilkerson spent years learning the histories of the three amazing citizens she profiled, their own stories tracing three popular migration patterns: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who left sharecropping in Mississippi for Chicago; George Swanson Starling, who escaped Florida to New York; and Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who traveled from Louisiana to California to open his practice. We spoke with Wilkerson from a stop on her book tour in Chicago.

Austin Chronicle: Your tour's taken you to a lot of sort of receiving stations of the Great Migration –what's the reaction been like in those cities?

Isabel Wilkerson: There's this universal experience of people not wanting to talk about the difficult things they experienced back in the quote-unquote old country. The younger people, the children and grandchildren of the migration, say they've had a really hard time getting to learn the history, and that learning through the book about the experiences of the people –even if it's not their own family – people say, "This is the same story as my family; I hope it will get my mother to talk or get my grandmother to talk or get my grandfather to talk." ...There have been odd experiences –someone who grew up on the same street as my mother came when I was doing a signing in New York. To have someone come up and say, "I grew up on the same street in Rome, Georgia, and your grandmother was one of the most beautiful people I ever knew" –that's what she said! –it's kinda surprising. You don't expect that.

AC: One turn the story takes when it leaves the South is you see tension build between the parents who made the migration and the children who were born into the North, when the children began to bristle at the still-ingrained racism that's more subtle but just as pervasive up North.

IW: You know I don't use the "R" word. ...It's interesting. Many people have used it in assessing the book or saying what the reasons were, but I don't use the "R" word.

AC: Why is that?

IW: I purposely describe this as a caste system, and caste systems essentially are built around the need for labor that is dependent upon certain people in certain levels of that caste to perform certain tasks to make sure the economy works. I like the idea of that because it's a more structural way that allows us to be able to talk about it without the explosive nature of the "R" word, and I think that it allows us to see what is going on beyond what might be the usual language for such things. That was a way that I approached the book because I wanted people to see this as a human story, a classic American story, because it's something that's essentially somewhere in the background of every American –even Native Americans are on their soil, because somebody had to come from somewhere to get on this continent. It's just a question of, how long ago did they do it?

AC: At the Texas Book Festival, you're likely to hear different stories from the audience, from the people who stayed behind.

IW: There's hardly an African-American in the South that doesn't have relatives in one of these receiving stations. So there is still a deep connection between the North and South as a result of this. The majority of African-Americans in the North, Midwest, and the West are descended from people who were part of this Great Migration. That means that when they do genealogy they have to come back home to the South. They may not even know the South very well; they may not have ever been to the originating ancestral homeland of their people. But even if it's not their literal homeland, they must return to understand and get the genealogy of their families. So this is not so much a dividing circumstance. I think this is actually a beautiful pairing of these two regions because people left but the land stays within their hearts; they may have left, but in some ways it stayed within them. They passed certain things on to their children – the culture and the food and that sort of thing – but they didn't share the story, which is where the book comes in.

Michele Norris in Conversation With Isabel Wilkerson

Moderated by Dwonna Goldstone
Saturday, Oct. 16, 2:45-3:45pm, C-SPAN/Book TV Tent

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Texas Book Festival, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

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