The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, weaves together the stories of three people who fled the South during The Great Migration. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930’s. George Swanson Starling who moved from Florida to Harlem in the 1940’s. And Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who relocated from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950’s.
The Major Characters
I usually don’t like books that switch between perspectives but it worked in this instance. Three major subjects with different stories provided varied accounts of the migration process. The book included a good sampling of social and economic reasons for Black people fleeing the South.
I rooted for all three subjects but Ida Mae was my favorite because she was sweet and funny. It’s easy to take for granted that an employee can approach their boss or HR to discuss a paycheck discrepancy. So it was disturbing to read that sharecroppers performed backbreaking labor but might receive no pay. It was rage inducing to learn that disputing a landlord’s accounting could put your life at risk. The work conditions for sharecroppers sounded like a newfangled version of slavery.
To work hard from sunup to sundown with little to show for it. “Lucky” because you work on land for a landlord who will actually give you a fair accounting at pay time. Keeping your head down and minding your business as a means to survive. Only to have the full wrath of the hell of injustice show up at your front door because a turkey has gone missing.
I admired the progression of Robert’s education, medical career, and private practice. Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks with inferior educational resources isn’t the usual path to med school. But the obstacles Robert faced filled him with ambition and insecurities that motivated him to succeed. He was a gifted doctor who yearned to do meaningful work but had to repeatedly push against having his wings clipped.
On the flip-side, the characteristics that made him a great doctor also made him a bit insufferable. Robert’s back story explained his pretentiousness and hunger for approval. But it was tedious to read the details of his fancy parties and style of dress. His habit of dressing his wife and having her “walk” was downright weird. I guess there’s nothing wrong with dressing your mate but it rubbed me the wrong way. Robert and his wife put a lot of effort into keeping up appearances but their marriage seemed shallow and distant.
I had a love and dislike relationship with George. He seemed to mean well but often acted without thinking through the consequences of his actions. His activism and acts of self-sacrifice were admirable. To be a Black young man in the deep South attempting to unionize orange pickers was incredibly brave. Quietly advising train passengers of their legal rights during and following the Jim Crow era was a small but noble act of civil disobedience.
One of my major gripes with The Warmth of Other Suns was the portrayal of George’s wife, Inez. George was telling his migration story but I thought the way the book delved into their marital issues was unfair. George did things that caused problems in his marriage but seemed to shift blame to Inez being “difficult”. Inez didn’t sound like a saint but neither did George. I got the feeling that I was supposed to regard him as a good husband because he remained in an unhappy marriage for several years but I rejected that idea.
To be clear, George was a good person. But he was also an absent husband and father. A great human being but human.
Economics and Demographics
Imagine seeing public salary notices that confirm you receive a lower salary than your counterparts because of your race. Or dealing with harassment and intimidation because you’re ambitious and strive for a better life. Such wage disparities and occupational restrictions limited Black wealth building. Compounded over generations, the economic effects led to a wealth gap that still exists to this day.
It was interesting that train routes played a role in determining where people migrated to in the North and West. Housing segregation further shaped cities and crowded Black people into specific neighborhoods. It was ironic that people fled to escape the blatant racism and violence of the South only to find subtle but equally pervasive racism in the North and West.
What Might Have Been
The Warmth of Other Suns is an amazing book but it started running out of steam after the characters were settled in their new cities. There was an obvious antagonist to root against in the first two-thirds of the book. But the obstacles in the new locations were opaque which caused to book to lose some focus and intensity.
It is unfortunate that the subjects of The Warmth of Other Suns had to spend so much energy to achieve basic standards of living. They had to uproot their families, leave loved ones behind, and move across the country to escape inequality and the threat of violence.
I asked myself along the way if these individuals and others like them would have been as driven without having faced such adversity. Was the tenacity and grit that they developed an innate part of their nature or a result of their circumstances? How much more would they have achieved if they didn’t have to overcome these ridiculous obstacles? What might they and their hometowns have become if their hometowns supported their aspirations? What fruits might their labors have bared in the warmth of their own suns?
The Warmth of Other Suns is not a happy book but the three characters and the other short stories shared throughout the book were inspiring. I was concerned that the book would be very dry but I liked the way that Wilkerson used the personal stories as a jumping off point for diving deeper into economic and demographic details.
The Warmth of Other Suns started me down a rabbit hole of voraciously reading books about Black history and the Black experience. I’d recommend the book for an in-depth explanation of The Great Migration or an introduction to the plight of sharecroppers and the wealth gap.
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