Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an oral history of the Great Migration. The book is built around the experiences of three Black Southerners, who moved to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century; it’s sourced from interviews that Wilkerson did with them in (mostly) the 1990s, as well as newspapers, public records, and other research that puts more color and detail into their experiences, and sets up the broader context for the world in which they were living.
The book was a huge bestseller and award winner when it came out a decade ago, and so the stuff Wilkerson is writing about has diffused out into the wider culture a lot more over that decade. That’s probably exactly what a writer of a book like this wants to happen, but it does mean that this book wasn’t as novel and surprising in 2020 as it probably was in 2010—I think I’ve read any number of essays and explainers and thinkpieces that cited this book in one way or another. But even with all those people blithely spoiling history without a proper spoiler warning, it’s still fascinating reading.
Because yes, the book’s got a lot of facts and statistics and big-picture social trend stuff in it, but fundamentally, it’s the story of these three people who uprooted their lives in the South for one reason or another to set up in the North or West. And Wilkerson does an amazing job at telling their complex human stories—to the point where I’m not sure if she waited so long after the interviews to publish because she had a lot of research and writing to do, or because publishing a book with such candid, frank pictures of these people would have felt inappropriate while they were still alive. These are just ordinary people, by and large, but she tells their stories so compellingly that the book ends up a page-turner as we move through the happenings of their lives. Among other things, I can’t help but think that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be grateful to have such a thoroughly humanized look at who their grandparents were and what they lived through.
All those people who praised this book when it came out were dead-on correct: This is a history that both illuminates the big demographic shift of the American twentieth century and tells the deeply personal stories of these three people, and does both things well. Highly recommended.