It took me a long time to get through Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a historical account of the Great Migration (I started in June and did not finish until last week), but it was worth it. The book dislodges everything I thought I knew about the movement of Black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North and West in the 20th century by anchoring the phenomenon in the real, lived experience of three brave migrants who chose to leave their homes in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana in search of better and more equitable futures. The book is astonishingly beautiful — lyrical, balladic! — in tenor, and Wilkerson’s retelling of the biographies of these three individuals treats them with the dignity they deserved but did not receive during their lifetimes. I’ve never read anything quite like this book. For the most part, it felt in texture more like a novel, or a memoir. And it deftly acknowledges the complexity of this historical movement — accommodating its messiness and the fact that it cannot be reduced to a simple thesis because it was driven by the complex inner workings of complex human beings in complex socio-economic times — while also drawing broader conclusions that in fact thwart many of the commonly-received interpretations of the migration. I came to the book believing that the Great Migration was about cotton, economics, and the end of the final vestiges of slavery in the American South, and Wilkerson demonstrates just how over-simplistic that reading is.
The book also felt like the transcription of an oral history project. You could tell from the way it was written — from the hyper focus on minutiae like the specific foods they packed in shoeboxes on the trains North — that Wilkerson spent years and years listening to dozens and dozens of individual stories, and how lucky we are that she did. For one thing, by the time of the book’s publication, all three of its protagonists had passed away, as have — presumably — nearly all of the pioneers in the Great Migration that could “set the record straight” on how things actually felt at the time. Had they passed away without Wilkerson’s project, we would have lost an entire generation’s worth of firsthand stories about the Great Migration, which has proven to be one of the most powerful forces in shaping modern urban America.
The book is sprawling in a way that befits the scope of the movement and the complexity of the lives of its three protagonists. The only minor quibble I have is with its editor, as I found many redundant passages, especially in the second half of the book. (For example, we hear about Dr. Robert Foster’s grandson getting into Ivy league schools about three times within the span of ten pages, and each time, the information is presented as if new.) This made for occasionally over-dense and mildly frustrating reading.
All in, the book was a reminder — as I wrote a few weeks ago — that history is non-monolithic. History is messy because people are messy. We are driven by myriad seen and unseen forces. This book acknowledges and celebrates that truth.
Interestingly, I read this book while also listening to Andre Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, and I couldn’t have picked a better companion audiobook if I tried. Talley is himself a product of the Great Migration, having been raised in Jim Crow-era North Carolina before moving to New York City as a young man in pursuit of a better future for himself. He speaks candidly about the racism he endured throughout his career, and expresses a kind of emotional duality that Wilkerson describes as common among many migrants: he is both endeared to and repelled by his Southern roots. Talley’s memoir is fascinating, full of juicy intel on some of the fashion world’s biggest names (read: Anna Wintour, Anna Wintour, Anna Wintour) and what can only be described as a full-on, intense love affair with the craft of clothing. His writing is at its best when lingering over what people are wearing: these passages read like poetry, and in a startlingly non-trivial way. He is easy to love: principled but pragmatic. I left the book profoundly inspired by his example. (It was also a joy to hear him narrate his own memoir in the audiobook — his voice is so distinctive, dramatic, playful, self-aware.)
Have you read or listened to either of these books? What did you think?
Discussion Questions for the Warmth of Other Suns.
+Did you come into the book with an interpretation of what The Great Migration was? Did the book change that interpretation?
+Why do you think Wilkerson chose to follow the lives of Ida Mae, George, and Robert? Why them? Why three instead of two or five?
+Did you like the structure of the book? Why or why not? Why do you think Wilkerson chose to write it in this way?
+What do you think were the key motivators that led Ida Mae, George, and Robert to leave their homes in the South?
+There are many horrific sections of the book that demonstrate the violence and scope of racism in America. Did any of those sections surprise you or stick with you in a way that bears comment?
+Why do you think Wilkerson positioned Ida Mae, George, and Robert as “immigrants”?
+What portion of the book was most compelling to you?
+I am currently enjoying The Heir Affair on my Kindle (a sequel to The Royal We — essentially, royal family fan fiction) and Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me on audiobook. The latter is absolutely charming thus far. In it, Kalb creatively splices voice messages and narration from the imagined perspective of her deceased grandmother to piece together a love story between grandmother and granddaughter.
+What I plan to read next: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (one of the few remaining unread books on my What to Read This Summer list) and, for fun, Lucy Foley’s newest thriller, The Guest List, which has been described as “Agatha-Christie-like.” Yes.
+What I plan to listen to next on audiobook: Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl.
+This pretty floral maxi gives me LSF vibes. Love the green!
+Dying over Roller Rabbit’s latest print for children’s pajamas! Hill needs these.
+These gold bangles are so fun. I actually just ordered mini one of their children sized bangles as a gift for going back to school. Last year, I bought her this personalized cloud bracelet inscribed with a nickname we have for her. I don’t intend to make this a yearly thing, but I do think she’ll get a kick out of wearing a gold bangle as I wear a gold bangle daily now, too! (A 10 year anniversary gift from Mr. Magpie to add to my everyday jewelry stack.)
+Have I been living under a rock? I didn’t even know crib rail covers were a thing until I found these. I wish I’d known about them months ago because Hill is part beaver — he has gnawed the heck out of his crib rail! You can also find precious monogrammed styles here and here.
+More great Etsy finds here.
+A really good price on adorable swim trunks for a little boy (buy now, wear next summer), a precious $34 blue and white dress for a little lass, and $13 polos!!!
+This $200 wicker mirror is MAJOR.
+And this embellished sweater is also MAJOR.
+These sconces can be plugged into the wall, versus hard wired — amazing for achieving a custom look without the expense of tearing up your wall, hiring an electrician, etc.
+Some of my favorite passages ever.
+Adore this scalloped sheet set.
+$88 for these beyond adorable bow heels.
+Just ordered this concealer after so many rave reviews!