Reading Group Center

A Q&A With Isabel Wilkerson, Author of The Warmth of Other Suns

Called “A landmark piece of nonfiction,” by The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is now available in paperback. Drawing on ten years of research and over 1,500 interviews, Wilkerson tells the remarkable story of America’s Great Migration—the mass exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. The book won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year. We sat down with the author to ask about the significance of this largely overlooked piece of American history.

Q: How did this influx of southerners to Northern and Western cities affect the urban landscape of America, and American culture as we know it?

A: It would be hard to imagine cultural life in America had the Great Migration not occurred. American music as we know it was one of the gifts of the Great Migration. Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them, shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and, ultimately, the music their children and grandchildren created.

The three most influential musicians in jazz—Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane—were all children of the Great Migration, their music and their collaboration informed by their southern roots and migration experiences. Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina, for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used alto sax once he got north.

Motown simply would not have existed without the Great Migration. The parents of Berry Gordy, the company’s founder, migrated from Georgia to Detroit during the migration. Gordy was born and raised in Detroit, where he later recruited other children of the Great Migration as talent for his new recording company, Motown records.

Q: What was the cost to the South of this enormous migration? In what ways was this domestic migration similar to the immigration of foreigners to the U.S? In what ways was it different?

A: The South lost vast numbers of its most ambitious workers to the Great Migration. In some cases, entire plantations were left empty of workers. Southern authorities responded swiftly to stem the outflow of its cheap labor. The South reenacted anti-enticement laws from the time of slavery to keep blacks from leaving. The authorities imposed fines of up to $25,000 to anyone caught recruiting black workers north or helping them to get out. Police arrested blacks from railroad platforms, shut down ticket counters to blacks trying to get out, and when those things failed, simply wouldn’t let trains stop at stations where large contingents of blacks were waiting to board.

The accomplishments of well-known migrants, such as B.B. King, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, along with the exponentially larger corps of influential children of the Migration show the cost the South paid as a result of the Great Migration. To this day, the South lags the North in many economic indices, such as wage scales, life expectancy, property values, cost of living and cultural influence in this country. These are complicated economic issues that result from many internal and external forces. But the loss of so much intellectual and creative talent and the fact that those who left comprise the bulk of the success stories of African-American life in this country can only hint at the unknowable price paid by the South as a result of the loss of so much talent and manpower.

This domestic migration was similar to most any other immigration experience in that the people had to make the hard choice to leave the only place they had every known for a place they had never seen, just as any other immigrant must do. The interior sense of loss and longing, of being torn between worlds, never quite fitting in, making sacrifices for the next generation are all universal to the human experience of migration.

The Great Migration differs and is, in fact, tragic because these people were already citizens. In a just world, they shouldn’t have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship. Birth in this country alone should have assured that for them. The realities of race and caste in the South forced them to leave to claim their citizenship. But once in the North and West, they ran into resistance and hostility and had to work even harder to prove themselves, often being pitted against immigrants from other countries, who, in fact, had more in common with them, as landless serfs themselves, than many of them truly realized.

Click to read the full interview with Isabel Wilkerson.