Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a great read. I know I’ve said this already, but I want you to read it, now, if you haven’t already. Then I want you to tell me what you think of it. Seriously.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a compelling account of the great migration of African Americans who fled the South for Northern cities in the early to late-mid 20th century. The migrants whose stories are shared were driven out of the South by the humiliations and horrors of Jim Crow and drawn Northward by stories, many apocryphal, of the North as a promised land of freedom and opportunity conveyed by Northern labor recruiters, the black press, and word of mouth.
Wilkerson relates slices of this history through the stories of three people, each of whom started their journeys from different locations, both socially and geographically, before ending up in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. By using personal accounts, Wilkerson humanizes this bit of history, giving us real people to relate to and root for, and a personal sense of the migration beyond its broad economic, social, and political impact on the nation.
I found it compulsively readable and highly educational.
Of course, using personal stories, especially of just three people among millions, has its limitations. We live the history of the migration through the imaginations and fears of those whose stories are shared. What gets lost as a result are some of the less personal push factors that drove the migration, including the mechanization of agriculture, especially cotton, and powerful pull factors, including sudden and massive Northern industrial expansion driven by the great wars. Both these push and pull factors are given short shrift. Instead, the focus is on the repellant nature of Jim Crow, which no doubt had a lot to do with why people left, but doesn’t, by itself, tell the whole story.
Neither does Wilkerson spend much time on the experiences of those surrounding the particular migrants whose stories she shares. We know next to nothing about what it was like for their children to grow up in crowded ghettos, facing the North’s peculiar brand of racism, more de facto than de jure, but in many ways no less effective than Jim Crow in limiting the life chances of its targets.
But Wilkerson is more a journalist than a historian. She shares history through the memories of three who lived it and doesn’t engage much in theory and speculation. By doing so, she opens up new dimensions of feeling and aspiration absent in other historical accounts. By focusing on this side of things, she makes one point more clearly than anyone else I’ve read on the subject – that abolition did little to bring an end to the logic of slavery.
Because slavery made commodities of black people, black bodies had a measurable value to white people, making arbitrary violence against those bodies understood as acts of irresponsible management, if not human rights violations. Once slavery ended, black people were valuable as workers, but not as commodities. This value was exaggerated by trapping black people in systems of neo-slavery and near slavery. Under the neo-slavery of the convict leasing system, and the near slavery of sharecropping and farm labor, black workers had instrumental value measured in units of production, but their bodies meant little, sometimes nothing. Perhaps that’s why so many were worked to death on chain gangs.
At least in part because of this, post-abolition systems of white control were enforced in a manner that was arbitrary and might once have been considered reckless. The rise of lynching is evidence of this shift. The rise of the KKK in the place of slavery-enforcing citizen militias is another. And the arbitrary nature of “justice” under Jim Crow bred a culture of fear that was qualitatively different than that resulting from the more predictable forms of terror under slavery. This fear is made palpable in The Warmth of Other Suns.
The implications of this history should not be lost on us today. We see this same dynamic continuing to play out in the mass incarceration of black people. With the end of neo-slavery and near slavery (with, of course, exceptions for migrant workers, unorganized factory and sweatshop workers, and incarcerated people, some of whom still make up part of our workforce), we saw the erosion of the instrumental value of black workers. Following the logic of slavery, blacks have no intrinsic value. If they also have little instrumental value, they are worth little or nothing. So we now police, isolate, and warehouse black people, especially black men. And we do all of this while arguing over the continuation of the only real investments we’re making to address black poverty – programs like food stamps and welfare – all of which are merely band aids, not solutions.
I know that reading a book is also no solution. But we have to start somewhere. And if we’re to start anywhere, I think it best to start with real people’s stories. They remind us that we’re all just human, more alike than different, and gives us a rooting stake in how our life stories play out.