Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

This was a book I randomly saw on various "best-of" lists but never gave much thought to until my friend L recommended it to me.  So, when I went looking for my next book to read I did not give it a second thought and ordered it immediately, not knowing much (if anything at all) about the plot.  L and I have been passing books back and forth since high school - there really hasn't been anything that she has recommended that hasn't been a great read, so off I went and downloaded "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson.  The book follows the stories of three different people who are only connected by their desire to leave the oppression of the south for the "freedoms" of the north and the west.

Cover Picture Source

For me, I did not know much about the history regarding the great migration in much detail.  In history class you cover the Civil War, touch on the Reconstruction period, WWI and WWII, and maybe touch on civil rights enough to cover Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, but not too much more.  Every page of this book was completely fascinating to me - learning the history through the stories of the people themselves allowed for a personal connection to the characters, their families and their lives.

Reading about the struggle of all these families in the south regardless of age and education was really amazing. One family were sharecroppers, walking away after a year of back-breaking work and making nothing; the father of another family was the principal of a colored high school, making a fraction of what a white principal made.  The third family in focus told the story of a man who decided to push the limits of what salary he could make for a day's work on the farm.  Each had their own reason for leaving.  However, throughout the entire book Wilkerson intertwines the stories of other battles between the races in the south and how each one may have affected other families and how it did affect those we were following.

This book goes into the details of the Jim Crow laws that I never knew much about.  It was more than a separation of the races - really, after the Reconstruction period ended, things reverted to how they were prior to the Civil war.  What struck me the most is how commonplace lynchings were and how people were literally getting away with murder.

These stories do not sugarcoat the life of the people after leaving the south. It goes into great detail on the many hardships the families faced once they were north and supposedly free.  One family settles in Chicago and another in Harlem.  Seeing how the city and certain areas evolved over the years really allows us to look back and see how the city was shaped and what led to its make-up today.

I highly recommend this book to everyone.  Knowing that I probably would not have picked it up off the shelf on my own makes me more thankful that L did.  This was such an amazing story that feeds into a lot of how we live our life today.  These are three examples of the American Dream - the good, the bad and everything in between.  You will gain such a different perspective on your life and what you have.

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