Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | August 16, 2020

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a book every American  should read, if they want to understand the history of the United States after the Civil War—especially if you are a white person, and you think that somehow black people were “free” after the Civil War. It is also a page-turner, as fascinating a read as anything I’ve read by the great biographers of our times.

If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary about the Reconstruction Era, or read (for instance) Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant—Union general under Lincoln during the Civil War, and then president during Reconstruction—you would, even before launching into Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent, well-written, amazingly researched, and absorbing book, already have an inkling of the lack of “freedom” afforded to those whose skin color was not white, not after the Civil War, and not after Reconstruction.

If you lived through the Civil Rights era of the 60s, as I did, you would be similarly astonished that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not resolve everything.  And now, living through the Black Lives Matter era, it is finally becoming self-evident that people of color in the United States still face routine discrimination, if not outright physical violence against their bodies, that hampers their ability to pursue the fabled American Dream, which is supposedly the right of every American, guaranteed by the Constitution.

Wilkerson’s book is first of all a history book, but she interviewed over a thousand people before arriving at three specific people whose life stories are used to illustrate the course of history that led almost six million black American citizens to migrate out of the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life, in the period 1915—just 50 years after the Civil War ended—to 1970, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The three stories are very different, but all fascinating biographies in and of themselves. One interview subject was from a Mississippi sharecroppers’ family and wound up living in Chicago. One was from the Florida citrus groves area, and therefore the equivalent of a migrant worker, but attended college briefly, became a porter on a Florida to NYC train, and wound up in Harlem. And one was from a professional family in Louisiana, became a doctor and emigrated to Los Angeles. But the three share similar experiences of overt discrimination in the Jim Crow South—i.e. with laws and social norms governing just about every detail of how they were expected to live their lives, and what they could and could not do.  And all three also share the experience of traveling to, and arriving in the north, or California, only to find that they had not escaped discrimination after all.

In Wilkerson’s newest, just-released book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, she explores further the laws and social systems that she describes in Warmth of Other Suns that “keep people in their place,” i.e. caste systems.  I’ve got that on my reading list also, as her research and writing exemplify journalism at its best. 

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