This summer a close friend recommended a book that I had subconsciously (maybe consciously at times) avoided reading for over 10 years. I'd heard about The Warmth of Other Suns, the Pulitzer Prize winning, National Best Seller, by Isabelle Wilkerson, but I was not ready or prepared to read it until this past summer. I often wrongly assume I know African American history simply because I have and am living it! But the events of 2020 opened my mind and my eyes to the new reality of the complicated history of African Americans. It was a very personal and difficult read that I slow read over 3 months, I probably read it twice, as I often had to re-read chapters because I had to remind myself the book was a non-fiction work. It's said that if you don't study, know and understand history, you are destined to repeat it. I would fine tune that statement with, "if you don't study, know and understand your history, you are destined to allow it to be repeated!
To be clear, this is not a review of "Warmth", many professionals have done that much better than I could ever do, and the credentials and awards the book has received over the years speak for themselves. This is more of a commentary of the profound effect the book had on me. I am sometimes embarrassed by how much I "don't" know about my history. I didn't learn it through my formal education, so I've had to learn on my own, and it has been a journey of discovery that has conflicted and been painful to me at times. "Warmth" is a must read for anyone serious about learning more of the "whys" behind the racial tensions of today. The book details the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north (cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia) and west (primarily Los Angeles). Ms. Wilkerson carefully chronicles this historic demographic shift through detailed and meticulous research, and while she does highlight the economic opportunities presented by the industrialized north was a part of the reasons for African Americans leaving the south; she does not shy away from the facts that lynching, jim crow, and the general mistreatment of African Americans in the south, were the primary drivers of the migration (African Americans were escaping from the south!) But she was masterful in weaving the stories of three individuals into the fabric of the extensive and sometimes academic sociology research. The characters she introduced to me in the book; George Swanson Sterling, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, felt like and became my Uncles, Aunt, Grand Mother and Grand Fathers all at the same time. Their stories were real and were told in a raw unapologetic tone that allowed me to be a part of their respective journeys. I could smell the chicken on the train with Ida Mae as she left Chickasaw County, Mississippi and headed to Chicago, I could feel the anticipation of George as he boarded the Silver Meteor in Wildwood, Florida heading to New York City, and I was in the back seat of the 1949 Buick Roadmaster with Robert on the long lonely drive from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles; and I shared his frustration when even after he technically left the south, vestiges of jim crow seemed to follow him. They were just a small representation of the millions of African Americans who migrated from the south to seek the freedom that had proven so elusive for them and the previous generations, but they capture the essence and sense of urgency of this great movement.
"Warmth" took me on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt pain, anger, fear, hopelessness, and even a touch of "survivors’ remorse" (who am I and why do I get to stand on the shoulders and backs of those who gave and suffered through so much?) But I also felt pride from the resiliency, perseverance, and sheer determination exhibited by these incredible people, my people! In spite of it all, they had the audacity to hope that the unknown could and would be better than their current situation and circumstances. And even when the "promised land" of the north and west didn't turn out to be as promising as they had hoped, they still felt the journey was necessary for a better life, not just for them, but for the generations to come; me and my children and their children! Very few books have moved me the way "Warmth" did, it made me pause, reflect and tell myself, I have to earn and do more with the benefits my parents' generation suffered and endured through for us. I can't allow anyone or anything to stop me from exercising my right to vote, I have to pay attention to what's happening around me, I have to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, I have to help others, I have to do good, I have to be better, I have to work hard, I have to stand up for what is right, I have to be a life-long learner, I have to lean into my faith to sustain me, and I have to use my small platform to tell positive stories that inform, uplift, and enlighten. I am reminded of a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan, when after searching for and finding Private Ryan (Matt Damon), Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) was fatally wounded in the battle, and with his dying breath hoarsely whispered to Private Ryan – “Earn This!”