“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” author Isabel Wilkerson visited Roosevelt University’s Murray Green Library last Wednesday to talk about her book and how it isn’t just about the Great Migration.
The day before her visit, Wilkerson spoke about the book at the Harold Washington Library as part of Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” series.
The series’ organizers chose to read and examine Wilkerson’s book for the entire year. Typically, the series focuses on one book per fall and spring season.
At the suggestion of Murray Green librarians Freeda Brook and Martinique Hallerduff, the book found its way into the syllabi of Roosevelt’s ACP 101 freshman seminar courses.
“[Brook and Hallerduff] told the seminar committee that this was the best possible book for our freshmen to read,” Dean of Undergraduate Studies Linda Jones said.
Filled with firsthand Great Migration stories, some argue that “Warmth of Other Suns” can mistakenly be summed up as merely a book about African Americans’ departure from the South. But Wilkerson argues that it is about more than just that.
“The book is, on the face of it, about the Great Migration … But it’s really about freedom and how far people are willing to go to attain it,” Wilkerson said.
After 15 years and 1,200 interviews, Wilkerson’s book was published in 2010.
Wilkerson wasn’t the first to draft a Great Migration narrative, but she was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for her coverage of the Great Flood of 1993.
In addition to being a journalist, Wilkerson is also a journalism professor and the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University.
Some argue that the New York Times bestseller impacts people across the U.S., but according to Jones, it also has a closer impact among Chicagoans.
“The book resonates, especially for those of us here at Roosevelt, the quintessential, urban university,” Jones said. “So many of our students are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Great Migration.”
Speaking to an audience including Roosevelt alumni, students, faculty and staff, the Pulitzer Prize winner joked about the length of time it took her to complete the book.
“If [the book] were a human being, it would be in high school and dating by now,” she said.
She also said that had she known it would’ve taken her 15 years to complete the book, she probably wouldn’t have written it.
“I’m glad I didn’t know, because it was truly worth the effort,” Wilkerson said.
While she spent a great deal of time explaining her book, she also explained the politics and history of the Great Migration.
One audience member, Beverly Hadley, noticed that Wilkerson hadn’t explained the politics of the Great Migration at her Harold Washington Library appearance the night before.
“Her lecture was exactly the same as last night’s lecture, except she took the time to explain politics,” Hadley said. “I understand why, because she did what best suited her audience.”
“The Warmth of Other Suns” also highlights Jim Crow laws and the caste system—a system that many African Americans of the Great Migration were born into.
Wilkerson said that one of her goals was to emphasize examples of Jim Crow laws that weren’t common knowledge.
“The book has no reference to water fountains and restrooms as examples of what the caste system was about, because every second grader learns that in February, so why would I put that in the book?” Wilkerson said.
Instead, she wrote about how blacks and whites couldn’t play checkers together. She also wrote about how blacks couldn’t pass whites up on roadways.
“I was looking for other examples to make the book come alive so that we can understand what it was like to live under this caste system, which many people called Jim Crow,” Wilkerson said.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” has brought Wilkerson from Alaska to Amsterdam. After speaking to many different audiences, she finds her most challenging audience to be high school students.
“They resist the idea that human beings could treat each other this way,” Wilkerson said.
Roosevelt’s ACP 101 instructors say that their students are enjoying the book.
Kyong Choi teaches an ACP 101 class in the Chicago College of Performing Arts.
In reference to her students’ reactions to the book, Choi said, “Their responses have been sincere, and the discussion has been quite interesting.”