Like many great stories, Isabel Wilkerson’s much-acclaimed history of black migration northward, “The Warmth of Other Suns” (Vintage, 640 pages), began at home. It began in the silences her parents kept. Wilkerson was born in Washington, D.C, in 1961, to parents who had left the South, her mother from Georgia and her father from southern Virginia. Her parents rarely spoke about the homes they had left behind; her mother never took her back to visit family.
Wilkerson, who will appear at the Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, September 1, attended a largely white school across town from her working-class black neighborhood in the racially divided capital, because of her mother’s ambition to make her a success. She has become that, not by moving away from the past but by going back to uncover the painful story of departure that her mother left untold.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter formerly with The New York Times, Wilkerson won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction for “The Warmth of Other Suns,” among a slew of other prizes and distinctions, including 32 weeks on the Times best-seller list. The recognition has come after 15 years of labor on the book, a good part of it at Wilkerson’s home in Atlanta, where she has kept a surprisingly low profile. First the writing occupied her, and since the book’s publication she has been on a non-stop book tour now going on its third year. Interest in her work shows no signs of abating.
Wilkerson’s book documents the life journeys of three Southern African-Americans — a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi, a Florida citrus picker and a Louisiana surgeon with a taste for fine things — who flee the repression and racism of the segregated South in search of opportunities north and west. Wilkerson redefines a phenomenon that she says historians have poorly understood, showing the vast dimensions of this exodus of some 6 million African-Americans over 60 years, from World War I to the early 1970s, when civil rights laws finally improved conditions in the South. Her novelistic portrayal of three people’s lives animates a mass migration that transformed the face of America into the country we know today: the black inner cities of the Midwest and North, the surrounding suburbs settled by white flight, a Southern economy changed by the disappearance of cheap, subservient labor.
Wilkerson’s great insight is to connect the movement of black people across America with the journey of immigrants arriving on its shores. Both share the hopes and fears of disadvantaged people yearning for a second chance, struggling with cultural dislocation, yet stirring change both where they leave and where they arrive.
I recently sat down with Wilkerson in a Virginia-Highland coffee shop. She had a day free between speaking engagements in Martha’s Vineyard and Iowa before her appearance at the festival over Labor Day Weekend. An edited version of our conversation follows.
ArtsATL: The making of your book has become a legend in itself. You interviewed 1,200 people before you found the three subjects whose stories you decided would best illustrate the plight of millions of African-Americans leaving the South. The writing took many years. When you accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award, you said this book has changed your life. In what ways?
Isabel Wilkerson: First of all, I spent 15 years on the book, so it was like living in the middle of a cave. Then to come out into the light of what happened to the book is something I’m still absorbing. I can identify the date my life changed: August 30, 2010. It was a week before the book came out. By the time I woke up, my inbox of emails was packed. I didn’t know what had happened. People were saying, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” “Congratulations! Finally!”
These were people from all aspects of my life who had seen the review in The New York Times. I was so busy responding to emails that I didn’t have a chance to get the paper until the end of the day. I heard from a professor friend who was doing research in Tanzania. I heard from people I’d worked with at the Times who were now in the Midwest. I heard from a writer friend in Oakland.
I could tell from the rolling waves of emails as to when people got their paper. Until one in the morning there were emails and calls. That was unlike any other day I’d experienced. And from that moment forward, the book took over my life in a different way than it had during the research.
It clearly took over my life to work on it. I moved from Chicago to Atlanta. I needed to be living in the South to really know the place they [the three subjects of the book] had left. I took a leave from the Times. The work took the form of immersion journalism that turned into ethnography, which then turned into history as some of the people I’d been interviewing passed away. So it became this long journey that redefined my life even before it came out. But that day [of the glowing New York Times review] plunged me into a whole other universe of a nature I don’t even have words for. I haven’t been able to catch my breath since that day two years ago.
The critics’ response to the book blew me away. I’d worked so hard on it for so long. I knew it had the potential to be powerful, but I had no way of knowing how the world would perceive it or how readers would respond. I could only hope there would be an audience when I finished.
ArtsATL: So you moved to Atlanta especially to write your book?
Wilkerson: I was married at the time, so it was a joint decision. I think many African-Americans feel a connection to the South because it is the mother country, you might say, for those in the North, Midwest and the West.
I needed to know exactly what it was they had left. I didn’t realize the beauty of the place. I had experienced this story spending much of the time talking to people who were in exile, and they had an exile’s perspective, an expatriate’s perspective, so I really needed to be here. The idea of flowers blooming in January was alien to me. The sunshine in February — I remember talking to a friend in Chicago and saying, “You wouldn’t believe the light in February.”
Those were the kinds of things I needed to experience to realize the magnitude of their sacrifice to leave. You listen to immigrants talk about the things they had back home: the mangoes they could pick ripe and eat, or the pomegranates, or the grasses on the hillsides. You realize there’s a loss that comes with the gain of leaving.
ArtsATL: You write that in the white school you attended in Washington, you identified with the children of immigrants because their parents were from another place just as yours were, coming from the South. Has your relationship to the black community been redefined by the act of writing this book? Do you feel more connected now?
Wilkerson: I’ve never felt disconnected. My mother was very ambitious. She wanted me to go to the best school she could get me in. It was predominantly white. So I spent my daylight hours in school with people who were very unlike me on the face of it, and returned to a primarily black working-class/middle-class world. One of the things that inspired me to do this book was that as a child I had been part of what might be considered a sociological experiment, although no one was looking at it that way.
I found myself gravitating toward children who were recent immigrants as opposed to white American children who had long roots in the North. I had friends whose parents were from Argentina and Chile. One of my best friends was from Nepal. I remember the scent of curry and the tamarind and all the spices in her house and recognized that people such as she and I were living in two worlds. That biculturalism that we had to negotiate at a very young age was something that was not generally applied to African-Americans but that I was living every day. In hindsight it opened my eyes to the fact that we all have so much more in common than we are led to believe.
ArtsATL: It’s interesting you make this connection between immigrants and black people from the South. I did a little research and discovered that the year after the Civil Rights Act was passed, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the discriminatory preference for European immigrants and opened America up to immigration from Asia and Latin America. That’s how my father came over from India in 1969. I’d never realized how intertwined civil rights and immigration policies were.
Wilkerson: That’s the reason I wanted to write this book, to connect the dots, to show how interconnected social justice for one group is to social justice for other groups. It took the freeing of the lowest caste of people in this country for everyone else to truly be free. It took more than a hundred years. After the Emancipation Proclamation there was a piece of paper that putatively freed people, but there was still debt peonage, sharecropping, segregation laws. There was a caste system that restricted every single thing they [Southern blacks] could do from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep.
Civil rights legislation was hastened by the defection of 6 million people from the region where this caste system had been exerted so forcefully. These people decided they had no option but to leave, which is what immigrants do.
That put pressure on the North and South. Only after this outpouring of people did the North return to the South, this time not with guns but with cameras recording all the violence, the marches, the protests. All those images went on television screens and were beamed throughout the world. Then, and only then, did things finally change. That opened the way for justice and equality for all kinds of other groups, from immigrants from around the world to the disabled.
ArtsATL: It’s been almost 50 years since civil rights legislation was passed. Have black people as a group fared better in the North or the South? Where do they have better chances for success?
Wilkerson: Those who did well — and I would extend this to all immigrants — are those who have a strong sense of themselves. The sun is always with them. They will fare best when they have a strong sense of where they came from and who they are and can carry it forward. Those who are able to blend in the best of both worlds are the ones who are most likely to succeed. By success I don’t just mean making money, I mean emotional well-being: contentment, happiness with where you are in life, which is an underappreciated form of success.
ArtsATL: Has the South really changed?
Wilkerson: It has undergone a fundamental cellular change. The whole country is more similar now than different.
ArtsATL: Do you have a new project in the works?
Wilkerson: I have a number of ideas. Whatever I do will be in the same vein of looking at history and its connection to us now. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We are all living the history that we have inherited.
Wilkerson will appear in connection with the Decatur Book Festival at 3 p.m. Saturday, September 1, at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, 308 Clairmont Avenue.