By Ken Trainor
In 1994, Isabel Wilkerson, then the New York Times’ Chicago Bureau chief, won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her articles about Mississippi River flooding. At the time, she was living in Oak Park just north of the Harrison Street arts district (our profile appeared in the April 20, 1994 issue of Wednesday Journal). The following year, she took on a much more ambitious project — a book-length treatment of “America’s Great Migration,” the exodus of some six million African Americans from the South to the North and West over a period of six decades.
The Warmth of Other Suns (published by Random House) is Wilkerson’s first book, and it has generated considerable response, including glowing reviews in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune.
After she left Oak Park in 2001, Wilkerson taught at Princeton and Emory universities and currently is director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.
She has been on a rigorous book tour around the country, but took time last Wednesday to reconnect with her former hometown.
How long did you live in Oak Park?
From late 1990 until 2001. So I was there for a good 10 years. I was first a national correspondent. Then I became bureau chief a year later in ’91. The architecture of Oak Park is gorgeous. It was home. Chicago in many ways is home for me.
Oak Park is such a writerly place. It’s the place to live if you’re a writer in Chicago — so many people, Hemingway first among them, so many journalists living there. I loved living in Oak Park. It just seemed like the natural place to live. It doesn’t need selling at all, just a matter of finding the right Victorian, you know?
How did the idea for the book germinate?
In some ways you could say I’ve been writing it all my life because I grew up as the daughter of people who migrated from the South to the North. They were part of a different stream of the migration than the one that has been most commonly written about, which is the Mississippi-to-Chicago migration. Each stream was different in the same way it was different for those coming from Eastern Europe to Chicago as opposed to those coming from Ireland to Boston or the Italians coming to the lower East Side of New York. They were different streams with different cultures, different folk ways, different music, different language, different reference points. That led me to write about it on the national level. No story of the Great Migration would be complete without the major streams of it.
Several things helped spur me on. One of them was reading The Joy Luck Club. I identified with the characters because they were first-generation daughters of women who had emigrated from China. Their experiences really resonated with me because I had experienced what it was like to be first generation in the North, raised by parents from the South, which was very different from the place where I was growing up. I found myself befriending people who were first generation immigrants as I was. I didn’t have language for it at the time, but I certainly identified with certain experiences. For instance, my mother made food that was different from the prevailing food of the people who had been in the North longer than we had been.
That gave me the insight into the connection between the immigrant experience and the experience of the people who had migrated from the South to the North even though they were migrating within the borders of their own country. If it had been a fair and just world, they would not have had to migrate to realize privileges they were born to, but that was the case for them because of the caste system they were living under in the South.
How did you decide to tell the stories of three individuals?
The narrative form with the three characters was what I wanted to do from the beginning. The goal is for the reader to imagine him or herself in the train with them as they’re about to leave, or out in the fields with them as they look over a wide open field of cotton they have to pick, or arriving at a big, anonymous, forbidding city for the first time, emerging from the train station. I wanted the reader to be able to picture themselves in that situation and also think back to someone, very likely in their own family lineage, who had done the exact same thing, whether they crossed the Atlantic in steerage or the Rio Grande or the Pacific.
Why did so many African Americans leave the South?
It was more of a defection than a migration, really — a defection from a caste system that dictated every aspect of their lives. There were so many rules that bound both blacks and whites and determined what anyone of any caste could do or not do in order to stay in good standing — or to stay alive. It was enforced by extreme violence. For instance, it was against the law for a black person and a white person to play checkers in Birmingham. At many of the courthouses in the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on. Anything that could be thought of to delineate the castes within the system was written down and enforced.
When did you start this project?
I was living in Oak Park when I won a Pulitzer Prize as Chicago Bureau chief. Anything that I wrote for the New York Times was thought about, marinated, crystallized or actually written in the house in Oak Park. The work began on this book in 1995. I’ve been working on it for 15 years. But I began the book in Oak Park. It was from Oak Park that I would venture out to interview people, to basically audition people, you might say, to find the three protagonists who would make up the main threads of the story lines in the book. So all that originated in Oak Park.
I took a leave of absence in 1995 in order to devote myself to the book. I would come back periodically to do stories for the Times as they asked of me. I covered Katrina and various stories. But for the most part I was on leave.
Is narrative nonfiction your specialty?
Not every story lends itself to that, but that was what I primarily did at the Times, and it was that kind of writing that won the Pulitzer Prize.
Out of many, many people, I chose [the three main characters] for a reason. They were people who were great storytellers and had amazing lives, but they did not sugar-coat their lives. They told their experiences, flaws and all. They said they’d made many mistakes, but leaving the South was not one of them.
I didn’t have a favorite. It was almost like a musical trio. You need the bass, you need the pianist and you need the drums. You need all three. None of them lived to see the book published, [but] I believe they would have been really proud. I don’t talk to people who don’t want to talk. Nor do I talk to people who have an agenda in wanting to talk. I’m looking for people who are not the first to raise their hands in the room. I’m looking for people who talk because the time is right, and they have a story to tell that others can learn from, be inspired by, who can tell you something that you might not have known before.
What was your mother’s reaction?
She has a shrine to the book, what can I say? I read every word of the book to her. And I read the reviews to her. Generally, she isn’t the kind of person who loves everything I write just because I write it. But she loves the book. She met one of the three main characters. She has copies of the reviews. Each of them picks up on something different. That’s why I say it’s like multiple books. One is a kind of grand tableaux of the migration overall, which is this vast relocation of an entire people from the South to all points North and West. At the beginning of the migration, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the end of it, nearly half were living outside of the South. Right now there are more African Americans living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi. That’s an astounding number.
Then there are ancillary stories, subplots you might say, of people who make cameo appearances — some famous, some not so famous. Then there is the archival research that puts in context everything you’re reading. Some of the stories are hilarious, some are tragic, some are heart-warming, some are heart-wrenching, but ultimately they have to have meaning, and the meaning comes through with the research that took so much time at the end. At a certain point, I was reading a book a day; there is so much to read because it went on so long. It started in 1915 and ended in 1970, and I needed to understand not only the things that were related to the migration but things going on around it.
For instance, I needed to understand the 1940 presidential campaign. Illinois was a swing state. I wasn’t aware of that. Franklin Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term against Wendell Willkie. He won by a narrow margin. And one of the things that made the difference was there were all these African Americans who had come up from the South who had never voted before in their lives. They were on no one’s voter registration rolls because they hadn’t been able to vote in the South. And the Democratic Party in Chicago made the most of it. One of the people they signed up was Ida Mae Gladney, who I wrote about in the book. Roosevelt won that election, but he won Illinois by the narrowest of margins. He needed every vote he could get, and he got a lot of votes from those people who came up from the South, who would not have been there 20 years before.
The book also suggests that black culture, unleashed by this migration, had a much bigger impact on this country than many people realize.
There are so many people who are major figures in literature, music, sports, politics, who are descendents of the migration. In fact, the majority of African Americans in the Northeast, Midwest and West, are descendents of people who participated in the Great Migration. In literature, for instance, you have Toni Morrison, whose parents migrated from Alabama to Lorraine, Ohio, where she had the luxury of going into a library and borrowing a book, which was not permitted in the South. We know about the water fountains and the restrooms, but one of the things people are not aware of is that it was prohibited for black people to go into a library and take out a book.
Would this cultural explosion have occurred without the migration?
It couldn’t have. People wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get the kind of education they got in the North. Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration, who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago via Memphis in 1927, came to be who he was because of this migration. It informed all his work. How would he have been published, isolated as he was, the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi? James Baldwin was the son of a minister in New York who had come up from the South. August Wilson the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry the playwright, all of them.
The arts are something that require the luxury of time. Intellectual creativity requires time. They would not have had the opportunity to develop their God-given talents had they been working from sun up to sun down in a segregated caste system out in the fields.
Music as we know it — it’s hard to fathom had there been no Great Migration. Motown would never have happened. Jazz would not be what it is. Miles Davis’ father migrated from Arkansas to southern Illinois, where he had the luxury of practicing hours on end, which he never would have done in cotton country. It helped create a whole new art form.
What was the most surprising discovery for you as you worked on this book?
The myths and stereotypes of the people who migrated, the idea that they came and were the cause of the pathologies of the North. I was stunned by the actual facts of who these people were. They were better educated than the people who stayed and better educated, or as educated, as the people who were there already. It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude, foresight, planning, determination and resolve in order to make this huge leap of faith from the only place you’ve ever known to a place you’ve never seen. There’s something unusual about any immigrant or migrant who leaves everything to take a chance on an un-guaranteed existence someplace else. They have a certain willingness to take risks, an impatience with the status quo, a resolution against the acceptance of repression around them and would get into trouble if they were to stay. A lot of these people had to leave because they simply could not abide the restrictions of the caste system. So there was something different about them, and that really hasn’t been understood or fully grasped. So much of the focus has been on the overcrowding of the tenements and the fact that vice and crime were permitted to flourish in the neighborhoods where they happened to be forced to live or were restricted to. The police looked away.
They were more likely to be married than the African Americans in the North. They were more likely to be raising their children in two-parent households, not less. They had known nothing but work where they were. Many had not been paid for the work they did. If you were a sharecropper, you were essentially paid for the right to work the land you were farming. And that’s the thing about immigrants — they cannot fail. The people who make the great leap across this chasm to get to this new world cannot fail because they have no safety net and can’t go back.
They have no backup. They do not want go back home and admit they couldn’t cut it. They turned their back on the old world. Many of them changed their names so they would melt into the new world. They were desperate to make a go of it, so they often made more money than the African Americans who were already here in the North, not because they were being paid more. They were actually being paid less, but they were working longer hours or multiple jobs as with any immigrant.
In other words, we have more in common than we were being led to believe. These people were not any different from people who had crossed the Atlantic in steerage in terms of their heart’s desire to make it in this new place. They had just as much need to make a go of it as anyone who has ever left. They would have to go back to a repressive caste system that was willing to kill if they did not abide by the rules. In the decade leading up to the migration and extending all the way into the 1930s, there was a lynching every three days somewhere in the South. That’s how real it was.
But there was also plenty of violence in the North.
One of the great tragedies of the 20th century is this influx of newcomers into Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, all these big cities, during much of the century. People were coming from Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, parts of Asia, across the Rio Grande — and they were coming from the South. They all converged in these cities and were working in the slaughterhouses, the foundries and the steel mills.
They were torn asunder. That’s the tragedy. They actually were the same people, people of the land, people who had been repressed in a system they were seeking to escape. They left everything they knew, often not for themselves but to make life better for their children. They were marked by the experiences they had had back in the homeland or mother country. If you didn’t have an education, whether you’re from Italy or Alabama, it’s hard to make up for that. But maybe it will be better for the children. So they all came for the same reasons.
They made tremendous sacrifices, all these people did, whether they were coming from Lithuania, Poland, Mississippi, Arkansas, China, Mexico. And then they got here and certain people were allowed to join the unions and others were brought in as strikebreakers. Some people were allowed to live in neighborhoods with nice little bungalows while some were limited by restrictive covenants and often by the hostility of the people living in these neighborhoods. They were limited to the cold-water flats and tenements of Bronzeville or other neighborhoods. There were so many barriers to these groups even getting to know one another. What a tragic loss that was to all of us. And we’re still living with that.
How does the integration effort in Oak Park and elsewhere in the last 50 years fit into this story?
Oak Park and Hyde Park are such beacons of hope that defy that inexplicable course of violence that attended the integration of so many other neighborhoods. It shows you the effort that had to be taken in order to make it work—forethought, foresight, planning, working with people so that fear would not overtake them, and they could learn that races actually can co-exist, that people do want the same thing as others. That’s what Oak Park is known for. Oak Park and Hyde Park are two of the few places in all of Chicago — even though there were difficult times — where ultimately fear did not win. And that’s a beautiful thing.
I wanted so much to get to Oak Park on my last trip. I haven’t been there in quite some time. But at the reading [Sept. 30], which was at the Chicago Public Library, there were people from my block, old neighbors who came, and it was absolutely heartwarming and wonderful to see them.
Did you have a favorite character in the book?
I came to love them all. I spent 15 years devoted to telling their story and the story of people like them, and I felt inspired by them all. Ida Mae Gladney was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. But I could not afford to have a favorite because I had to tell all their stories. The three of them, when I would go to see them, had no interest in the others. They never met each other. I was as close to each one of them, and they also felt a personal connection with me, so it was almost as if I was cheating on them by talking about the others. Ida Mae lived on the South Side in South Shore. In fact, she was one of Barack Obama’s first constituents. He was her state senator. That was not by design. I met her before he became a state senator and long, long before anyone had any idea of who he would ultimately become. He has a cameo in the book.
It must have been fun as a journalist to come across a story like this that had never been told in its entirety.
The definition of news is something you don’t know.