To find out what she needed to discover about the life-changing matters that her parents didn't discuss, Isabel Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people over 18 months.
She re-created one man's harrowing 1,500-mile car trip from Louisiana to California. She picked cotton by hand. She visited quilting clubs, senior centers and hospitals, took bus trips and attended funerals. She scoured census data and tracked down 75-year-old research reports.
It took her 15 years to finish "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," which picked up the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.
In the three years since the book was published, interest in Wilkerson's research shows no signs of waning. The author, who in 1994 became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, will read from "The Warmth of Other Suns" on Tuesday at the Johns Hopkins University.
"This book has taken over my life," Wilkerson, who is in her early 50s, said recently over the phone. (A condensed transcript of the conversation is below.) "I haven't stopped talking about the book since it came out. I had no idea that interest would only grow the way it has."
Perhaps that's because the migration of 6 million black Southerners between the 1920s and the 1970s dwarfed any other mass relocation in the United States. But though "The Warmth of Other Suns" has epic sweep, the book gains intimacy and urgency by recounting the stories of three Southerners who left their homes for the North. Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937 after a relative was viciously beaten on a false accusation of stealing a chicken. George Swanson Starling fled Florida for New York in 1945 after he was blamed for inciting labor unrest among pickers in citrus groves. And Robert Joseph Pershing Foster departed from Louisiana for California in 1953 because he could practice as a surgeon only within narrowly prescribed limits in the South.
Were your parents part of the Great Migration?
They were. My mother grew up in Georgia, and my father was a Tuskegee Airman from Virginia.
If there was a single thing that sparked in me the desire to write this book, it was the discovery of a photograph of my mother when she arrived in Washington, D.C. In the photograph, she and a friend from childhood who was living at the time in Baltimore are sitting on the steps of a rowhouse. They are wearing spring coats and their very finest pearls. I was fascinated by the optimism and joy on their faces. They carried themselves with such dignity and grace and hopefulness.
Yet I didn't know all that led to their arrival. I didn't grow up hearing their stories of migration. In fact, my parents did not talk about it at all.
That wasn't uncommon for the generation of people who came of age in the middle of the 20th century and who had fled from many different diasporas. They didn't want to burden their children with the terrors they had suffered. But in protecting their children, they denied them the ability to really know where they had come from.
How did you select these particular three people to profile?
The 1,200 interviews I did was an audition to be protagonists in this book. The book already was a huge undertaking, so for that reason I couldn't have more than three protagonists. Each one had to represent a different decade. Each had to reflect one of the three different geographic streams of the migration, and I wanted them each to be from different socioeconomic groups.
I also was looking for individuals who were beautifully flawed in ways that people could identify with and could acknowledge their flaws. That meant I could go deeper with them. All three also had wonderful senses of humor, and they all were very contemplative and self-reflective.
Your book disputes the stereotype that black Southerners who moved north were uneducated, illiterate, had little culture and were looking for welfare handouts.
That research actually was quite shocking.
By virtue of having to make the difficult decision to leave and by virtue of having many obstacles to overcome, the migrants were likely to be more ambitious and better educated than either those who stayed in the South or than the black Northerners. The migrants were even better educated on average than the white Northerners because of the wide range of people who were coming over from Europe to America at the time.
The migrants were more likely to be married when they came than were the African-Americans they met in the North and more likely to stay married. They were more likely to be employed than black Northerners, and they had a higher income per capita because they worked longer hours and held multiple jobs.
These studies were coming from the census analysts themselves and from scholars.
That misconception seems to have contributed to the common fallacy that the problems experienced today by Northern cities were caused by Southern blacks who brought their vices with them.
Yes, and the opposite is true. When the migration began, just 10 percent of all African-Americans were living outside the South. By the time the migration ended in the 1970s, half of them were.
Southern blacks arrived in the North from isolated rural precincts. Their lives were focused on working from sunup to sundown six days a week, and the seventh day was focused on church and doing laundry. They led very restricted lives. Sharecroppers weren't being paid for their work — at the end of the year, most of them broke even — so the whole idea of gambling and going off to Las Vegas wasn't even possible until they moved North.
When they arrived, there were restrictive housing covenants. They were penned into the one section of the city where the police were allowing gambling and poker parlors and drugs to flourish. Over time, African-Americans became identified as no other group before them with the vice that existed in the neighborhoods in which they were forced to live.
Do you anticipate ever tackling another project this ambitious?
I still view it as a miracle that this book ever got completed.
But I can't imagine not undertaking another project at some point. I found my place in this world when I first sat down and started talking to people. I'm the happiest when I'm spending time with someone who has led a fascinating life and is willing to share it.
About the book
"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" was released by Random House Inc. $20.99, 640 pages.
If you go
Isabel Wilkerson will read from her book about the African-American Great Migration after World War I at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mudd Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus, 3400 N. Charles St. Free. For details, go to writingseminars.jhu.edu/reading-series or call 410-516-6286.