A Conversation With…Isabel Wilkerson

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Isabel Wilkerson’s best- selling book The Warmth of Other Suns about the Black Migration from the South to northern, western, and eastern cities from 1915-1970 has quickly become an essential read on African-American history.

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Isabel Wilkerson’s best- selling book The Warmth of Other Suns about the Black Migration from the South to northern, western, and eastern cities from 1915-1970 has quickly become an essential read on African-American history.

Since its release the book has been a New York Times’ bestseller. Warmth was also named one of the top 10 best books of 2010 by the NYT, and one of the top five books of 2010 by Amazon.

Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of the NYT in 1994 spoke about the epic book with the Defender.

Chicago Defender: Please give a little background about the Great Migration and the book?

Isabel Wilkerson: I devoted 15 years into researching my book, The Warmth of Other Suns, because I felt that the Great Migration was the biggest underreported story of the 20th Century. It lasted from World War I to the 1970’s. It involved six million African-Americans who fled a brutal caste system in the South, known as Jim Crow, for all points North and West. It was, in some ways an unrecognized emigration, in which the people were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country. This migration redistributed the entire black population, helped force the South to change, paved the way for the civil rights movement, and reshaped nearly every city in the North and West. It was so massive that to this day, the majority of African-Americans in the North and West are descended from people who were participants in the Great Migration. This is the story of where we came from and what it took for us to get here.

CD: Why is the Great Migration such an integral part of American history?

IW: It’s important for African-Americans – and all Americans – to understand the Great Migration because it helped make us who we are. The music, the language, the food, the values and the culture we live with all come from the folkways the people of the Great Migration brought with them when they fled.

The descendants of the Great Migration are the living embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the people who left all they knew for a place they had never seen in hopes that life might be better. They didn’t do it just for themselves but for the unborn children and grandchildren who they hoped would grow up in a freer world than the one they had endured. Many of us would not even exist if a grandmother from Mississippi and a grandfather from Arkansas hadn’t migrated to Chicago because they would not have even met!

It would be impossible to extract the culture that grew out of the Great Migration from American culture itself. Music simply wouldn’t be what it is had there been no Great Migration. Jazz, the blues (which inspired rock ‘n’ roll), rhythm and blues, Motown, and Hip hop are the living legacies of the Great Migration. The music of Miles Davis, the literature of Toni Morrison, the plays of August Wilson might not have been written had their parents not fled the South and given them opportunities they would never have had in the Jim Crow South.

CD: Why was Chicago such a magnet for people during that time?

IW: Chicago was a primary destination of the Great Migration because it was the largest city in the Midwest, it was the home of such legendary emblems of the North as The Chicago Defender and Sears Roebuck (whose catalog was known to many southerners), and it was the main receiving station of the Illinois Central Railroad. The Illinois Central was the most direct route out of the South for people in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, which is one reason why so many people in Chicago, to this day, are descended from those states.

CD: What role did the Chicago Defender play in the Migration?

IW: I considered the Defender to be the agitator and unwitting chronicler of the movement because, by doing its job — bravely reporting on the conditions facing blacks in the North and South, it became an archive of the Great Migration. It is in its pages that we find the first reference to the Migration (in early 1916), and it was Robert S. Abbott, the founder of the Defender and a migrant from Georgia, who relentlessly agitated for African-Americans in the South to do what he did, and leave. The Defender was relied upon by many African-Americans in the South, who were isolated and searching for information about the North. The paper was considered such a threat to the southern caste system that it had to be distributed in secret in many parts of the South and was at times confiscated as contraband. One of the lesser known but powerful roles that The Defender played was that its classifieds and letters to the editor were precious sources of information about how people in the South might actually find work and make a go of it in an alien land so far from home. The Defender was thus, not only an influential newspaper, but the Craigslist and Facebook of an entire movement that would ultimately change the country.

CD: Today there are quite a few African Americans who are moving back to the south from their northern homes. Why do you think this is happening and does it surprise you?

IW: The return migration of some of the children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of the Great Migration could be seen as one of the great legacies of the original Migration. The South has changed – was forced to change – in part because of the pressure put upon it when millions of its undervalued workers fled north in search of the warmth of other suns. Their tough decision to leave helped change the South, and it is now a more welcoming place for their descendants, who now have a choice they might not have had before. These descendants of the Migration are moving to Sun Belt cities like other Americans, drawn by the opportunities in a growth region, but they are also returning to the land of the ancestors and discovering a home they might not truly have known.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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