Since 2001 the Chicago Public Library has been uniting the city in one giant book club they call One Book, One Chicago. In previous years they’ve examined works by a wide range of authors from James Baldwin to Markus Zusak. Each year there has been a focus on two books, one in the spring and a second in the fall, but this year there’s just one: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. According to the library’s website, “Instead of just one month spent with a great book, spend a year exploring a great theme through books, films, performances, lectures, storytelling and art. For the next 12 months we’ll look at how migration has shaped—and continues to shape—Chicago.” Dedicating a year to this over 500 page text also seemed a necessity because it comprehensively conveys the mammoth scope of the Great Migration. Wilkerson takes such a massive idea, however, and successfully makes it intimate for the reader by sharing the personal struggles and stories of three people that migrated up from the South in order to make a better life for themselves and their children. One of the three individuals is Ida Mae Gladney, who left Mississippi and came to Chicago with her husband back in 1937. At an earlier event in September, the Chicago Public Library hosted an event in collaboration with the Urban League at which several of Ida Mae Gladney’s children, and grandchildren were honored. Her story reveals the history of Bronzeville, which is a neighborhood I’ll be focusing on later this month in future posts.
Last week Tuesday on October 1st, the library hosted Isabel Wilkerson, the author, at the Harold Washington Library in the Winter Garden on the 9th floor. The room was packed. I arrived at 5:40, twenty minutes before it began and ended up in the overflow room with number 568 for the book signing afterward.
At the start of her lecture Wilkerson spoke of how this book had taken over her life. It came out in 2010 and she is booked to do speaking engagements on it until the spring of 2014. After reading it, it’s easy to understand why. Wilkerson weaves big-picture facts about the Great Migration in a smooth, entertaining manner and then transitions to the smaller, personal portrait with each of the three individuals she follows. As she spoke at the library she shared several of the details from her book. For example, in one southern courthouse, “there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on. Even the Word of God was segregated!” In this environment Wilkerson said that “this was a defection” for the individuals who decided to take a chance on going up North.
She listed off authors like Toni Morrison and musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane as examples of icons who would not exist without the Great Migration. Wilkerson told a quick story about how Coltrane’s mother had moved up North to Philadelphia without him in order to make money and eventually send for him. “Upon his arrival,” Wilkerson explained, “his mother gave him a gift of an alto saxophone.” She then added that, “Without the Great Migration, jazz would not exist as we know it.”
Jesse Owens, the Olympian who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was another product of the Great Migration who Wilkerson shared about that evening. To fully appreciate her telling of Owens’s story, you need to pick up her book to learn how James Cleveland Owens became known as Jesse. That evening Wilkerson echoed one of the same points she also made in the epilogue of her novel saying, “These people were not just gifts to the United States, not just our country, but these people were gifts to the world.”
Near the end of her lecture Wilkerson emphasized the heartbreaking nature of the migration. This all happened before the age of social media and even before most people in the South had telephones. Many African-Americans left, “not knowing if they’d see their loved ones, the people that raised them, ever again.” Many times while up North they would get a telegram telling them to hurry back home and see mama one last time before she passed. Thousands of people left and took a chance on a strange land in order to escape the Southern caste system.
Wilkerson then made an interesting point about Jim Crow saying that not only did it smother the lives of African-Americans, but it also hurt those at the top of the hierarchy who were keeping African-Americans down. She said, “Their loss was a spiritual loss,” and went on to say, “If you are going to hold someone down in a ditch, you have to get down in the ditch with them.” This echoes a theme found throughout Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and writings. In his speech The Rising Tide of Social Consciousness King argues, “As a race we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but we must never use second-class methods to gain it. Our aim must be not to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.” One of the amazing things about King was his empathy and I believe that is where the true value of Wilkerson’s book awaits us.
Recently, a study was discussed in the news about how reading literary fiction makes the reader more empathetic. The study titled, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” appeared in the October 3rd issue of Science. Despite the fact that Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a non-fiction text, I will argue that it too inspires empathy, which I believe is something we need so much more of in our culture today.
Wilkerson shares not only the lives of the individuals she followed, but their hopes and disappointments, their failures and successes. It is this intimacy that builds empathy. Wilkerson ended her lecture at the library saying, “We have been bequeathed a beautiful burden: to make their sacrifices means something.” What wonderful alliteration and what a breath-taking challenge! I look around at the violence in Chicago and so many other cities today. We have so much work to do.
We must work to overcome indifference. Work to unite separated neighborhoods. Work to make each other see that the problems for one are problems for all. Work to create empathy. In a speech for integrating schools back in 1959 King eloquently advocated, “Make a career of humanity…You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Books like Wilkerson’s are the first step toward that finer world.
My next post about Ida Mae Gladney’s neighborhood, Bronzeville, will be up later this month.
Thank you for reading!