Friday, September 10, 2010

Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson on 'the biggest underreported story of the 20th century'

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 11:50 AM

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After a decade of research and writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson finally published The Warmth of Other Suns Tuesday. The 600-plus page tome tells "the epic story of America's Great Migration," the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South from about 1915 through the 1970s. Wilkerson, who did a three-year stint at Emory from 2006-09 as a James M. Cox Professor of Journalism, appears tonight at 8 p.m. at the Atlanta History Center.

Would you explain “the Great Migration” as explored in your book? How encompassing was it in terms of people and space?
The Great Migration was perhaps the biggest underreported story of the 20th century. It started in 1915 and did not end until the 1970s. It carried away some six million African-Americans to all points North and West to escape the southern caste system known as Jim Crow. There were three main streams of migration: 1. from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston; 2. from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee to the midwestern cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee; and, 3. the least known of the three streams, the one from Texas and Louisiana to the western cities of Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle.

What is your own family’s Great Migration story?
My mother migrated from Rome, Ga., to Washington, D.C., toward the end of World War II. My father, a Tuskegee Airman, migrated from Petersburg, Va., to Washington, D.C., in 1950. They met years later at Howard University, married years after that and had me. Had they not migrated, they would not have met and I might not have existed, which is true for many of the African-Americans in the North and West.

Can you offer some ways is which the Great Migration altered regional cultures throughout the United States?
The migrants carried with them the folkways, language, music, and food of their Southern roots and recreated enclaves of Southern culture in the big cities they fled to. Working on this book, I interviewed people with collard greens growing in their back yards in Oakland, Calif. But one of the most far-reaching contributions of the Great Migration was music. The migrants brought the blues and spirituals of the South and created new music forms once exposed to the metabolism of the North. Motown would not have existed had there been no Great Migration: Berry Gordy, its founder was born in Detroit to parents who had migrated from Georgia. When he grew up he started his own recording label, Motown, by drawing from the talent all around him — the children of the Great Migration, people like Diana Ross, the Jackson Five and others. Jazz, as we know it, might not have existed. Miles Davis' parents migrated from Arkansas to Alton, Ill. Thelonious Monk's parents migrated to Harlem from North Carolina when he was 3. And John Coltrane migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia when he was 17, where he got his first alto saxophone. Their families had all come from rural farming communities where they would not likely have been able to pursue their talents in the tobacco and cotton country of their forebears.

You interviewed more than 1,200 people over 18 months for this project. Ultimately, you settled on three specific people — Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster — to help illustrate the larger story of the Great Migration. What struck you about each of these individuals; what made their stories stand out among the hundreds of other histories you encountered?
I chose them because each of them represented the three different streams of the Great Migration, and each left during a different decade, which helped show the breadth and scope of the migration. They also were beautifully open about their lives, the triumphs as well as the setbacks. They were comfortable talking about their flaws and regrets which made them more realistic and human and their stories more universal. Each left for different reasons, at different times, from different places and experienced different outcomes. They also were characters unto themselves and I loved spending time with them and getting to know them.

What does the Great Migration reveal about people’s senses of personal identity and the role “home” plays in creating that identity?
The title of the book, The Warmth of Other Suns, gives an indication of what they were hoping for when they left. But it turns out that even though they left the South for the ironically "warmer suns" of the North and West, it turns out the South never truly left them. They created communities of like-minded people from back in the "Old Country" from which they came, made the same turnip greens and sweet potato pie. The South never left them. So, I have come to the conclusion that there really are no other suns. The sun is with in you. You are the sun, and you find or make your happiness wherever you decide to plant yourself.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Random House. 622 pp. $30.

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