Highlights from Book Club Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Many thanks to Isabel Wilkerson for joining us on the Politics for the People conference call this past Sunday!  We had an energizing, rich and thought provoking conversation about The Warmth of Other Suns.  You can listen to the full call at the end of this post.  (Note: if the links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

I wanted to share three sections of our conversation.  I hope they will inspire you to listen to the full call.  The first clip is my introduction of Isabel and our opening conversation.

Isabel Wilkerson (l) and Cathy Stewart

Isabel Wilkerson (l) and Cathy Stewart


In my opening question to Isabel, I asked her to talk some about her 15 year process and how she selected Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster to be the central characters through which we experience the Great Migration.

She conducted an extensive interview process, meeting people at AARP meetings, senior centers, clubs, etc and shared that she selected these three people

“…who together compliment one another so well.  You get a sense of the socioeconomic differences between them, you get a sense of the different circumstances under which they left and more importantly you get a chance to, hopefully fall in love with people, or get to know these people who were flawed in human, deeply human ways but did a very brave thing. In that way, I think they are people anyone can relate to.”


Jessie Fields

Dr. Jessie Fields

As Politics for the People blog readers know, Dr. Jessie Fields has been keeping copies of The Warmth of Other Suns at her office in Harlem to share with her patients, as many of them were participants in the Great Migration.  Below is Jessie and Isabel’s back and forth from the call.



Jessie asked Isabel the following question– “It seems to me that entrenched poverty and social isolation in the inner city have become the new Jim Crow. And that there are still great journeys for the country as a whole to make for African Americans to fully enter the mainstream of America and your book, the Warmth of Other Suns, can help us all to make those new journeys together.  What do you hope people will discover and take away from the book that can be of help for the challenges that we face today?”

In her response Isabel said,

“…one of the things that I had hoped would come out of this book is that people would discover by experiencing both the hardships, the heartbreak, the courage and the fortitude of the people in the Great Migration, they would also see and connect with the fortitude and the heartbreak and all that went before them that their ancestors may have experienced if they came from other migration streams.  And that they would also see that ultimately we all have so much more in common that we have been led to believe.  That means that if you can cut through the divisions and the socioeconomic larger forces that have torn people apart in this country…all of these forces, the larger caste system as I describe it in the South and also a caste system that formed in the North, particularly after the migration was underway.  These divisions separated us in ways that we have yet to recover from.  In fact, maybe never have actually truly dealt with.  I would hope that people could see one another in these stories….”


Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali joined the call from Columbia in South America, where he is vacationing with his family.  Give a listen to his exchange with Isabel exploring the similar experiences of participants in the Great Migration and other immigrants to the United States and also the unique experience of the African American community.

Two comments Isabel made in this part of our conversation stand out for me:

“The common experience that all poor and underprivileged migrants experience is first arriving and being seen as the other, arriving adn being resented and feared upon arrival.  Also coming in with the same desires, hopes and dreams of making it it in this new alien place….Around the world there is a turning against, a fear of people who are immigrating….” On the unique experience of the African American community and the Great Migration: This was “…the only group of people who actually had to act like immigrants to be recognized as citizens in their own country…. These were not people relocating from one job to another.  These people were actually seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country….”

For those of you who would like to pull up a chair and listen to our full conversation with Isabel, here it is!  Enjoy.

In closing, I want to share what the judges of the Lynton History prize wrote about The Warmth of Other Suns:

“Wilkerson has created a brilliant and innovative paradox: the intimate epic…. In powerful, lyrical prose that combines the historian’s rigor with the novelist’s empathy, Wilkerson’s book changes our understanding of the Great Migration and indeed of the modern United States”

The Politics for the People book club certainly agree!


STAY TUNED, I will be announcing our next selection soon!    


Conference Call Tonight


Politics for the People Conference call with Isabel Wilkerson

Author, The Warmth of Other Suns

Tonight, Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm, EST.

 The call in number is (805) 399-1200.

The passcode is 767775#. 


I want to leave us with two more videos of Isabel to enjoy as we get ready to create a conversation together this evening.

The first is from The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR and is a conversation in 2013 between Isabel Wilkerson and  award-winning poet and author Carl Hancock Rux. They discuss the Great Migration and the difficult road from the Emancipation Proclamation to civil rights.  In the video Isabel talks about how the 6 million African Americans who fled the South “…changed the region they were fleeing.”

Our second video is from  The Village Celebration and in it Isabel discusses the impact of the Great Migration.  She says, “…when you look at 20th Century life in general from the culture that we often kind of take for granted, from the music, from literature, whole art forms wouldn’t even exist if there had been no Great Migration…”

I look forward to our conversation this evening with Isabel Wilkerson.  Grab your copy of the book, a comfortable chair and dial in.

Commentary from P4P Readers

Below are several comments from our book club readers.  I am looking forward to our conference call with Isabel Wilkerson this Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.  The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#. 



The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a masterpiece! This book should be required reading for every college student in whatever field of study being pursued.  English and journalism majors would analyze the literary form of the book: narrative history.

The Warmth of the Other Suns is a learning tool for students of political science, sociology, history, economics, psychology and education, to name just a few.

Furthermore, every American should read this book to know the facts that led to the Great Migration and travel along will the three courageous people, as documented by the author, who left unbearable conditions in the Jim Crow South to seek a better quality of life.  I thought I was picking cotton with Ida Mae, working in the orange groves with George and driving through the desert with Robert through the masterful writing of Isabel Wilkerson.

Josephine Coskie, Retired NYC Public School Teacher



I first read the book about a year ago when Sarah Bayer, myself and our friend Lowell had a book club for about 4 years when he was in prison as a way to help him stay connected to his community.  I had heard of the book and we all read it and loved it!  I will be on the call on Sunday along with Sarah, Lowell and another friend.
The book means a lot to me. I am a social worker and the  manager of the outpatient addiction & recovery clinic at Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, MA.  I keep a copy of the book at work and have recommended to a lot of people. It has impacted my work. I always ask more questions when a client says they moved from the south or their parents did and the book has given me a more historical sense of the person sitting before me.
“The American History book does not say much about the migration northward by African-Americans, who believed that there would be better economic opportunities from the Jim Crow South. That was not always the case.  There was still racial discrimination in the North, and the paying of less wages for the same job that was done by a White counterpart, and promotional opportunities denied.  My grandmother–on my father’s side of the family was one of those family members, who fled the cruelty of the South. She told me that she was an ambulance driver for a hospital on Staten Island (forgot the hospital name) all her life, and on that salary had raised four sons, and pushed them hard to succeed in life, and college, so they would have better economic opportunities than she did.  She was strict in her ways, and how she raised her kids, and me for a time.  My recently deceased aunt from 2011 (last surviving member of my grandmother’s generation) told me in her own opinion that there was not much of a difference between North, and South when it came to discrimination, and the harshness of life.  I regret that we did not have more of these discussions.  My aunt’s grandchildren, and her nieces, and nephews (my first cousins) do not care about knowing that “past” or their “family lineage.”   They do not care about the civil rights movement, and how people lost their lives to give them the economic opportunities that they enjoy today. I praise Isabel Wilkerson’s book for shedding light on this history. “
Charles Isildur, Staten Island, NYC Independence Party Executive Committee
I am so excited about this call!  I read the book last year,  so when I saw  it was on the list for our next reading  I was happy,  then when I heard Isabel Wilkerson was joining our call I was super excited…it’s a great and important read.
When I was reading it I mentioned the book to my sister Laureen who is a short story writer and attending graduate school for  literature, she said her class assigned this book amongst others and she  thought the quality of writing was outstanding.  I  have invited my sister  to join the call.  Also I invited several clients and a couple of friends, Independent Pennsylvanians folks –  hopefully they will partake in this golden opportunity.     Jennifer Bullock, Independent Pennsylvanians





June Hirsh, Emmett Till and George Swanson

I asked June Hirsh, a P4P regular, key organizer of our book club, and long time progressive independent activist to share some of her thoughts about the book.


June Hirsh at the NYC Independence Party Spring Chairman's Reception, June 2014

June Hirsh at the NYC Independence Party Spring Chairman’s Reception, June 2014

“It’s both brutal and beautiful in the telling of the history of Jim Crow and of the Southern Black migration. An intimate and painful, sad and poignant account of the lives of 3 ordinary people – their friends and families, whose stories represent millions of blacks who migrated, with courage and dignity, unheralded at the time, making this historic move out of fear, anger, vicious racism, desperation, a yearning for a decent and meaningful life – and for it – changed everything.


I found the book, heartrending, frightening, horrifying, educational. As a progressive, and an activist, you would think that I had this history seared into my mind and heart. But – not so. Until reading this book, I hadn’t had a full understanding of what Jim Crow actually was. And as this intertwined history unfolded, it became alive and real to me.


Just remembering how and what I knew of Emmett Till can give you a sense of this. Yes, I knew he was brutally murdered. I remember it as an unspeakable act. It was a horrific piece of news, but also removed from me – an isolated event.  Now, through this book, really experiencing what happened, what it meant in the fabric of the migration of blacks – a time in our country where blacks were systematically and arbitrarily trampled upon, seen, treated and legislated as less than human, transformed my experience. The account of Emmett Till is an example.


Emmett Till, was a child, 14 years old, visiting his aunts and grandmother in the south in the summertime, sent down south by his family, so that he could have a sense of his roots, and have the loving, intimate, honest southern black ways of being, which was missing for southern blacks who migrated to the anonymity and harshness of the north.


He was told by his family to be careful how you relate to white people – it’s different than in the north. One needs to understand that Emmett was brought up in the north, by no means a place where blacks were treated as equal, but by and large, not a place where violence towards blacks was a pervasive, and daily occurrence as was the racism of Jim Crow.


Who knows what really happened? An innocent gesture, an “uppity” child? What we do know is that Emmett Till was horribly murdered, his body mutilated beyond recognition. At his funeral, where thousands came to pay their respects, Emmett’s mother kept the casket open so that everyone, could see what happened to her child – to “everyone’s child”. Not one of the killers paid for the crime. There were thousands of children mothers, aunts, and uncles, fathers whose stories mirror Emmett Till’s – more. And millions more who suffered all levels of indignities and degrading treatment under in the name of Jim Crow.  I am including a video about Emmett Till that is from the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize”.




In The Warmth of Other Suns, every poem, every phrase quoted in the book deserves to be in a book by itself. Each chapter tells an entire story – and together each adds richness to the other.  That said, for me, “Harlem 1996″ in PART FIVE: Aftermath captures the whole book. George Swanson Starling. The way George evolves – paints the picture of a race of people stunted and denied every freedom, yet holding on to their dignity and humanity as best they could, growing and giving in whatever way they could and for others being destroyed by the deadliness of it all.  If you are short on time before our call on Sunday, read this section of the book.

And we continue to build…”



Politics for the People

Book Club Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm EST

The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.


Interviews with Isabel Wilkerson

Today, I wanted to share a couple of interviews with Isabel Wilkerson that I especially enjoyed.  In 2011, Kimberly Austin, the host of Footnote on Ebru TV interviewed Isabel Wilkerson.  I think you will enjoy their conversation.

And take a look at this clip from Tavis Smiley’s October 2010 interview with Isabel where he asks her to  “situate… this Migration in the making, in the maturing of America.”

The Politics for the People conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.
The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.

Great Migrations and the African Diaspora

Great Migrations and the African Diaspora:

Thoughts on The Warmth of Other Suns

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

Omar H. Ali

The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson explores the lives of three African-Americans to reveal the larger phenomenon of the decades-long Great (Black) Migration out of the South during the 20th century. In her own snapshot account, “the book is about the migration experiences of three people who become representative of the larger whole which was essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, to the Midwest, and the West from 1915 to 1970.” (C-SPAN Q&A, September 26, 2010)

In the interview from which the quote is taken, Wilkerson also alludes to the larger migration across the Atlantic to the ‘New World’ (of course not ‘new’ to the tens of millions of people already here–from the Taino and Mixtec of the Caribbean and Central America to the Lenape and Aymara of North and South America).
Although the term ‘migrant’ is usually thought of as a voluntary act, the fact is that most of the migration across the Atlantic to the Americas up until the early nineteenth century was forced. At least 80% of the total 12.5 million migrants to the Americas from Europe and Africa between 1502 and 1820 were black captives, with many of the white migrants having come as indentured servants–often indistinguishable in practice from the lives of those who were enslaved.
Of the 10.5 million African migrants that were part of the transatlantic slave trade, about 4% went to what would become the U.S. The vast majority went to different parts of Latin America–nearly 40% (or about 5 million people) to Brazil alone.
What were the experiences of those migrants? Much can and has been written about on the topic of the African Diaspora in the Americas but let’s pan out even wider. What of the migration of Africans within Africa itself (the first migratory experiences)? And into the Mediterranean world (approximately two million)? And what about the Indian Ocean world (at least four million)?
What were the experiences of those African migrants and their descendants? In the Indian Ocean world, for instance, theirs was a combination of free and forced migration; many went on their own volition searching for better economic opportunities, as merchants and sailors; many migrated as soldiers, as in the case of “Abyssinians” in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some of whom rose to significant levels of power as chief ministers (Malik Ambar from Ethiopia being among the most prominent in India).
Migrations, be they of whatever people, African, European, or Asian (and the thousands of ways that one can break each of these categories down or apart) has been part of the human experience ever since we, as a species, began to explore and search for better lives somewhere beyond what we knew … or taken forcibly to places beyond the horizon.
The degree to which one migrated ‘free’ or ‘forced’ is a matter of historical and geographical context.
In the case of African Americans in the Great Migration of the 20th century moving from the rural South to the cities and then North, to the Midwest, and the West, there were ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors: violence, Jim Crow (the legal disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans), and lack of economic opportunities, were among the ‘push’ factors to migrate out of the South; social, economic, and political opportunities were ‘pull’ factors in the migration. To be sure, those who left were looking for greater freedom, but, really, how free were they in their choice and what they came to encounter outside of the rural South? Wilkerson’s book answers this in moving prose.
Richard Wright, from whose own prose the title of Wilkerson’s book is borrowed, is one of the six million testaments of the black migration experience during the Great Migration. The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, he set out on his journey in 1927 to Chicago, then New York, and eventually Paris … forever searching. A little over a century earlier, the enslaved Senegalese Abdul Rahman, whose story as the “Prince Among Slaves” has been well-documented, landed in Natchez, Mississippi, not far from where Wright was born, as part of the transatlantic slave trade.
Rahman was among the few who participated in a reverse migration, back to Africa–in his case back to Futa Jallon, West Africa, after being in America for nearly half a century. A kind of precursor to the reverse migration to the South among African Americans …
In some ways, we are all on the move. Perhaps not in our individual lives, but collectively, historically, and for as many reasons as there are stars that we can see as we search for the warmth of other suns.
Omar H. Ali, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History in the African American & African Diaspora Studies Program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail ohali@uncg.edu
The Politics for the People conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.
The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.

A Visit to Frederick Douglas Boulevard

Last week, at the invitation of Dr. Jessie Fields, I paid a visit to her medical practise, the St. Luke’s Medical Group on Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 147th Street in Harlem.  I came to take some photos and meet several of her patients who participated in the Great Migration.

Wilmont McFadden, Fletcher Baldwin, Dr. Jessie Fields, Wilhemina Middleton, and Annette Middleton

se Wilmont McFadden, Fletcher Baldwin, Dr. Jessie Fields, Wilhemina Middleton, and Annette Middleton

Jessie has been having conversations with several of her patients who came north during the Great Migration.  I was honored to meet this group of Americans who left the devastating racism of the deep south, and took the risk to move to Harlem. Wilmont McFadden (far L) came to Harlem when he was 20.  He came by bus from Florence, SC.  His family were sharecroppers.  Fletcher Baldwin was born in 1936. His mother was a housekeeper and he grew up picking cotton, which he hated.  He came to Harlem when he was fifteen after stops in DC and PA.  He has never been back. Wilhemina Middleton can to NYC on a Greyhound bus when she was 16. She also grew up in rural South Carolina and learned to pick cotton, which she enjoyed. She has deep ties to SC, her mother remained there until her death five years ago. We celebrated Wilhemina Middleton’s 71st birthday with a little cake.  Wilhemina Middleton turns 71   Wilhemina and Fletcher talked some about growing up in SC, picking cotton, the slowness of life and the move North.  Wilhemina’s daughter, Annette talked about how she did not think she would have been able to survive what her mother and Mr. Bladwin went through.  Wilhemina said in her quiet voice, “oh, you would have been alright.”

A visit with Dr. Fields

Fletcher Baldwin, Dr. Jessie Fields, Wilhemina Middleton, and Annette Middleton

It was a pleasure to spend some time with Dr. Fields, Mr. Baldwin, Ms. Middleton, Mr. McFadden and Annette Middleton. We talked a bit about the book, Dr. Fields gave everyone a copy.  It was also wonderful to see how much they appreciate and care for their doctor, Jessie Fields. Dr. Fields now keeps copies of The Warmth of Other Suns in her office to share with her patients, who have been delighted to learn about the book.  The book opens many new conversations about their experiences.  I hope they will be able to join our conversation with Isabel Wilkerson just one week from today. Our conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.  The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.

  • Independent Lens

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 353 other followers

  • Featured Links

  • Categories

  • Facebook

  • Links