Written by Cory Twibell Friday, 12 November 2010 00:00
After 15 years and over 1,000 interviews, Isabel Wilkerson was finally content to allow her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, to leave home and see the world.
“For those 15 years that I worked on the book, in the back of my mind always, were the actual readers who would be picking up this book and reading it,” said Wilkerson, who is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
The accomplished journalist, who is currently a professor and director of narrative studies at Boston University, stopped in at the Westbury Memorial Public Library on Oct. 27 to sign autographs and speak to an audience composed of residents hailing from all over Long Island.
Wilkerson’s book revolves around The Great Migration movement and focuses on three distinct streams of African American geographic relocation from World War I up to the 1970s in the United States.
“Almost every African American you meet in the north or west, the majority had come from or descended from people who migrated from the south to the north, and then also those who migrated from the Caribbean to the north.
“Together, that meant that you had a large number of people who had a migration experience as the very foundation of what it meant to be an American in this country, and that’s massive,” said Wilkerson.
Wilkerson said the book bears “a deep resonance” for her because she, like countless others in the United States, is a child of The Great Migration.
The three streams, which are represented by as many protagonists in the book, each portrayed a northbound journey, for one reason or another, all in search of a better life.
Wilkerson explained that during WWI, it was difficult for the United States to find cheap labor from Europe, so domestic recruiters turned to the south.
“The people didn’t just leave just to be leaving, they left because they were being recruited by people and industries in the north and the world opened up,” she said.
In addition to escaping what Wilkerson called an “arbitrary hierarchy” system put in place through Jim Crowe laws, African Americans were also forced to leave because their lives were often in danger – Wilkerson said there was a lynching every four days in the south.
“Many people left because they had to leave … all kinds of accusations could’ve occurred,” said Wilkerson.
Wilkerson said that 90 percent of African Americans in the U.S. lived in the south before World War I, but after The Great Migration, half had relocated elsewhere. Putting the magnitude of the movement in perspective, Wilkerson said 300,000 people migrated during the Dust Bowl migrations in the 1930s, while over 6 million migrated as a result of The Great Migration.
But the “Over-ground Railroad,” as she described it, was not for the faint of heart.
“Some people can’t even leave the house now without a cell phone. They were leaving everything they knew with very little but their clothes on their back [and] old luggage tied with string,” said Wilkerson.
The title of the book, Wilkerson explained, originated from an excerpt in which Richard Wright, author of the acclaimed novel Native Son, was explaining a migration of his own.
At the culmination of her discussion, Wilkerson reiterated the importance of capturing and recreating the frame of mind of the resilient migrants.
Wilkerson said, “I wanted to know, what goes through the heart of anyone – whatever they’re doing, wherever they’re leaving – what is going through their hearts at that moment?”
For Mablejo Robinson, a resident of Westbury since 1967, Wilkerson’s book tells a story that hits close to home. Robinson’s own family traveled to the northeast from South Missouri in search of a better life.
“The book inspired me. I can very much identify with it,” said Robinson.
Karyn Reed added, “The book helps us understand the fabric of our country … [Wilkerson] is an epic writer. It was a very easy read with powerful language.”
Westbury Memorial Public Library Director Cathleen Towey agrees.
“Ms. Wilkerson is a truly gifted storyteller, a very gracious person and an engaging speaker. She was sincerely interested in sharing the story of her book and meeting local residents whose families were part of the great migration from the South.”
Towey added, “I’m very grateful and honored that such an extraordinary woman and writer was able to come to the Westbury Library.”
For more information on the programs and events offered at the Westbury Memorial Public Library, call 333-0176 or visit www.westburylibrary.org.
Victoria Caruso contributed to this story.