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Author Isabel Wilkerson On Past And Present: “Our Current Divisions Are Neither New Nor Surprising”

Isabel Wilkerson poses with President Obama being presented with the 2015 National Humanities medal.
Journalist Isabel Wilkerson keeps her readers connected to history.
During the summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Wilkerson gave context to swimmer Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal by bringing forward the long history of blacks being barred from public pools and beaches — and she did it in a mere 300 words. Likewise, when Clevelanders rejoiced over their first NBA championship, Wilkerson pointed out the triumph rested on LeBron James being a child of the Great Migration. She regularly uses her Facebook page to profile politicians, activists and entertainers whose ascension in popular culture lies in the Great Migration  — the mass exodus of six million African-Americans between 1910-1970 from the rural South to all corners of the United States.

“Now, more than ever, we need to know our country’s history,” Wilkerson, 55, wrote after the presidential election. “Our current divisions are neither new nor surprising and persist because we do not truly know and have not reckoned with what has gone before us.”

Who better to shepherd that reckoning than Wilkerson herself? A public intellectual and expert on the Great Migration, she captured these journeys in The Warmth of Other Suns, named one of the best nonfiction books of all-time by the New York Times and winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2011.
So what can the Great Migration teach us about our current political climate? According to Wilkerson, it’s all connected. “No adult alive today will live to see a time when the time of enslavement was equal to the time of freedom,” she told Krista Tippett, host of the podcast On Being. “And so that shows you that this history is long, and the history is deep.”
Since the publication of Warmth seven years ago, Wilkerson has positioned her Facebook page  as a font of stories connecting the Great Migration with the headlines of today. Nearly 50,000 people follow these timely posts, which mine her smart commentary on race, politics and current events.
After Minneapolis resident Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop in July 2016, Wilkerson wrote, “These are times when the wisdom of the ancestors comes to bear.” She left readers with a quote from activist Ella Baker: “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”
Wilkerson’s dedication to these stories earned her a 2015 National Humanities medal, which she was awarded alongside musician and author James McBride (who also won an Anisfield-Wolf award — for “The Color of Water” in 1997). President Barack Obama singled out Warmth as a “masterpiece,” adding that because of her efforts “one of the most important chapters in our history is told in a book any young person can pick up and read.”
Over the past seven years, Warmth has made its way around the world, with Wilkerson making stops in Cleveland a regular part of her travels. She will return to the region at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 8 to speak as part of the Arts and Humanities Alive! Festival at Cleveland State University.
We are eager for the next installment.

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