“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.”
Additional reporting by Tara Jefferson
When Isabel Wilkerson comes to Cleveland, she sees Alabama.
An authority on the Great Migration—the departure of six million African-Americans from a South lynching them at a rate of one every four days over six decades of the 20th-century—Wilkerson is steeped in the ways of movement. She can pinpoint the families that “left along three beautifully predictable streams: up the East coast, into the Midwest and Far West.” She is conversant in the food, folkways and the names of churches that traveled with them.
“I am thrilled to be back in Ohio, one of the receiving stations of the Great Migration, one of the places people dreamt about when dreaming about living their lives in freedom,” she said to a gathering celebrating the tenth anniversary of PolicyBridge, a Cleveland think tank on policy that intersects black and brown lives.
After visiting more than 100 universities and speaking on four continents, Wilkerson, 51, delivered pinpoint geography in her remarks: Jesse Owens’ family of 11 left Alabama sharecropping for a better life in Cleveland even as Toni Morrison’s parents traveled to Lorain from an Alabama where no black child could obtain a library card, where they raised a daughter who remade world literature.
Likewise August Wilson’s maternal grandmother walked all the way out of North Carolina into Pennsylvania and Miles Davis’ people left Arkansas for Illinois. The parents of Theolonious Monk migrated from North Carolina to New York City, where his mother could earn enough to buy an upright piano. Yet another woman fleeing North Carolina, the widow Alice Coltrane, arrived in Philadelphia in 1943 and bought her son John an alto saxophone that first year.
“All these people were a gift to the world, and thus the Great Migration was a gift to the world,” said Wilkerson, who laid down this knowledge in her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2011. She asked her audience to imagine the generations of creativity squandered to rice and sugar plantations, the God-given talent extinguished in cotton and tobacco fields.
Dressed in an orange suit with turquoise jewelry, Wilkerson began by acknowledging that Anisfield-Wolf prize, and the 15 years it took her to interview 1,200 participants in the migration. She joked that “if this book were a human being it would be in high school and dating—that’s how long it took.”
Five years after publication, Warmth‘s heat is undiminished. In May, FX announced that producer Shonda Rhimes would be working on turning the historical narrative into a television series to premiere in the fall, with indie writer Dee Rees working on the script.
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed, noting that some audiences have a hard time imagining a time when stepping too slowly off a sidewalk for a white pedestrian could cost a black person his life.
In conversation with Hawaiian high school students—”beautifully removed” from the realities of the segregated South— Wilkerson described for them driving in a region that prohibited black motorists from passing a white one. Students suggested honking or tailgating, indignant at the notion of being stymied behind the wheel. “You had to stay in your place,” she reminded them. “This is what it means to be in a caste system.”
Randell McShepard, co-founder of PolicyBridge, said reading Wilkerson’s book “shook me to the core.” Politician Nina Turner called it “riveting, beautiful” and a lesson in “using our two hands, to reach forward and to reach back.” David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, said the great gift of Warmth was “that we see ourselves in the story when we read books like this.”
The audience applauded the notion of making Wilkerson’s book required reading in high school. And McShepard announced that PolicyBridge was adding a sixth core value—social justice—to its work this year.
For the first time in its 45-year history, Essence magazine will not use a cover model.
Instead, the African-American publication has dedicated its February 2015 issue to “Black Lives Matter,” the social justice movement that has ignited in the wake of the killing of unarmed black people by law enforcement.
“Pictures are powerful, but so are words,” editor-in-chief Vanessa DeLuca writes in her Letter from the Editor. “After I spoke with the editorial team — with all our souls aching for answers — we knew immediately what we had to do: Tell the story of this tipping point in our history in America. So this February we are focusing our attention on the daring modern-day civil rights movement we are all bearing witness to and making a bold move of our own: a cover blackout.”
Instead, the magazine features essays from MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2011 for nonfiction.
“We must love ourselves even if — and perhaps especially if — others do not,” Wilkerson writes. “We must keep our faith even as we work to make our country live up to its creed. And we must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”
This issue will be available on newsstands January 9.
With so much negative news spilling out of Chicago each day, we’re happy to see at least one bright spot among the tragedies.
Isabel WIlkerson’s 2010 work “The Warmth of Other Suns” was named the next selection of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One
Chicago” program, announced by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday.
Of the selection Emanuel said:
“Isabel Wilkerson’s book brings to life the stories of African Americans who left their homes in the South in search of a better life. These are the stories of people who helped create the Chicago we know today – and of people continuing to come to our city each day in hopes of finding their dream. Each of us has a story to tell about our family’s path to Chicago and how we all helped to make Chicago the most American of American cities.”
On her Facebook page, Wilkerson said she was “overjoyed to see the city that drew Richard Wright, Ida Mae Gladney, and millions more, now embrace the story of the Great Migration in such a big way!”
This is but one of the many honors Wilkerson has received for her work over the past few years. It is all well-deserved, as “Warmth” is one of those books that gets better with each read, and one of the few that becomes more and more enjoyable the more people dissect it.
Read more of our coverage of Wilkerson’s journey since publication of Warmth in 2010.
As we wrote before, Isabel Wilkerson has been educating her fans on the impact of the Great Migration by posting stories of prominent African Americans to her Facebook page. Recently, she profiled Zora Neale Hurston, one of our favorite writers and one of the literary world’s greatest treasures.
We loved what she had to say about Hurston so much that we decided to share it with you here:
On this day, January 7, in 1891 or 1901, beloved author Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., to Rev. John and Lucy Hurston. She grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla., and went north as a young woman, just as the Great Migration was starting during World War I. She attended what is now Morgan State University and then Howard University, where she got her first story published in the literary magazine, Stylus, and co-founded the student newspaper, the Hilltop, while working odd jobs as a maid and a manicurist.
She went to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and, in 1928, became the first black student known to graduate Barnard College. There, she majored in English and studied anthropology, but was not permitted to live in the dormitories. As was her way, she never complained. She once famously said: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She would become a renowned folklorist and novelist, acclaimed for her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which some see as drawn from parts of her own life. Five years later, she published an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about her many journeys, but her star faded as she appeared removed from the changing politics of the day. In 1946, she supported the Republican who was opposing Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the most famous black politician of the era. Powell won reelection by a landslide, and the election seemed a window into the distance between her southern traditionalism and a growing push for equality in the North.
She returned to Florida and, in January 1960, she died in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla., after suffering a stroke. She has grown more legendary in death than even in life after acclaimed novelist Alice Walker went in search of her unmarked grave, erected a headstone in her honor, and helped return her to her rightful place in literary history.
Hurston has inspired generations of writers with her free-spirited wit and imagination and her love of black southern folkways. “I am not tragically colored,” she once said. “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes….No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
In our rush to get to Thanksgiving dinner, we missed the anniversary of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” 2011 winner Isabel Wilkerson reminded us through a post on her Facebook page (she’s just FULL of wonderful factoids about African American history), including a rare photo of Samuel L. Jackson (third from left), who starred in the play as Boy Willie.
It was 25 years ago today, Nov. 23, 1987, that the August Wilson play, The Piano Lesson, made its world premiere, starring Samuel L. Jackson (3rd from left) as Boy Willie, at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The play would win the Pulitzer Prize. In its scenes play out the legacy of slavery and the Great Migration…. Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from Mississippi in 1936 and clashes with his sister, Berniece, who had migrated north.
The conflict is over an upright piano, which held the history and secrets of the family’s hardships in the South. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the land where their ancestors had toiled as slaves and sharecroppers. The sister wants to keep the piano because of the sacrifice at which it had come and the memory it contains.
The playwright August Wilson was a product of the Great Migration — his grandmother walked from Spears, N.C. to Pittsburgh. The play was inspired by a collage called “Piano Lesson” by another child of the Migration, the artist Romare Bearden….
Isabel Wilkerson posted the above photo and the following message on her Facebook page – seems she has a superfan out there!
Deepest gratitude at this special time to every person who has embraced this book and the inspiring message of the Great Migration. Filled with joy for whoever created what is shown in this picture: an edible edition of The Warmth of Other Suns created with love and care by an anonymous fan. This greeted me in my room at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, where I was to speak in the City Arts and Lectures series.
Neither the event organizers nor the hotel said they knew how it got there or who had gone to such trouble to create or commission it. However it got there, this was the work of a professional: a 4×6 piece of white chocolate covered with a filmed copy of the book’s cover. Thank you to whoever created this and delivered it to me. There are angels out there! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!
A full two years after her acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was published, Isabel Wilkerson continues to work hard on the promotion trail, working to raise awareness of the Great Migration and its impact on today’s culture. “They changed American culture as we know it,” Wilkerson says in this short interview during the 2012 Leimert Park Book Fesitval. “So much of what we think of as American culture is actually the culture of the people who did this (migrated). We’re talking about Toni Morrison, who became a Nobel Laureate; we’re talking about people like August Wilson, the playwright; Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote The Raisin in the Sun…we’re also talking about music. Motown wouldn’t have existed at all. Rock ‘n’ roll, as we know it, would not have existed.” Let us know if you’ve read The Warmth of Other Suns!
Interview with Isabel Wilkerson from Mayborn School of Journalism on Vimeo.
To say there has been immense interest in Isabel Wilkerson’s “Warmth of Other Suns” would be an understatement. She recently gave the ending keynote at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference last month, where she noted that she has been on the road promoting the book extensively since it was first released in September 2010. During the wrap-up interview, Wilkerson was asked if we might see her book on the big screen, similar to “The Help.” Check out the video above for the answer as well as more on Wilkerson’s process, her writing career and more.
During a stop to the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, Isabel Wilkerson described her desire to capture stories of the Great Migration. It was a labor of love—more than a decade of researching, interviewing, writing, and rewriting to accurately capture the stories of African Americans who left the south for more opportunities and a better life in the North.
As Tavis Smiley says, “Everybody’s talking about this now. But only because you had the discipline and courage and conviction and commitment to tell this story – a story that is at the very epicenter of what America is.”
Have you read the book? What were your thoughts?
Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns focuses on the Great Migration, scores of Southern African Americans who packed up and left everything they knew behind for a brighter future in the North. With painstaking detail, Wilkerson recounts the lives of four African Americans and their dreams awaiting them in a new place. It was a difficult journey for most, with countless hardships along the way. One of the subjects profiled, Robert Foster, made his way to medical school, becoming a surgeon and later opening his own private practice.
His daughter, Bunny Foster, sat down with Isabel Wilkerson in the research stage of the book to share her memories of her father. In a recent interview, she talked about how the man she remembered is different (in a good way) from the man Isabel portrayed:
“My father could be difficult. He was a perfectionist,” Bunny explains. “But Isabel got to what I wasn’t really privy to, in spite of being a brilliant surgeon and physician—he was terribly insecure. I remember case after case where he did some incredible surgery on someone who was expected to die and that person lived. The book taught me things I didn’t know about my own life,” Bunny says. “When I go back and think about the struggles my father had, it saddens me. He made so many hard choices and I had no clue.”
She credits Wilkerson’s thorough investigative skills with uncovering a well-rounded image of her father, one that she will cherish forever. Read the full article here.
Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns? What did you think about Robert Foster’s storyline?
There’s nothing like seeing young people get excited about history, something that is typically pretty hard to do. “Warmth of Other Suns” author Isabel Wilkerson found this gem and shared it with all her fans, writing:
Delighted that WARMTH is inspiring young people! A middle school in Milwaukee performed a play based on The Warmth of Other Suns, with lots of heart and just enough production values for someone in the audience to get it on YouTube. Just beautiful!
It’s always a question of whether the story will come when a writer sits down to begin a work and for Nicole Krauss, it’s always a mystery. In an interview with Interview magazine, she talks about her strengths as a writer:
Part of the work of writing a novel is to uncover these symmetries or connections that make it whole, which might not reveal itself at first. I have a very strong sense of architecture in my novels. But, yes, at first it’s sometimes like it’s like building a doorknob before you have a door, and a door before you have a room.
When asked about her writing process for Great House, she admits that this is her favorite part of her job:
On different days I would work on different sections and sometimes I would get really absorbed into one voice and I would write that for some months, come to a close, and then open another back up again. What interests me very much as a writer is the ability for writing to have our lives to be occupied so vividly by others. I think that’s what we long for as writers and that’s the unique thing that literature provides: To be able to step so fully into another situation and condition.
Read the rest of the interview here, under A Conversation.
“I have to care so much about something if I’m going to sit and write about for a couple of years. There’s enough books in the world already, there’s no reason to make another one. Unless there’s a feeling that’s incredibly pressing. That’s the reason why you write.”
Nicole Krauss sits down in this brief interview with the Sundance Channel to discuss what commonalities exist between her characters and why she, and other writers, feels the pull to write.
Each week, we’ll be helping you to get to know our winners better (what a great bunch they are) and highlighting the best of their work, interviews and essays. This week we’ll be focusing on Nicole Krauss, 2011 winner for fiction.
Even some of the most celebrated writers of our time struggle with doubt from time to time. How do they know if their work will resonate with readers? Do they aim for writing an award-winning book each time they sit in front of the keyboard or do they just wish for an authentic voice or story to guide them to completion? Nicole Krauss, author of three novels and a National Book Award finalist, wrote an unflinchingly honest essay on her story writing process and whether she ever feels a story will be successful as soon as she starts:
I begin my novels without ideas. I don’t have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book’s form. Often I don’t even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it’s going well–and it’s hard for me to say exactly what going well means, beyond the writing feeling authentic enough not to require immediate erasure–I’ll continue this sort of aimless unspooling. If I’m lucky, as the paragraphs accumulate, a compelling voice will emerge. Though often I will write twenty or thirty pages before I realize that in fact the voice lacks what might be called the “Pinocchio” element: the chance of becoming truly alive and “real.”
It’s unnerving not to know what I’m writing, or why, or where it will go. Scary, even, as time passes, and more and more work accumulates without an accompanying sense of clarity. A hundred or even two hundred pages in, and I am more lost than ever.I find myself worrying constantly that the work will fail. In my last novel, The History of Love, the potential of that failure became, itself, a theme of the novel–one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, is a failed writer.
Great House is my third novel, and so when I began it I already had some sense of what my writing process would be like. Yet my uncertainty was more acute than ever. The starting points I chose, which I knew would have to converge and cohere, were almost impossibly remote from one another. From out of all the early writing, four voices emerged, each with its own story: an American writer, Nadia, who has been writing for twenty-seven years at a desk she inherited from a Chilean poet who later disappeared; an overbearing Israeli father addressing his estranged son who has returned home after decades abroad; a retired Oxford don, who, in the final years of his wife’s life, discovers a secret she kept from him all their marriage; and a young American woman who tells the story of a Hungarian antiques dealer and his two adult children, whom she comes to live with in a darkly magical Victorian house in London. I had four different paths, and all I knew was that 1) I wanted to understand who these people were and what had made them that way, and 2) woven together, their stories could make a solid and intricate whole, that their juxtaposition would reveal patterns, and form a complete architecture–even, or especially, if I couldn’t anticipate that architecture. I was building a house–a city–without a blueprint.
Read the rest of the essay here in the essay, On Doubt.
How do we change the face of education worldwide? Is it simply a matter of producing better teachers? Donating money for repairs and renovations of some of the most dilapidated schools? Is it by working more closely with parents? Staff at the Open Society Foundations decided that an conversation on worldwide education had to start with a conversation on culture. They tapped several writers to contribute to the project—Chimamanda Adiche (writing on Nigeria), Aleksander Hemon (on Bosnia), Tahmima Anam (on Bangladesh), Petina Guppah (on Zimbabwe), Nathalie Handal (on Haiti), Rachel Holmes (on Palestine), Nick Laird (on Nepal), Kamila Shamsie (on Pakistan), Hardeep Sing Kholi (on India), and Zukisa Wanner (on South Africa).
Zadie Smith (also an Anisfield-Wolf award winner) wrote the introduction to the series. In the video above, Kamila talks about her initial reactions to the project and what she hopes others will get out of it.
To see the essays in their entirety, visit Guernica magazine’s website.
Each Friday we’ll be bringing you news about your favorite authors, literature and books in general. Tell us what you think in the comments:
Sweet Blackberry, founded by actress Karyn Parsons, is an educational foundation and production company whose mission is to use the power of storytelling to educate, empower, and inspire kids from all backgrounds. The organization showcases stories of African Americans, immigrants, women or disabled individuals to highlight their courage and accomplishments. This trailer is a behind-the-scenes look at their mission, their process and their goals.
Tri-C student Brian Ivey interviewed Isabel Wilkerson after her February talk on campus. Check out the video and hear about her connection to her work, The Warmth of Other Suns, and why she felt an “urgency” to complete the project.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has its groundbreaking a few weeks ago, but its website is already ready for visitors. Check out some of the exciting exhibits planned, and follow along with the museum on Facebook.
We find the most fascinating things by following our favorite authors on Facebook and Twitter. 2011 winner Isabel Wilkerson shared this gem with us and we’re happy to share it with you.
So cool. A composer and a violinist are creating a classical work of music based on “The Warmth of Other Suns.” Gratified that the story of the Migration is crossing boundaries and inspiring unexpected art forms. Kudos to Leaha Villarreal and Andie Springer for embracing this book in their work!
Each Friday we’ll be bringing you news about your favorite authors, literature and books in general. Check out the first installment and tell us what you think in the comments:
Isabel Wilkerson (2011 winner) was on PBS Newshour to discuss the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian’s African-American History Museum. See her part at the 4:00 minute mark.
Our friends over at Book Riot have declared May 8 “Toni Morrison Day” based off the release date of Ms. Morrison’s (1998 winner) newest book, Home. One of their writers will be re-reading her entire catalog and will be blogging about the experience.
Paule Marshall (2009 winner) will be doing a reading during the 2012 Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, scheduled for May 7-13.
New York has tons of payphones but its residents also have millions of cell phones. To make them more useful, architect John Locke has fashioned these bookshelves to repurpose the structures into free-standing mini libraries.
2011 Anisfield-Wolf winner Kamila Shamsie reflects on the availability of literature through the world’s public libraries—and what that means for future generations:
“A couple of years ago, after a reading in Karachi, I told off a young man who was asking me to sign a pirated copy of one of my books. Piracy is destroying publishing in Pakistan, I told him. He said he understood but added that because pirated books are cheaper he could buy more of them. It’s not as if Karachi is filled with public libraries, he said.”
Shamsie goes on to discuss the rising crisis in London, where 10 percent of all libraries have closed since April 2011. Read the full article here. A commenter on the article added:
“Libraries are important not just for the poor. They work for all of us and not only for books or computers. During this financial crisis we are living in, more people is going to the library to learn something new, to attend a free lecture, to polish his/her resume, to enjoy music from all over the world. Libraries are making everything they can to adapt their services to a new the technology not to mention how they help the new immigrant population. We have the moral obligation to protect, preserve and increase the public libraries.”
How often do you visit your town’s public library? Do they serve an important purpose in today’s society, even as technology expands our access to literature?