Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, an authority on the Great Migration and the anthropology of caste, will anchor the Cleveland Foundation’s annual meeting with a keynote conversation Monday, August 23. Guests can register to hear Wilkerson at 7 p.m. here.
Sixty-one years after the writer was born in Washington, D.C., Wilkerson has observations worth attending: about why India and the United States have proven especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, about the traces of caste detectable in this year’s summer Olympics and how she thinks about the January 6 insurrectionists carrying the Confederate flag into the Capital.
“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 in 2015 on a visit to Cleveland. She asked her audience to ponder all the wasted human potential through 12 generations of slavery on American soil.
Wilkerson sees these times of pandemic and reckoning as a signal moment to live up to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the citizenry to do, another chance to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”
The writer will join Daniel Gray-Kontar, founder of Twelve Literary Arts, in a discussion of what Clevelanders might do now.
An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.
Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”
For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.
“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”
Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) riders can now enjoy an even closer view of world-class art inspired by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards cannon as Phase II of INTER|URBAN was unveiled as part of Cleveland Book Week 2018.
Completed ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the first phase of INTER|URBAN included murals, photographs and installations along the train tracks of the RTA’s Red Line, which connects downtown Cleveland with Hopkins International Airport to the west, and University Circle to the east.
This second phase of the project brings the art onboard the train cars, giving riders a more intimate and prolonged interaction with the art. We’re proud to have supported INTER|URBAN, a collaboration between the RTA, LAND Studio, and the Cleveland Foundation.
For Phase II, 25 artists – most of whom call Northeast Ohio home – were chosen from more than 200 applicants to create works inspired by five Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners: The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes; The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson; The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies; Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon and The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. Their art has been installed on 25 Red Line train cars.
If you haven’t already, we encourage you to ride the Red Line and experience INTER|URBAN for yourself. Learn more about the project in this short film, which premiered to the audience at the 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony on September 27:
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.”
There are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.
In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward, editor of this anthology, decided she wanted a book that “would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”
The results are mostly successful. The Fire Next Time contains a broad spectrum of essays that tackle everything from Phillis Wheatley’s mysterious marriage to Rachel Dolezal’s recent identity hoax, an engaging concoction of both the historical and contemporary. Eleven of the 18 pieces are original, with the rest published between 2014 and 2015.
The Fire This Time opens with Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a 14-line poem that links the imagery of a brilliantly colorful meadow with the brutal deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Its early inclusion instructs us to get unsettled. (Brown won an Anisfield-Wolf book award last year for The New Testament.)
After a sturdy and moving introduction, the book falls into three parts – Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. In “Da Art of Storytellin’” Kiese Laymon’s fuses of his grandmother’s 30 years of hard work at a chicken processing plant with the Southern stank of Outkast’s Atlanta classics. Emily Raboteau criss-crossed four of New York’s boroughs to capture anti-police brutality murals in “Know Your Rights!” Isabel Wilkerson, who won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf award for her Great Migration history, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” revisits 150 years of U.S. history in a slim three pages called“Where Do We Go from Here?” Her precise retelling comes with parting encouragement: “We must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”
Still, reading most of these essays feels heavy. The collective thesis is that Black life in America, like Claudia Rankine posits in her essay, is “the condition of mourning.” But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote to his son, echoing the advice of generations before him: “That this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”
Edwidge Danticat, who took home an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005 for The Dew Breakers, closes the book with a powerful message to her two young daughters, born in the “Yes We Can” era of Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Danticat, born in Haiti and raised partly in New York, offers a view of refugee status — a position held both by immigrants and some U.S. citizens: “The message we always heard from those who were meant to protect us: that we should either die or go somewhere else.”
Still, Danticat fortifies her daughters against this, encouraging them to seek joy: “When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”
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.”
“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.
by Rachel Burstein
Our experience of a book can be changed—and enriched—when we read it alongside people who are different from us. That’s the verdict from participants at a recent Books@Work program in Cleveland. The group read The Warmth of Other Suns from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her meticulously researched and beautifully told history of the Great Migration won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Books@Work is a non-profit organization that brings professor-led literature seminars into the workplace and to a variety of community settings.
Few participants in a recent seminar were prepared for how profoundly reading and discussing Isabel Wilkerson’s book would hit them. Many recognized elements of their own family history in the book, causing them to reevaluate the role of individuals—especially people of color—in making history. Led by Michelle Rankins, an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University, readers explored thinking of themselves as part of a continuing narrative, and potential agents of change. As Professor Rankins put it, “There are so many universal themes in the text.”
One woman said that reading The Warmth of Other Suns encouraged her to investigate her own family history, tracing her grandmother’s journey from the Deep South to Cleveland during the Great Migration. She said she wished “that I had talked to her more about her upbringing and what made her come from the South up to the North. You know people left and came up, but you didn’t realize the reasons why and how they came up here with no idea what they were getting themselves into. That brought me to thinking I should maybe go find some more of my relatives we don’t really communicate with and just see if we can get more family history going.”
In many ways, Wilkerson’s book is a guide to Cleveland and other rust-belt cities whose history and culture were shaped by the Great Migration. And for many African-Americans in Cleveland—one or two generations removed from Southern roots—Wilkerson’s powerful narratives echo their own stories. One man said he was unaware of the profound historical and present-day discrimination that African-Americans encountered in the North, adding that reading the book with colleagues spurred him to inquire more about the racism that others in the group had faced. “I said [to my colleague], ‘I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of Jim Crow until I read this book,’ the participant said. “You know, and she looked at me and says, ‘Did you grow up under a rock?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I did.’ So we got into a discussion.”
These conversations are critical, in Cleveland and the larger world.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a powerful tool, asking readers to reflect on their own place among its narrative. These discussions can be difficult and complex: calling forth acknowledgment of complicity and privilege for some readers, and admission of failure to engage the past on the part of others. But there is also a chance—through literature—for the ordinary human being to shape and influence the story, and the world in which we find ourselves today.
That is why professors in the Books@Work seminar play such an important role in directing the conversation and fostering honest dialogue. It is the alchemy of the professor, the text and—crucially—the group members themselves, that allowed participants in the Books@Work seminar to take away so much from The Warmth of Other Suns.
Books@Work offers programs in a variety of sectors, states, and community settings. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Books@work through the website.
Rachel Burstein, PhD is a labor historian and Academic Director at Books@Work. Follow her on Twitter.
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.”
“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.
At 38, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior correspondent for The Atlantic’s online property, has become one of the nation’s foremost writers on race and culture. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Coates (whose first name is pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) found himself on stage at the Cleveland Public Library before a large, diverse crowd that included students from the all-male Ginn Academy, a Cleveland public high school. The boys created a crimson line in the audience in their signature red blazers.
Despite the formal setting, Coates was quick to share his humble beginnings. Born in West Baltimore, he came of age in “the era where black boys died,” he said. Drugs and violence decimated entire communities, but Coates said his saving grace was his parents’ strict guidance. His father, Paul Coates, was a former Black Panther who encouraged his seven children to immerse themselves in African-American history. His father ran an independent publishing house, Black Classic Press, out of their basement, while his mother, Cheryl, worked as the breadwinner for many years.
In conversation on stage with Plain Dealer Book Editor Joanna Connors, Coates described a young Ta-Nehisi as bright but unable to focus in school or earn passing grades. But in a junior-level English class — which he was repeating his senior year — he came across a passage in Macbeth that worked as revelation: words, put in the right order, could be beautiful. He found the poetry of Shakespeare reminded him of his favorite lyricist, Rakim. Admitted to Howard University, he reveled in Zora Neale Hurston’s words. “She wrote about black people as I knew black people,” he said.
A series of writing gigs at The Village Voice and Time Magazine led him to The Atlantic. Coates rules his corner of the site like an unabashed totalitarian, seeing his role as a blogger as parallel to a dinner party host. He deletes comments he sees as adding nothing to the conversation and engages those that give him something to chew on. He is not afraid to be schooled, and readily admits he is nothing if not “insanely curious.”
“America says to its citizens, ‘Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete,'” Coates wrote. “The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract.”
The intersection of injustice and policy fuels many a blog post. Over the past few weeks, Coates has dedicated the majority of his space to understanding the outcome of the jury verdict given Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot into a car outside a Florida convenience store. Inside the vehicle were four unarmed teenage black boys; Dunn killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Speaking on Davis and Trayvon Martin, Coates said, “They were robbed of the right to experience the world, to allow the world to change them. They are frozen in time in their boyhood.”
As the father of a 13-year-old son, Coates said these incidents haunt him. Still, he doesn’t believe he is as strict a parent as his own father. He explored their dynamic in his debut book, 2009’s The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, and appeared to still be coming to terms with the current state of their relationship.
“I work hard to make my son accountable for his own dreams,” Coates said. “He talks about all these goals where he wants to play soccer for a German club or go work at Google. I’m telling him, yeah, that’s great, but are you practicing? Did you do your math homework? Being smart and talented is useless without hard work.”
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.
Have your debut novel selected as Oprah’s second selection in her book club and you must expect for your life to change, as Ayana Mathis is now finding out. Once The Twelve Tribes of Hattie received the literary world’s highest blessing from Ms. Winfrey, her publisher rushed it to bookstores to capitalize on the wave of publicity soon to follow. Now, Mathis’ name is on the lips of readers’ everywhere, with Oprah even comparing her to the all-time great, Toni Morrison.
Twelve Tribes is a book looking at generations of a family after their matriarch migrates from Georgia to Pennsylvia in search of a better life. In taking a fictional look at the world Isabel Wilkerson told so well in her acclaimed Warmth of Other Suns, a nonfiction piece, Mathis gives it to us straight – no fantasy, just cold-hard truth. The family goes through more than its fair share of heartache throughout the story. As Mathis says in the below interview with Mathis and Winfrey, perhaps identifying the suffering is our way of releasing pain in our lives. Take a look at the interview and tell us what you think.
Martin Luther King III spoke on CBS “This Morning” about his father’s legacy and what it means to have the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr Day coincide.
In an Art Works podcast hosted by the National Endowment of the Arts, Isabel Wilkerson describes what life was like for African Americans at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the “Great Migration” from the southern states to the northern. It is almost hard to believe that we are only sixty years from this type of lifestyle:
“…many of us believe that we have an understanding of it based on the pictures that we might have seen of the black and white water fountains, for example. But in many ways, that was just the least of it. That was, in some ways, probably what many of them might have been able to live with, considering all that they were really up against. From the moment they would awake in the morning to the moment that they turned in for the night, there were reminders, rules, protocols, expectations, limits, restrictions on every single thing that they might do. In Birmingham, for example, it was against the law for blacks and whites to play checkers together. In courtrooms throughout the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on. That meant that if a black person were to take the stand, they could not swear to tell the truth on the same Bible that had just been used for the white eyewitness who might have just testified, so they’d have to stop everything and find a different Bible for that person to use, so that in every sphere of life, anything that could be conceived of was put into law. There were separate staircases, separate telephone booths. Also, interesting enough, one that many young people respond to more than anything is the idea, the fact that an African American motorist was not permitted to pass a white motorist on the road, no matter how slow that motorist might be going. And of course, because a caste system in itself is in some ways hard to maintain–and it lasted for 60 years by law, and longer than that by tradition– it was difficult to maintain. And so therefore, the way to enforce it required violence, and so every four days, somewhere in the South during the time period we’re discussing, the early years of the migration– the early decades of the migration, I should say– there was a lynching of an African American once every four days. And that was what was necessary in order to maintain this caste system, which in some ways was untenable.”
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.”
The answer, as 2010 winner Isabel Wilkerson would like you to know, is that they are all products of the Great Migration. Over the past few months, Wilkerson has been sharing the stories of influential African Americans on her Facebook page, connecting the dots between the past and the present.
Take a moment to browse the stories and let us know: Did you know about this piece of history? Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns? Is it a book you’d recommend to others?
Also take a look at Wilkerson’s “Democracy Now” segment, where she talks about the influences of the Great Migration, including it’s impact on jazz music and Motown.
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!
The 2012 election cycle was filled with a bombardment of political ads, 24-hour news cycles dissecting every possible angle, and an overwhelming sense of hype surrounding who will be our next batch of elected representatives. Some of our winners got in on the action and made a few comments about the election as well.
Junot Diaz, who has been writing consistently about the Latino effect in this year’s election, wrote a special message on his Facebook page. “Obama WINS!” he wrote shortly after the race had been called. “The Latino community came out BIG for Obama. Very proud of my community, very proud of all the new voters, the very proud of all the Obama supporters who put in the time and the hard work to make this happen.”
Never one to shy away from his passions, David Livingstone Smith took the opportunity to remind people of the atrocities happening in East Africa. “While we’re celebrating, they’re dying. How about urging our newly elected officials to take notice?”
Isabel Wilkerson, whose 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was selected as a top five book pick by President Obama, gave a brief history lessons for her fans on her Facebook page. “‘The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ Those words, the 15th Amendment, were ratified in 1870. NINETY-FIVE years passed before it was acted upon. Poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings barred black southerners from voting. It wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1965, when, after decades of protest and violence, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act ‘to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,’ that everyone was actually permitted to vote.”
Whoever you supported and whatever your political leanings, we hope you took advantage of your right to vote and made a difference in this election cycle!
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!
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.