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.

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

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? 

In this brief interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series, 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winner Isabel Wilkerson discusses the lengthy, grueling process of writing her award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. She says, “I am so glad that I didn’t know it would take 15 years. Had I know it would take 15 years, I don’t think I would have embarked upon it.”

See Knopf’s full series of informational interviews with some of today’s best writers here.