Bookmarks Issue: 

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

A-The Warmth of Other SunsA Pulitzer Prize–winning alumna of the New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson currently teaches journalism at Boston University. She is the daughter of participants in the Great Migration she chronicles.

The Topic: Between 1915 and 1970, more than six million African Americans, fleeing Jim Crow laws and in search of a better life, migrated from the South to the North and to California, headed mostly toward major cities. Despite being one of the largest movements of people in American history and a key event in shaping our contemporary urban landscape, much of the Great Migration is not well understood, and many of its stories of disappointment, heroism, misery, transformation, and hope have not been told. Isabel Wilkerson brings readers into the story of the migration by focusing in great detail on three people's stories (those of a Mississippi sharecropper, a Florida laborer, and a Louisiana doctor), though her book encompasses more than 1,200 interviews and more than a decade of research.
Random House. 640 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780679444329

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Warmth of Other Suns ... is a monument to deep research and even deeper reflection and will sit comfortably for decades on bookshelves beside Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted, which won a Pulitzer Prize nearly six decades ago . ... This is a story sensitively and deftly told, not so much a tale of triumph as one of travail, unless of course you consider the triumph of the human will that this movement captured and then fostered." David M. Shribman

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"For all its impressive journalism, I suspect that the book's real worth won't be evident for a long time. It will change lives of a new generation, as did The World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn or the transporting histories of William Manchester. The teenaged bookworm who picks it up (yes, even those who flip ahead to see what happens) won't look at her country the same way." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, uses the journeys of three [black Americans] to etch an indelible and compulsively readable portrait of race, class, and politics in 20th-century America. History is rarely distilled so finely." Tina Jordan

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[The Warmth of Other Suns is] told in a voice that echoes the magic cadences of Toni Morrison or the folk wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston's collected oral histories. ... [F]or a certain generation of African Americans, this book will stir a sense of relief--that these stories and rituals that so many migrants attempted to hand-carry in the hopes that they might take root--have now been set down between two covers and in such dignified fashion." Lynell George

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[In addition to academics, a] few skilled journalists have published books, too, most notably Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land. Wilkerson might have topped them all in breadth, depth and readability, as she builds her narrative around three migrants, relating their experiences as much as is practical through their own perceptions." Steve Weinberg

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's from such unflinching details that The Warmth of Other Suns draws its power. In the end, though, Wilkerson herself seems to blink, arguing that, despite the struggles she so beautifully describes, the Great Migration was nothing less than the fulfillment of the American Dream as the migrants themselves defined it." Kevin Boyle

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Based on more than a thousand interviews, written in broad imaginative strokes, this book, at 622 pages, is something of an anomaly in today's shrinking world of nonfiction publishing: a narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars, yet so immensely readable as to land the author a future place on Oprah's couch. ... Some historians, moreover, may question Wilkerson's approach to her subject." David Oshinsky

Critical Summary

In The Warmth of Other Suns Wilkerson has composed a masterpiece of narrative journalism on a subject vital to our national identity, as compelling as it is heartbreaking and hopeful. Critics, however, were less certain about whether Wilkerson has written a definitive history of the Great Migration. Several reviewers saw the book as an important corrective to previous scholarship on the Migration that too often grouped African Americans into a voiceless mass, that focused exclusively on the negative consequences of their move to Northern urban centers, and that often emphasized economic and sociological explanations at the expense of the personal. Other critics felt that Wilkerson could have taken advantage of more of this scholarship, even if it was sometimes flawed, and could have taken into account larger structural influences. But The Warmth of Other Suns is an impressive achievement--a fresh, rich look at an important chapter in American history.

Cited by Critics

The Uprooted | Oscar Handlin (1951): F Pulitzer Prize This foundational book in immigration studies examines European migration to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Handlin does not focus on individual stories, but works to synthesize the causes of mass emigration and the general experience of those coming to the United States.