The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

With a title like The Warmth of Other Suns you’d think this book would be about interstellar travel, but it’s not, this book is about how we’re all so alien to one another.  From 1915 until the 1970s six million African Americans left the old south to find freedom living up north and out west hoping to escape the cruel Jim Crow laws that continued to enslave them long after the Civil War had ended.  These immigrants fled a homeland filled with oppression and cruelty hoping to find freedom in a new land that was ironically part of the same country they were leaving.

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The Warmth of Other Sun reads like a novel, but it’s a history book, one if you’re old enough you might remember living.  This is a great book, a wonderful book, and a very painful book to read because it paints scenes from an inglorious America that we must never forget even though most people have.   This is a tremendous book to contrast the past with the present and show us how far we’ve come with changing our society for the better.  Race relations is a tired subject for most people, so I worry this book won’t get the audience it deserves.  People need to read The Warmth of Other Suns because it’s a great story, amazingly told, and yes, it will be good for you, even if it hurts.

Watching TV after reading The Warmth of Other Suns is startling, because this book chronicles the horrors of the Jim Crow era so vividly that seeing so much diversity on the television screen makes it hard to believe this book is true.  One of the great sad aspects of this book is none of the principal characters lived to read it, or to see Barack Obama become President.  We haven’t reach the promised land, but I think we can see it in our telescopes, if we look hard.

Growing up the phrase “silent majority” was often used to mean the common people that didn’t get heard in the press.  The Warmth of Other Suns tells us there are more than one silent majority, and we each bask in the warmth of different suns.  There is no one group of blacks or whites that represent their races.  I hate the term race because it’s an optical illusion.  To talk about specifics we use generalities.  In this book we have the black people who immigrated to the north and west, and we have the black folk who stayed home in the south, and we have the whites of the south and the whites of the north and west.  But in end, every last person is different.  I think Wilkerson reflects this reality.

Wilkerson writes about three principal characters to tell her story, after interviewing over 1,200.  She could have written about three different people fleeing the dying Dixie and told a completely different story.  She could have written about three people that stayed in the south and their story could have reflected an equal amount of bravery as those who left.

I’d like to coin a different term, “silent heroes.”  This is what The Warmth of Other Suns is about, about three people brave enough to build a new life.  Isabel Wilkerson’s three silent heroes are:

  • Ida Mae Brandon Gladney  – Mississippi sharecropper
  • George Swanson Starling – Florida fruit picker
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster – Louisiana doctor

The history of humanity has been the story of men and women seeking personal freedom, but Americans have for so long lived with security, success and smugness that I’m not sure they even know what freedom means anymore.  Reading The Warmth of Other Suns will remind them with intense details and powerful emotions.  Americans love to think of themselves as living in the land of the free, but stories like The Warmth of Other Suns reminds us we have a long way to go until everyone is free in this country.  And freedom doesn’t mean just being free of metal shackles – because the southern racists who mistreated, tortured and murdered the blacks are imprisoned by psychological chains stronger than any metal.

We all have physical and mental chains that bind us from being truly free – read this book and see what I mean.  In reality The Warmth of Other Suns is another chronicle of the Greatest Generation.  I could never have been as brave as Ida Mae, George and Robert.  I never worked as hard in my life at anything as they did just to survive most of their routine days.

In the United States we all love the heroic soldiers fighting for freedom in distant lands, but somehow we feel threatened by freedom fighters in our own country.  I’ve always loved movies about brave soldiers in war movies, or brave cowboys in westerns, or tough cops that fight crime, but there are all kinds of brave people we don’t celebrate in movies, and the people in The Warmth of Other Suns are very brave people indeed, ones that need to be saluted and remembered.

Isabel Wilkerson also needs to be amply rewarded and recognized for the many years she spent researching this story.  The Warmth of Other Suns is an amazing accomplishment.

If I had the time and energy I could write thousands of words about this book, but I don’t know if any more would convince you to read it.  Most people read fiction.  Most bookworms stick close to their favorite genre, whether it’s murder mysteries, science fiction or romance.  I suggest skipping your next novel and reading this this non-fiction book because you might just find it far more exciting, emotional and wonderful.

Other Reviews:

JWH – 5/16/11

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