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

The Human Family Tree – National Geographic

The Human Family Tree is a 2-hour documentary that explains why race is an optical illusion.  The show will be repeated 09/06/09 at 1pm, but is also available on Netflix now.  Because of the wonders of DNA and genetic markers, scientists are able to trace the migrations of human populations back to their origins in Africa.  Be sure and watch the show until the end, where the filmmakers do a wonderful trick with their participants.  At the beginning of the show, project director Spencer Wells visits a street fair in Queens, New York and his team takes cheek swaps from crowds of people, all claiming to be immigrants from all over the world.  Many people volunteer and their stories get told during the documentary.  Most of these people expect the DNA to confirm their family genealogy that they cherish and has been handed down to them by word of mouth and photos.

At the end of the show the filmmakers meet outdoors in a giant field and have all the volunteers stand in groups based on the prominent markers in their DNA.  The groups are roughly arranged like a map of the world.  Many of the people whose stories were featured on the show are surprised by what their biology reveals, like one black man grouped with the Europeans and one Puerto Rican woman grouped with Native Americans.

The show is full of wonderful computer animation, beautiful high-definition filmed sequences from all over the world and staged scenes that act out what life was like tens of thousand of years ago.  Science really has learned vast libraries of statistical knowledge from combining anthropology and DNA research.  What it shows is racial characteristics are insignificant compared to all the rest of our traits.  Essentially humans are almost identical, far more so than other animal species.  We may look very different, but our DNA tells us otherwise.  In fact, one of the more interesting tidbits to come out of the show is that Africa is the most genetically diverse continent because it’s population is the oldest.

Watching this documentary makes an excellent companion to the book I am listening to, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, which explores the rise of religion across the globe starting with hunting and gathering societies.  Wright measures the development of religion by how well it deals with ethnic diversity.  Even though humans are all alike, we’ve always been very xenophobic, and the presentation of The Human Family Tree would be in accordance to the highest spiritual development in religious philosophy as explored by Wright. 

It would be fascinating to chronicle the religious history against the histories of the various migrating populations that the DNA markers reveal.  Would it be possible to follow the paths of memes like paths of genetic material in our blood?  The majority of the world’s worshipers in God build their beliefs on the political and social conflicts of one tiny group of people, living in one tiny part of the world, concerning events that happened two and three thousand years ago, while ignoring all the religious practices of vast hordes of people that migrated all over the globe.  But then most of those religions were tied to local ethnocentric and highly xenophobic tribes.  We are becoming global on so many levels.

The Human Family Tree makes social, philosophical and political statements through it’s work with exploring the science of DNA, with implications that are far greater than teaching us about human migration patterns.  As graphically illustrated in the show, everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and if you follow the math it doesn’t take that many generations until you are related to nearly everyone on Earth.

Most people don’t know much about their ancestors beyond their grandparents or maybe one of their great grandparents, so they imagine their heritage coming from one individual.  But if you go back a few hundred years and had to picture yourself the product of 128 or 256 individuals, what can you claim to be?  It’s hard enough to spot traits you get from two parents, so why imagine yourself to be the product of any race, culture, country, or other identity?  All we can be is the human we are at the moment and any cultural heritage is just silly pretending.

JWH – 9/4/9

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