On Campus

Author Isabel Wilkerson speaks about Great Migration book

By Jimmy Liptrot

During an X Block assembly, author Isabel Wilkerson presented her research that culminated in her award-winning novel, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. As the title of her book suggests, her research centered on America’s Great Migration, during which over six million African Americans migrated from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to Chicago and Detroit in search of employment.

Wilkerson conducted over 1200 interviews within 18 months to create the book, allowing her to craft a more accurate depiction of the migration. “The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these migrants make up the majority of African Americans in the North and West,” said Wilkerson. “Most African American families in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere can trace their origins back to the South.”

According to Wilkerson, the families of several celebrities, such as Michelle Obama, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin participated in this migration. Had their parents and grandparents not migrated, they might not be alive.

“My favorite part of the talk was when Wilkerson mentioned that the Great Migration included members such as Michael Jackson’s family,” Eve Zuckoff ’14 said. “It’s incredible that the migration even affected today’s pop culture.”

“It would be hard to imagine cultural life in America had the Great Migration not occurred,” Wilkerson said. “Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them. [The music] was shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and ultimately [resulted in] the music of their children and grandchildren.”

The Warmth of Other Suns is told from the perspective of three characters. Each experiences a different stream of the migration along either the West Coast, the East Coast, or the Midwest. The characters, Ida Mae, George, and Robert, have distinct motives for leaving the South and experience different outcomes.

“The Great Migration is not purely about the numbers but about the lasting effects of so many people uprooting themselves and transporting their culture from an isolated region of the country to the big cities of the North and West,” said Wilkerson. “They brought the folkways of the South with them and created a hybrid that has become woven into American life as a whole.”

The book has won numerous awards and honors, including the Mark Lynton History Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. In addition, it was a member of New York Times Best Book of the Year and was on President Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant said, “I have read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The stories she told had a lot to do with the story of my family, which was especially significant to me.”

Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and was a professor at Boston University for 15 years. She was the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and has spent over 10 years researching her chosen topic.

“It was a special treat to meet the author and to have lunch with her, so that we could have the opportunity to talk,” said Mr. Bryant.

“Overall, Isabel Wilkerson’s devotion to the topic is extremely admirable,” said Eve.

“And she is one of few in her field who can narrate to an audience so effectively.”

Photo: Eve Zuckoff ’14 and Steve Bissainthe ’14 pose with Wilkerson after the assembly. Courtesy of www.bbns.org/link

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