Isabel Wilkerson was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. She is also the author of the expansive work The Warmth of Other Suns.
Her books spans the years of 1915-1970, when six million people set out on the Great Migration. She followed the journeys of three main characters: a sharecropper’s wife, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney; an agricultural worker, George Swanson Starling; and a doctor, Robert Pershing Foster. Ms. Wilkerson follows these three people and many supporting characters on their journey to the north and west in search of freedom they could not attain in the Jim Crow South.
Ms. Wilkerson, spoke at my public library this past week, and I was struck by her thoughtful words, wise viewpoints, and courage. At one point she was speaking about the south during this time period of oppression and great indignity. She said, in effect, to keep someone in a caste system is to press them down. “You have to get into a ditch with someone to keep them in a ditch.”
Imagine all the energy expended keeping someone else down.
Imagine that energy channeled into lifting others up.
She also talked about how previous to her acclaimed book, school history books dedicated only a paragraph to Jim Crow South and the migration journey of so many. History brings understanding of who we are as a nation, and how we came to be the society we are today. How often we extract the parts we want to remember and discard the truths that are evident. It was striking to me in reading this work of literature how close in proximity this all occurred to our present time.
As I read this book, I kept coming back to immigration reform. The Great Migration shaped our culture as people sought a better life. They left everything they knew to flee injustice. They were people seeking refuge to become all they longed to be. They wanted a new generation to have freedoms and opportunities they never knew. I question why we expend energy again, so soon in history, to press a people group into unjust standards.
We cannot practice apathy over human beings solely because they are different from us. All immigrants carry their culture with them. Culture specific to a people group defines them. This makes our world rich in meaning and diversity. Judgment cannot drive our ability to practice compassion. In Ms. Wilkerson’s fifteen years of research for The Warmth of Other Suns, she was able to extract documents of people who shaped our culture as we know it. These individuals were all children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, including herself. Maybe you recognize some of these names; Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Jesse Owens, Toni Morrison, Denzel Washington, and Michelle Obama.
Will someone be writing a historical text for schools in the future about the voice of immigration reform?
This poem from Black Boy, 1945, by Richard Wright, inspired the title for Ms. Wilkerson’s novel.
I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown….
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant on alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.
People have stood and spoke for immigration reform. Will you add your voice?
Lisa Van Engen is a freelance writer from Holland, Michigan. She writes about placing yourself in the proximity of renewal at her blog, which can be found here.
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