“They did what other human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, January 20, to discuss The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is the group’s tradition to read the longest book of the year in January, and this year was no exception. Coming in at around 622 pages, this nonfiction book about the Great Migration is “epic” in more ways than one; Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, and the book has been called a “major assessment,” “definitive,” and “destined to become a classic.” For an excellent selection of interviews, articles, and a podcast and TED talk, all diving deeper into Wilkerson’s work and impact, visit the “News, Reviews & Interviews” page on Wilkerson’s website. Some curious readers will appreciate the 100-ish pages at the end of the book detailing the methodology of the research, sources notes, and an index.

Our group was not intimidated by the length or scope of the book, and found Wilkerson’s choice to follow three individuals (Ida, George, and Robert) clarifying and grounding – it’s easier to hold onto facts when you have a human story woven throughout. The three people featured were not perfect…as a group, we didn’t like everything about them. But they were fully human, come alive on the page. They were flawed but captivating. They moved across the country out of life-preserving necessity – or in order to be who they really wanted to be. The book’s title comes from Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son, who wrote: 

“I was leaving the South

to fling myself into the unknown . . .

I was taking a part of the South

to transplant in 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”

We talked about the inclusion of repetition. The amount of repetition did work for many readers who read the book in “gulps” (putting it down for a while, then picking it back up). The repetition helped them remember where they’d left off. In addition, they felt the repetition served stylistically, to illustrate the repetitive nature of appalling racism, threats, and brutality against black people. A few readers said the book was too gruesome to read, while others encouraged them to try again. This is the heart of book club – collective reading, for the sake of the conversation each month, but also for the sake of holding the book in your memory bank for as long as it can stay, and letting it shape you moving forward. For a truly difficult book but also an amazing read, some of our members recommended reading Caste (also by Wilkerson). Another member recommended the short but powerful Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. 

Many in our group did not realize the length or scope of the Great Migration. A few even said they had never heard the term “Great Migration” before. One participant shared that while they had never known about it, the Great Migration was a “big part of my life” (white flight, changes in the economy and demographic makeup of the entire country, etc.). We found that statement to be an intelligent acknowledgement recognizing the interconnectedness of lived experience. Wilkerson did a great job sinking this story into our brains and hearts. 

This is American history, but it may not be our personal history. This is African American history that lives and breathes uniquely through the families of descendants; it may be a “big part” of a white person’s life, but for a black person, this history might be your own mother or father’s story, a pivotal turning point for your family, a large reason you are where you are and who you are today. Wilkerson, in the acknowledgements, thanks her parents, “who gave me my earliest understanding of the Great Migration through their lives and experiences and through what they passed on to me…”

The three individuals Wilkerson follows through The Warmth of Other Suns each revealed bravery and desperation. We ended up arguing over who was the most courageous and sharing which moments from the book were the most startling – Robert the doctor sleeping in his car on his way out west, and the description of lynching (always very difficult to read). Wilkerson credited The Grapes of Wrath as a literary inspiration for her book, and it shows: both books are moving journeys featuring multiple protagonists. Most members loved this book and would recommend it to others. Three cheers to everyone who devoted themselves to this year’s longest read! Two snowstorms certainly helped provide time for reading! 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, February 17 at noon to discuss The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

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