When I was at a gathering with ministry leaders focused on the multi-ethnic church over a year ago, Professor Soong-Chan Rah recommended that anyone wanting to better understand the historical background of race relations in the United States should read Isabel Wilkerson‘s book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I finished the book awhile ago, but am only now sharing some of my reflections after reading the book.
In the book, Wilkerson traces the waves of African-American moving from the Southeastern United State to the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1915 and 1970. While doing so, Wilkerson adeptly interweaves sociological analysis and personal narratives to portray a powerfully intimate and wide-reaching view of this movement. The title of the book is taken from the words of Richard Wright, author of Native Son, in his memoir Black Boy, where he writes:
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
While I would recommend the book to anyone, I want to highlight three ways in which the book impacted me, both as a reader and a Caucasian pastor working in a multi-ethnic, urban setting in Milwaukee.
1. Better understanding of Jim Crow era: While I understood the historical and legal aspects of the Jim Crow era to a certain degree, this book helped me by personalizing those realities through the stories of three people making their way from the deep south to other parts of the country during the great migration.
2. Better understanding of my own setting, Milwaukee, which continues to be one of the most segregated cities in the USA. Milwaukee is a beautiful city, yet it is still deeply shaped by segregation by ethnicity, which was greatly impacted by the Jim Crow era and the great migration. Milwaukee continues to feel the painful impact of ethnic divisions, which are reinforced by numerous individual and systemic forms of prejudice.
3. Increased empathy for the way in which individuals, families, and generations are affected by prejudice. Even though my grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Europe, their and my place in society was not nearly as painfully limited as those who suffered through the slavery era, Jim Crow era, and even today. When I sit with my friend Michael or Walter and hear their stories – and the stories of their forebears – this book has helped me to see with new eyes and feel with new empathy what they face.
There is so much more that I could say, but I’d encourage you to read this book for your own sake and for the sake of our cities and nation today.