Interview by George Getschow
Isabel Wilkerson considers Richard Wright the bard of the Great Migration, the writer who “gave voice to the fears and yearnings” of his fellow migrants through his novel Native Son and his autobiography, Black Boy.
When Wright left Memphis for Chicago in 1927 to feel “the warmth of others suns,” as he put it, little did he know that his words would inspire the title to a sweeping historical epic penned by a child of the Great Migration, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times based in Chicago.
Isabel Wilkerson, the daughter of a schoolteacher from Georgia and a Tuskegee airman from Virginia, spent 15 years working on one of the most important untold stories of American history: the exodus of 6 million segregated and subjugated blacks from the Jim Crow South to northern and western cities in search of a better life from World War I to 1970.
The exodus was hardly a high-profile mass movement, however. As Wilkerson writes, “It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was under way.”
Yet the movement, silent and largely unreported, would “transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched.”
It also transformed Wilkerson “from journalist to unintended historian,” she writes in the acknowledgments to The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson became exceptionally close to her three main characters, spending time with them over the course of several years, wondering how she’d find a way to join together their completely disparate lives into a cohesive and compelling narrative. “Their unfailing faith in this work carried me through when I doubted what was possible,” she writes. “They believed in me and in this project perhaps more than anyone else, perhaps, at times, even more than I did.”
You spent 15 years interviewing more than 1,200 people to pull together your epic narrative about the exodus of blacks from the entrenched caste system of the South. As a child of what came to be known as the Great Migration, how were you impacted emotionally by the experience?
I had to channel those emotions into telling the story. The goal of a narrative, to me, is to find the universal, human story that anyone can connect to it. The goal is to invite the reader to ask the question, What would I have done had I been this person in that situation? My task was to record the Great Migration, to describe it with precision and accuracy and to recreate that world so that readers could see themselves in it, see themselves in the eyes and hearts of the protagonists and in the obstacles the protagonists face. I had to put that world in context and make it come alive for the reader. That meant I had to spend a great deal of time immersed in a dark chapter of our country’s history. I had to recreate the everyday rituals of an absurd caste system that made it actually illegal for a black person and a white person merely to play checkers together in Birmingham. I had to spend months reading about lynching, a form of domestic terror that was used to enforce this caste system and which in part propelled the exodus. The work required me to absorb detailed accounts of torture and to relive them in a sense. I had to consciously detach myself emotionally from these stories to avoid getting swallowed up in them. What helped me get through this phase of the work was the knowledge that, with each discovery, no matter how shocking, I was getting closer to recreating a world that the reader would not otherwise have truly known existed in our own country not that long ago.
Reading about lynching and torture of African-American citizens at the hands of elected officials and screaming mobs sounds painful.
I didn’t experience it as painful so much as liberating, liberating because it helps us see the forces that contribute to much of the division that afflicts our country to this day and the strength and fortitude of those who survived that period in our country’s history. This is living history. This is not about slavery but about a caste system that did not end in the South until the 1970s, absurd rules and laws, an artificial hierarchy that was in force during the lifespan of many tens of millions of Americans alive today and undergirds social and cultural assumptions to this day. We are still living with the aftereffects of these unresolved divisions, North and South, and with the effects it had on our culture as Americans. Doing the research and writing the book helped me see America in a new light – who I am, who we are.
Your parents were part of the Great Migration. Your mother, from Georgia, moved to Washington, D.C., and met your father, a Tuskegee airman from Virginia. Yet you weren’t aware until you began the book that you were a child of the Great Migration. How’s that possible?
I didn’t grow up with that as my identity. The Great Migration went on for so long and involved so many black Southerners that it wasn’t seen as unusual or an identity in itself. Because it was most everyone’s experience and because it involved loss, pain and dislocation, people didn’t talk about it. My parents certainly didn’t. It was just a part of their everyday existence. Until I began thinking about doing this book, there was no single moment in my life when I thought, “Oh, I’m a child of the Great Migration.”
Your book isn’t easy to typecast. It’s not a traditional oral history, biography or narrative journalism. How would you describe it?
I think of myself as a storyteller, and I use all the tools of a storyteller to tell the best story I can. I employed the tools of history, anthropology, sociology, ethnography, poetry, film and literature in all its forms. It took all of these tools and literary forms to tell the story of the Great Migration in the way I wanted to tell it.
You didn’t mention theater. It fascinates me that you spent the first two years of your book project looking for a suitable cast of characters. Like a theatrical casting call, you essentially auditioned more than 1,200 people to find three main protagonists born in three different decades, living in three distinct regions of the South, representing different social-economic strata, propelled by different circumstances to move. Why did you focus your early efforts in this search of characters rather than digging into archives like other writers?
Some writers don’t feel equipped to go into the field until they have done all their archival work. But I chose to spend a time on the front end, on what I call casting, because the larger phenomenon was only going to come alive through the protagonists whose stories I was telling. As it was, I was exploring a phenomenon where little was known about the journeys and actual lives and motivations of the people who fled the South. I would be coming into people’s lives as a complete stranger and seeking to get to know them well enough to create an entire narrative around their experiences. It turned out to be a critical decision – choosing to focus on the people first and the archives second. I was in a race against the clock because the people were getting up in years (the migration began during World War I). I realized that the archives would always be there, but the people would not. It ended up being the best decision in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Interviewing so many people in the “audition” phase exposed me to the range of experiences the people had had and to the motivations that drove the migration and the varying outcomes. It was extremely difficult for some of them to talk about what they had endured. Some spoke to me through their tears. Some of them had not told their own children things they were telling me. Hearing the stories of those who had lived what I was researching allowed them to teach me what no archive could. It was a tutorial in itself. Many of these people passed away before the work was completed, so had I not put the interviews first, I would have missed a big and irreplaceable source of information. And, as it turned out, in the time that I took to talk to these people, new research on the migration was becoming known, old archives were being made accessible. At one point, every week, some old newspaper was being digitized and made easier to search. So, it ended up being the most effective way to get it done, even though it may not have seemed that way at first.
How did you go about identifying these people?
I went to senior citizen centers, pensioners’ meetings for retired postal workers, AARP meetings on the South Side of Chicago, senior day picnics, senior citizen bus trips to Las Vegas, public access television stations, gospel radio stations, hometown clubs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles formed by people who had fled the South. I went anywhere that senior citizens in the North and West might be. In Chicago, there are dozens of clubs for people from nearly every hamlet in Mississippi. In New York, there was a Baptist church where everyone was from South Carolina. In Los Angeles, there was a Monroe, Louisiana, club, a Lake Charles, Louisiana, club and so many people from Texas that there is an annual parade celebrating Juneteenth, the day that slaves in Galveston found out years after the fact that they had been freed after the end of the Civil War. I actually bought a booth at the Juneteenth parade with a sign that said, “The Migration Project.” And when people stopped by, I had a sign-up sheet to collect their names and phone numbers so I could interview them later.
And that’s where you found your three protagonists?
Actually, no. One of the lessons is that when you’re searching for someone, you rarely find them where you’re looking. But going to all of these places planted the seeds to eventually finding them. I would not have found them had I not done all that work. They emerged from my long search indirectly. An example is Dr. Foster (one of the book’s protagonists), a retired surgeon who was living in Los Angeles and who rarely went to the places I had gone. I met him very late in the casting process. I had visited all the senior centers and churches and Texas and Louisiana clubs I could find. I had been to so many that I began to run into some of the same people over and over again. One day, at one club meeting, a woman came up to me and said, “I’ve seen you at all these places, and I’ve heard the questions you’ve been asking, and I think I have the perfect person for you.” She gave me the name of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. I thought at first that there was no way she could know what I was looking for. But on my next visit to LA, I went to see him. He brought out some lemon pound cake and vanilla ice cream and sat down in a tulip chair. One of the first things he said to me was, “I love to talk. And I am my favorite subject.”
So what was it about Dr. Foster that persuaded you he was the perfect protagonist?
I had criteria for my protagonists. One was access, in terms of both time and emotion because the work meant immersing myself in their lives. I was looking for people willing to recount experiences that many people have a hard time even contemplating and which many of them had put behind them and never spoken of, given the pain of what they had endured. They would be people at a point in their lives where they were ready to share what they’d been through, unburden themselves. They would be willing to let me into their lives over the course of months, perhaps years, and be willing to be candid about their flaws as well as their triumphs. I was looking for beautifully flawed people who had come to terms with their imperfections. Dr. Foster, for instance, was a brilliant physician, insecure and ambitious, with great dreams for himself but a weakness for the casino. He, like Ida Mae Gladney and George Swanson Starling, was complex and willing to say so. They also had strong personalities, so that in a narrative that was going to interweave three disparate lives, each needed to be able to stand out on the page, and they do.
You were looking for protagonists who were physically healthy (you didn’t want lose them in the middle of your work), fiercely independent, strong storytellers, honest about their weaknesses and flaws, representative of the mass of people taking part in the exodus yet completely different from one another. Why was that important?
In most narratives, there’s a trajectory or arc where the protagonists eventually cross each other’s path. But in this narrative, that wasn’t going to happen. The protagonists never met each other and had no interest in meeting each other. Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Dr. Foster had no interest in hearing about the others. Their expectation was that I was there to talk to them about their lives, not the lives of “the other people.” They made a commitment to me to tell their story, and they wanted to believe I was there for them and only them. So the challenge was to make the narrative cohesive even though the protagonists were on different paths and didn’t exist in the same space geographically or even the same time.
How did you provide cohesion to a story with so many disparate characters and disjointed parts to it?
Before I even began the work, I had been inspired by literature and film that proved that narratives can be interwoven even if they do not intersect. There is a way to tell the big story with both a close-up and a wide-angle lens without disrupting the flow. One of the main inspirations for the book was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (about the Dust Bowl migration). I identified with Steinbeck as a journalist, of course, and felt a connection because these are both stories of internal migration and dislocation and discovery. I wanted to tell this story in part because there had been no Grapes of Wrath for the Great Migration. Steinbeck’s novel is built around the interior lives of the Joads as their journey unfolds with inter-chapters that place their experiences in a broader context. That structure served as a template for how to place my protagonists in the broader context of the Great Migration. My challenge was going to be even more complicated though. The Great Migration involved many times more people than the Dust Bowl migration, spanned six decades and unfolded along three major migration streams, which each of my protagonists would come to represent. But Steinbeck had solved the essential challenge of marrying the intimate with the panoramic. The question for me was how to make this work on a broader canvas with more streams, more protagonists, over a longer period of time. I realized that the three protagonists were really one. They were multiple sides of the same story, each unfolding in their own time and place but with different outcomes. I chose to tell the story as parallel tracks with emphasis on where each person was emotionally and developmentally rather than geographically because they are a single character ultimately.
What other writers influenced your work?
The director Barry Levinson was an inspiration. When I saw Avalon (about an Eastern European immigrant who tries to retain the values of the old country in a forbidding landscape of the New World), I felt it was my family’s story. I identified with it immediately and felt that the black migration out of the South shared many similarities with the yearnings of the immigrant experience. The films of Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh’s film, Traffic, showed me how characters can rotate in and out of a narrative, mirror and play off one another, without ever meeting and move the story forward. Their work gave me insight into how I might rotate my protagonists as the migration narrative unfolds – like passengers on a train who don’t know each other but share a common experience as they roll down the tracks, heading toward a new destination.
Did this structure offer other literary advantages?
The characters rotate in and out of the narrative in order of their appearance in the timeline, and the reader quickly becomes attuned to the order in which the three characters’ stories unfold. The structure of their rotation mirrors the rhythms of the journey itself. As the characters enter and leave and then return to the narrative, they move along a track, slowly at times and speeding up at times, the structure echoing the movement of the millions who leave the South, heading toward what they hope will be freedom. In that way, the structure becomes a kind of unseen character, lending a movement, rhythm and power to the narrative.
Out of the more than 1,200 people you interviewed as potential protagonists, are there one or two who still leave you lying awake at night wishing they lived on in the pages of your book?
I had narrowed the 1,200 to about three dozen people, any one of whom could have been among the final three. I gave it a great deal of thought. I chose three who complemented each other in personality, motivation, precipitating reason for leaving, socioeconomic background and personality, so that if you were on the page with one of them, you knew it immediately. Once I made the decision, I didn’t look back. I didn’t have time. I had to move forward to get to know the people and spend time with the people whom I had staked my narrative on. The real work began after I settled on the three. The “runners up” appear throughout the narrative as vignettes or secondary characters whose stories are testimony, a Greek chorus, to the main stories. Along the way, of course, I heard lots of stories that did not make it in. There was a woman who gave birth to a baby on the train to California. I met the “baby” as a senior citizen who recounted the story of her mother. Hers is one of many stories that I collected that inform every aspect of my book. What’s left out often makes what’s left in all the more powerful.
It’s clear you developed a deep affection for your characters. But the doctor, who you thought was in perfect health, died suddenly a year after you met and your research was far from finished. How did his death affect you?
I was devastated, of course, and almost considered replacing him with someone else. But I had spent the last year of Dr. Foster’s life with him, and he was a joy to listen to and learn from. There were times, when he got sick, that the only way to see him was in the hospital. I took him to dialysis. Then he was gone, and I had to piece together the parts of his story that I didn’t have by talking to his friends and relatives, at a time when they were grieving his loss. This added months, maybe years, to the work, because I had to travel to get people who were reluctant in the first place to talk to share whatever they could recall. I stuck with him because he had shared so much of his life with me. I didn’t feel I could abandon him. In the end, I got what I needed.
Dr. Foster told you in vivid and sometimes excruciating detail about his drive from Louisiana to California, and how he could not get a room for the night, forcing him to drive through the mountains and desert without sleep. You retraced Dr. Foster’s trip yourself, with your parents in tow. Why?
I felt I had to do whatever it took to make this come alive. I wanted to be able to tell this story with the emotional depth that he experienced. He had told me he was haunted by the drive and never drove that route again. That’s how deeply it pained him. I brought my parents with me on that trip because they had lived through that era and had experienced that rejection and that sense of terror – not being able to get a room to sleep, not being able to get food or gas and other deprivations. I rented a Buick, the same make as Dr. Foster’s car, and left on the exact date and time Dr. Foster made the trip. I wanted to recreate Dr. Foster’s sleepless drive in every detail, to feel what happens to the body, to become so exhausted your eyelids grow heavy with the lack of sleep and your fingers almost lock in place on the steering wheel. When I began to fall asleep at the wheel, my parents insisted that we stop. Because this was no longer 1953, we had no trouble finding a hotel. By the end of the drive, I felt even more empathy for what he and millions of other Americans had to endure because they had not had the option of stopping as I had.
You began writing The Warmth of Other Suns in Chicago where you were working for The New York Times and finished it in Atlanta, where you sought “to see the world they left.”
Yes, I needed to be in the South. Living in Chicago, I had developed the distant, critical view of the South that the exiles had. They seemed to dwell on the heartache, the terror, the rejection. In moving to the South, I saw what a beautiful place they left, with crape myrtles and daphnes and the camellias that bloom in the winter. I also saw complexity and contradictions that some of the exiles may have lost sight of. I found myself asking, “How could a caste system play out in such a beautiful place?” Since the book was released, I’ve traveled all over the South, from Virginia to Texas, giving speeches in places where black Southerners once fled for their lives. We still have a long way to go in this country, but I usually get a standing ovation, which says something about how the South has changed.
At home, you keep your grandfather’s typewriter on a shelf next to your Pulitzer Prize. What does that typewriter represent for you?
I never met my grandfather. He died long before I was born. But he had a college degree and dreamed of being a writer, even though, as a black man in the 1930s South, he could not even walk in the front door of the local newspaper. He bought the typewriter not for himself, but for his daughters in the hope that they’d do something with it. Now, I have the typewriter, and I display it in honor of him because I’ve had the chance to realize the dreams he had beyond anything he could have imagined.