Review and Reflection: The Great Migration and the New Orleans Diaspora
Isabel Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, couldn’t have come out at a better time for black New Orleanians, who as 2010 statistics confirmed, but our own hearts knew, lost more than a third of our community in the last decade. As we reassess what we had – good and bad – what we miss and what matters, we may find instruction and solace in this book about a previous era of departures, comparing its lessons to our Diaspora.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautiful book. It opens with a quote from author Richard Wright: “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown…respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
The Warmth of Other Suns takes place from 1915-1970 and contains facts that New Orleanians may have forgotten or may not have experienced, as we were insulated, somewhat, in an urban setting. But Wilkerson points to Monroe, La., to explain why one type of migrant left, exemplified by Robert Foster. Coming from a family of educators, Foster wanted more than his small town offered – a segregated school system and a hospital which didn’t allow black doctors to operate, as well as a white establishment which had specific roles for blacks.
Foster leaves to become a surgeon, settling in Los Angles after a long, arduous journey, which Wilkerson describes perfectly: “Alone in the car, he had close to two thousand miles of curving road in front of him, father than farmworker emigrants leaving Guatemala for Texas.” The distance is also emotional as the book later shows. “He stayed awake at night weighing the options. All this education and no place to practice and live out his life as he imagined it to be.. a citizen of the United States like the passport said.”
Many of us may recall the trials of the South in the years of segregation and the frustrations experienced by professional people who could not work to their capability or get the same respect as whites in New Orleans. Segregation, its insults and its threats, affected everyone – men who were called boys on their jobs, and people who received less pay for the same work, for example. There were also the obvious stares, muttered curses and measured distances that characterized whites’ relations with us.
Wilkerson’s book puts racism and its response -- the black experience of the Great Migration--in perspective. She began the book “because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who experienced it.” She tells the stories of black migrants in the same way that writers address colonists’ opinion of the American Revolution, the Union’s retelling of the Civil War and the Jewish perspective of World War II. Blacks in her books are not victims of racism alone, but are active participants in a major change which affected the United States.