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Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

We tend to forget, or rather, not recognize, that we are living ‘in history’, and that what we experience today is part of a larger story – and a longer story. This book puts recent, 20th century history into the perspective of this country. Detailing the migration of black populations from south to north, Ms. Wilkerson paints a graphic and deeply significant picture of why and how that happened.

Using individual personal narratives, as well as extensive research, she traces the causes and results of this massive migration that changed lives of families, and changed culture in both the North and the South. Firsthand accounts of the aftermath of slavery and of the Jim Crow laws that followed, make the courage and endurance that formed the Civil Rights movement all the more extraordinary. In many ways, the decision to move north, a decision made by hundreds of thousands, seems to be a continuation of the self-emancipation activities of the slavery era.

Ms. Wilkerson does a masterful job in bringing to life the stories told to her about how life was in the South, how it became impossible to survive, what precipitated the decision to move, and how life was when these travelers arrived in Northern and Western areas of the country. The accounts are engaging, compelling and add a chapter of history that needs to be the subject of conversation, study and to be part of how we understand today’s society.

One of the points that this book makes clear is that the 20th century saw the white population acquiring education, prosperity, stability, the habit of success in the entrepreneurial world, while those of African descent were still struggling with the after effects of slavery and the oppression that followed. The majority population reaps the benefits of those years of progress today. This book is important: every politician, educator, parent, everyone who is concerned in any way with how society has become what it is today should read it. Maybe it can start the open conversation on race that is so hard to begin. Without that conversation there can be no progress in eradicating the inequities that exist, in banishing the achievement gap, in becoming the country of equal opportunity and freedom that it has promised to be.

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