We all know a good story reaches deeper than a pile of statistics. Sermons and TED Talks and books change lives because they tell poignant stories. Even Jesus displays storytelling power through his parables. And yet, we know we need statistics too. Compiling meaningful data is crucial for governments forming policy, as well as individuals charting their futures. Isabel Wilkerson knew what she was doing when she wove the two together in her epic The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
Of course, stories and statistics can be abused. One can be manipulated to speak over the other. A story can tug at heart strings, overstate reality, and wrongly condemn. The storyteller, then, bears responsibility to speak the truth. The same goes for statistics. Data can be twisted, numbers omitted or highlighted to deliver a punchline that’s not really true or not really comprehensive.
In 2020, we’re trying to make sense of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, plus protests-turned-riots and the unprovoked ambush of police officers. Statistics, stories, expert opinions, and “well did you ever think about this?” fly across social-media feeds and news outlets faster than we can absorb.
Shields go up on all sides, nullifying peacemaking before it can even start.
The Warmth of Other Suns responds. Published in 2010, it’s the epic story of America’s Great Migration—the movement of 6 million black Americans from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970.
The Great Migration is the biggest underreported story of the United States from the 20th century.
You’ve probably never heard of the Great Migration, because it’s the biggest underreported story of the United States from the 20th century. It’s the story of what black Americans were willing to endure to achieve the freedom they knew was theirs, but never received, after the Emancipation Proclamation. Wilkerson took 15 years to interview thousands of people, masterfully weaving together sociological research with individual stories.
The 600-page history reads like page-turning fiction. It’s captivating and haunting and all true. Readers can’t help but lower their shields.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.
The three primary subjects—Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster—feel like dear friends just a few chapters in. Their stories compel us to know more, to do better. But it’s not just their stories. Wilkerson adds meaningful data from across the century and the country to round out their narratives. The life stories and sociological stats together give us a better picture than one or the other could on its own.
Why We Need This Book
In early June I cast a wide invitation on social media to read the book over the summer and gather for a discussion in August. The result was three book-discussion groups of about 15 women each—one in-person and two on Zoom. In addition to these 45 women I heard from dozens more who read the book but couldn’t make it to a meeting.
Here are three reasons we need this book right now, and why I hope you’ll consider reading it with your own community.
1. Read History Together to Diagnose Current Ailments
It was unanimous: not one of us readers was aware of the rich history told in The Warmth of Other Suns. While there was some awareness among us—we knew something of the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, persistent racial inequalities in the 1900s, and the necessity of the civil-rights movement and the heroics of Martin Luther King Jr.—we largely assumed disparities and violence were limited to a few sinister corners in the South. Across the nation, across races and ethnicities, across socioeconomic levels, and across public and private schools alike, we Americans have missed out on relevant history from between 1865 and 1970.
Across the nation, across races and ethnicities, across socioeconomic levels, and across public and private schools alike, we Americans have missed out on relevant history from between 1865 and 1970.
In an interview on the On Being podcast, Wilkerson draws a helpful parallel from the unwell status of our nation to an unwell person who visits the doctor. She points out that before anyone even gets to see the doctor, we must fill out a lengthy survey describing our own health, our parents’ health, and even our grandparents’ health. Our doctors want to know our histories before they can diagnose our current ailments. So it is with the United States. We can’t fully understand the wrongful deaths of unarmed black Americans, for example, if we don’t understand the history. Though we may not all agree on how to respond, it’s vital we grasp that the racialized violence and protests of 2020 are not occurring in a vacuum.
2. Read History Together to See Untold and Hidden Injustice
Despite many encouraging exceptions, racial segregation persists across our nation. It’s hard for us to really know what others are going through and from where they’ve come.
Miles’s Law is helpful here: where you stand depends largely on where you sit. Our current racialized division can be largely traced to the fact that so many of us have different experiences. And not just us, but our parents and grandparents and generations back for hundreds of years before us. We’ve been sitting separately since slavery began; no wonder standing together now is not automatic.
Where you stand depends largely on where you sit.
Wilkerson recounts everyday stories to help us see what we’ve never seen. Perhaps for the first time for many majority-culture readers, we’re placed in proximity with generations of black families who’ve endured centuries of mistreatment and injustice.
The unseen stories are innumerable, but I’ll share a few here. George Starling’s fellow citrus pickers were willing to work for mere cents a day in the 1940s because it was illegal for black men in the South to be unemployed. Police officers picked up unemployed men from front porches and sidewalk benches, charged them with vagrancy, and forced them to go to work—for free to pay off the fines they’d just incurred—on plantations and in citrus groves (152). Robert Foster ran into legal covenants in Los Angeles in the 1960s, making it impossible for him and others to buy nice homes in white neighborhoods without securing a secret third-party transfer through an empathetic real-estate agent (232). When Ida Mae Gladney and her husband first arrived in Chicago, black migrants earned the lowest incomes for jobs they shared with whites, and they had to pay twice the rent charged to whites for the same housing (270). This unseen “pattern of overcharging and underinvestment in black neighborhoods . . . would lay a foundation for decades of economic disparities” (270).
It’s the sheer normalcy and recency of the stories shared by Wilkerson that is so striking. Because they’ve been largely unseen and mostly untold, they don’t bear the weight they deserve today when we read headlines and form opinions and make policies. When you hide history, it’s impossible to rightly see the present.
Yes, things are much better. As a nation we can and should celebrate progress and acknowledge men and women of the past who paid a high price to stand up for what’s right. But we still have a long way to go. Wilkerson opens our eyes, and we see the work yet to be done.
3. Read History Together to Love Your Neighbors Together
As divided as our nation is right now, it’s imperative that we Christians remember the shared origin and shared dignity of all of humanity, as well as our shared calling as followers of Christ. The Bible tells us God created all of us—every man, woman, and child of every ethnicity—in his image (Gen. 1:27). This shared story should drive us toward one another.
The sovereign God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). He designed when and where you and I would be born. Our residence and skin color in the United States in 2020 isn’t a mistake; it’s by design.
Reading The Warmth of Other Suns with other people is one way to pursue peacemaking in these divided days. Because reading as a community will surely change a community.
Putting all this together, we must consider what God is calling us to amid our national pain and turmoil. Reading isn’t enough, but it’s a start. Wilkerson herself has observed, “The response to this book is proof that it’s not as hard as you fear it will be. That actually you can find [the book], not just enlightening, but healing.”
Reading The Warmth of Other Suns with others is one way to pursue peacemaking in these divided days. For reading as a community will surely change a community. And reading as a nation just might change a nation.
Rather than shouting at each other and repeating the stories and statistics inside our own echo chambers, reading in community is one way to show neighbor love. So take up this epic book and read it with others.