Friday, July 22, 2011
Former Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winner and current Boston University professor Isabel Wilkerson is now traveling the country to promote her award-winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration.” Wilkerson generously took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her bestselling book.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” is Wilkerson’s first book. She devoted fifteen years toward research that included interviews with more than 1,200 people. With the book, she wanted to show the experience and humanity of a people who migrated from the south to journey north and what they encountered to get here.“ The Warmth of Other Suns is such a rich part of American History. When asked what inspired her to write the book Wilkerson replied, “My parents’ own migration north was actually the inspiration for this book.” She says, “The Great Migration made it possible for people to do what they needed to do and it required a huge leap of faith to partake in.” She points out that African Americans have been in this country since 1619 and many were forced to leave one region of their country to be recognized as citizens of their own land.
Our experiences of how we arrived to the United States are similar to that of other immigrants.” Although The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the African American journey north, other cultures have traveled from afar to migrate to the United States. For years, people from all walks of life have migrated north, making the United States one of the most racially diverse countries in the world. Wilkerson says just as African Americans migrated north for a better life, the same can be said for the waves of immigrants from all over the world that have come to the United States with the hope of a better life. “There is a shared humanity for all who have migrated north.” Each culture has a different experience as they come to the United States and those differences, according to Wilkerson, deserve recognition by all of us. “Most people came from far away to get here.” For example, says Wilkerson, Native Americans came from across many straights to get here a very long time ago, even before the Great Migration.
Anyone who lives in the United States, or even visited the states; know that it consists of blended cultures. “We often get so caught up in the differences of culture that we overlook the similarities.” Wilkerson says, “If we recognize what we have in common, it will make us appreciate our differences even more.” She says, “The essential experience of coming to an unfamiliar land is what everyone has in common.” Wilkerson says the goal of the book was not to focus on the differences of a culture, but the experience of cultures respectively.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about “Reverse Migration,” resulting in many African Americans heading south. According to an article in The New York Times, “The percentage of blacks leaving big cities in the East and in the Midwest and heading to the South is now at the highest levels in decades.” I asked Wilkerson what impact “Reverse Migration” might have on African Americans and she said it’s hard to know what effect it will have. “There are only one or two generations from those who migrated from the south to begin with.” Says Wilkerson, “Reverse Migration is not a huge leap that the original migration was. It’s ongoing and is taking place for different reasons such as jobs, cost of living is less, homes are less expensive and they can connect with a culture that they only knew from afar.“ Wilkerson suggests that “reverse migration” doesn’t have the same central escape feature as before, there’s no real urgency to flee – it’s a different movement than The Great Migration.” The Great Migration, according to Wilkerson is a “restructuring of sorts and will not have the same kind of percentage affect as The Great Migration.“
For most of her career, Wilkerson served as Chicago Bureau Chief at The New York Times. (in charge of coverage of 12 states in the Midwest). She says this about her experience… “The New York Times is such an inspiring place to work because of the high standards and the history it represents. When you write for it, you are writing to perhaps the most influential audience in the world.” In 1994, Wilkerson became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. It was her coverage of the historic floods in the Midwest and for her profile of a ten-year-old boy growing up with a man’s obligations on the South Side of Chicago that earned her this esteemed award. Wilkerson was also the first African American to win for individual reporting. “I was, of course, thrilled to have won the Pulitzer Prize. It was such a wonderful validation of the work I had done.”
In addition to traveling the country promoting her book, Wilkerson currently serves as Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University. “I began teaching when I was working on the book and needed to be in an academic environment to complete the research. It opened up a new world to me, and I have enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and environment of a university,” says Wilkerson.
Isabel Wilkerson was extremely gracious and generous with her time. As a journalist, author and professor, she has and continues to impact the lives of her readers and students. I asked Wilkerson if she ever considered other career options she gave a resounding No. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I never labored over it or wondered if I should major in microbiology. This is the only kind of work I've ever done or tried to do.”