History can be ugly
Reviewed in the United States on 11 August 2019
“Let us not fool ourselves, we are far from the Promised Land, both north and south.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a book that I think should be mandatory that every white person residing in the United States between the ages of 9 and 90 read. I don’t mean that in a harsh way. When one looks at the many accusations of racism as we approach the second decade of the twentieth century, it’s too easy for most white Americans to think that there isn’t a problem with racism in our country anymore, and the problems that we had were taken care of many years ago. I would guess 99% of African Americans would strongly disagree. Most would probably argue that whereas there have been great strides in the last half-century, there are still many more problems, and we have a long long way to go before there is any sort of racial equality.
Whereas this book is definitely about the ‘past’, the feeling that one comes away with is that the past was so harsh and brutal for people of color, and the obstacles so insurmountable, that it’s simply impossible to think that things such as a Civil Rights Bill and Affirmative Action can remotely begin to heal the many misdeeds and scars. When one and one’s family have lived in oppression for hundreds of years, a much more concerted effort by all is needed to make the many wrongs right.
This book essentially tells the story of three black Americans that were born in the Jim Crow South in the early parts of the twentieth century where racism is considered normal and slavery has really been abolished in name only. This was a time and a place so violent that an ignorant white man could legally hang a black man if that man talked back to him or refused to step aside on the sidewalk to let his white “superior” counterpart pass. The three main characters each live about a decade apart, and each one resides in a different State in the South. Their lives and trades are all different, but the travails they face are oh so common.
These three individuals have the same stories of thousands, if not millions of black people that resided in the South. For them it was only a generation or so ago that their ancestors resided there because they were legal property. After slavery is abolished in 1863, lives get slowly better for people of color in the deep South, but at some point near the turn of the twentieth century, it’s almost as if the white people on the losing side of the U.S. Civil War are still so bitter over their loss, that “Jim Crow” laws are passed that essentially strip away the freedoms of black people all over the South. The option many black people choose after being fed up with years of injustice? They migrate to the North along with their meager belongings where things are supposedly better.
“Better” doesn’t mean good, and this is where this true story can really sink one’s misguided optimism. During a span of about 50 years (from 1919 to 1969), larger cities in the north such as Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, and Chicago see these destitute individuals arrive in multitudes in search of nothing more than basic dignity. Life is much easier in the North, but in an era where Americans were still tribal, the newly arrived migrants aren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. The newly arrived black population finds themselves regulated to segregated slums and having to scrounge for jobs. It seems like no matter how bad a company might need to hire labor, many white people refuse to work next to a black person, so companies won’t hire the migrants, and the job search becomes much harder, if not impossible.
One of the criticisms of this book is that Ms. Wilkerson doesn’t tell her story in a linear fashion. We jump around quite a bit amongst the three narratives. The fact that each of these three people began their migration in a different decade doesn’t help one keep the accounts straight either. After a while, I confess that I couldn’t really keep up with the many relatives and relations of the three characters. This really didn’t take away from my fascination of the book. The author does a wonderful job explaining to the reader what her characters were going through at the time, and as horrific as most of them were, it manages to hit the point home for the reader in a major way.
She also does a masterful job peppering her story with current events and anecdotes throughout the narrative that drive her thesis home. For example, we read about Olympic Gold Medal winner Jesse Owens who triumphed in Berlin in 1936. Adolph Hitler refused to acknowledge that a black athlete was superior to his Aryan race, so he literally turned his back on Owens during the award presentation. The irony here is that in Berlin, Owens was at least allowed to stay in the same hotel as his white teammates. In his own country, however, the hero not only had to stay in a different, subpar hotel during the Olympic celebration, but he was also forced to enter and exit the hotel through the service entrance.
So the subject matter here isn’t pleasant, but it’s a very necessary history lesson. Although the author doesn’t explicitly connect the dots, she seems to allege that the many present-day problems that people of color encounter in their daily lives in crack infested neighborhoods are a direct result from the neglect, hatred, and isolation of years past during the migration. Yes, there have been strides to improve these situations, we still have quite a journey ahead of us.
In conclusion, if you’re a white person and you can’t fathom why there are still many accusations of racism in today’s culture, I implore you to read this book. If reading this book can’t open your eyes, I honestly don’t know what will. I also pity that you have such a hard heart. We can only hope that things will continue to improve, yet at a much faster pace than what we’ve experienced.
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