A Universal, Enduring Story

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson

When President Obama chose his reading list for his family’s vacation to Martha’s Vineyard in 2011, he picked four novels and one work of nonfiction: “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson. Five years later, on September 22, 2016, the president presented Wilkerson with the National Humanities Medal.

In his remarks at the presentation ceremony, Obama said:

“We honor historians like Isabel Wilkerson, whose masterpiece ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ made the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West accessible to a new generation of Americans. To craft this remarkable book, Isabel spent 15 painstaking years trekking between archives and living rooms, interviewing more than 1,200 people who told her their families’ stories of heartbreak and endurance and ultimately overcoming — stories they often found too painful to share even with their own children. And through it all, she had to conquer the enormity of her task and prove wrong the doubts of others. And because she did, one of the most important chapters in our history is told in a book any young person can pick up and read.”

The book was a New York Times’ best-seller, won numerous awards and, in 2012, was named one of the best nonfiction books of all time by the Times.

The Great Migration — when 6 million black Americans left the South and its Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation — occurred between about 1916 and 1970. In her book, Wilkerson not only looks at the big picture of the migration but traces the routes of three individuals as they made the difficult decisions to leave behind family and friends and move to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Wilkerson herself is a child of the Great Migration, as her parents moved from the South and eventually met in Washington, D.C.

Wilkerson will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Beall-Russell Lecture in the Humanities at Baylor University. She’ll speak at 3:30 p.m. September 25 in Cashion 510 on the Baylor campus.

In 1994, Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing when she was the Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, becoming the first black writer to win a Pulitzer for individual reporting.

Wilkerson recently spoke by phone with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley, who first heard the author speak at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine. She was the final speaker of the conference, on a Sunday morning, and received two standing ovations during her presentation.

Wilkerson: Before we begin, how many times have Chip and Joanna Gaines been on your cover? I had to ask.

WACOAN: A few times. I interviewed them before the show took off, and then another time or two. They have put Waco on the map for something good this time.

Wilkerson: That is so true. You are absolutely right.

WACOAN: So, your book has been out for a few years now. How do you manage to keep your talks fresh?

Wilkerson: The book has been out for seven years, and I’ve been on the road virtually nonstop that entire time. It is really astonishing. This is not what would be expected of essentially what is a history book.

I’ve talked to my publisher of the extraordinary nature of the longevity of a single book when it comes to the invitations, the requests, the interest level in the topic. You cannot anticipate or know for sure what is going to happen when you spend the kind of time I did on this book. You cannot be sure of anything. You cannot assume anything. And yet it has had this longevity and this energy behind it.

I’ve come to realize that a lot of people think it’s history until they turn on the news. The challenges that the country has faced in the seven years since the book has come out, from issues with police violence and overreach to the continuing division in our country, have reminded people or inspired people to want to look deeper, to understand why and how things are happening in our country. So it’s kept me on the road for seven years, and because of the universal, enduring truth of the story, it’s always fresh to me.

It’s really the story of human beings wanting to be free and acting upon it, an ongoing, continuing search for freedom and an ongoing, continuing search for one’s place in the world. I think that’s a basic human yearning, so it always remains fresh to me and that’s what’s kept me on the road all these years.

WACOAN: You talked about the amount of time you spent on the book. In every class I teach, I find a way to incorporate your book into a lesson somewhere.

Wilkerson: Thank you so much.

WACOAN: I always tell my students about this beautiful, important book and tell them that the author interviewed 1,200 people and worked on this book for 15 years. But they don’t really seem to grasp the reality of that until I tell them that if they are 20 years old, it’s like them starting a project that night and finishing it when they’re 35. That’s when the light goes on for them.

When you started your research, did you have a time frame of how long you planned to work on this?

Wilkerson: I had no idea that it was going to take this long. I’m glad I didn’t know because I wouldn’t have started it.

As you said with your students, if you think about what that actually means in terms of the road in front of you, which you anticipate you’ll be doing in a certain amount of time, I never would have anticipated it would have taken this long. I didn’t know.

I had a rough estimate of maybe three to five years at most. Once I had begun the process, there was no turning back. It was just the question of sticking with it for as long as it took. It took way, way longer than I ever would have dreamt.

WACOAN: When you started your work, did to plan to write a straight history book, or did you have a plan to trace the routes of the three folks leaving the South?

Wilkerson: The approach was really from a journalistic approach, and it was narrative nonfiction, so it was always going to be deeper than one might assume for daily journalism. But I was setting out to find and spend time and tell the stories of three people who were part of the Great Migration, thinking that it would be a long-form, journalistic endeavor with, obviously, the context of history woven in.

As you may know from the methodology section, because [the people I interviewed] were up in years to begin with, and many, many people got ill and some passed away, and that took it into the realm of history automatically. The project took on greater meaning, greater urgency, required an entirely different level of research once people passed away, and that’s when it passed from journalism into history.

WACOAN: When you were doing your research, it wasn’t just a case of picking up the phone and calling people. You had to track down people all over the country.

Wilkerson: Right. There were three streams of the Great Migration, so I knew that I was going to be writing about one person from each stream. That was the reason why there was a national casting call, you might say. I auditioned for people for the role of being a protagonist in my book.

That is what took a lot of the time, much more time than I would have anticipated, just getting into these places, finding the senior centers and retiree pensioner clubs where people were gathered where I could begin this casting call. That just took a lot of time. That was necessary to tell the story of the national one.

The migration was a national outpouring of people, and it required my going around the country to find people to tell the story.

WACOAN: And you’re a child of the Great Migration, right?

Wilkerson: Yes, and as a matter of fact, the majority of African-Americans you meet in the North, Midwest and West are products of the Great Migration, either children, grandchildren or, even now, great-grandchildren, depending on when it occurred in their family background. My mother was from Georgia and my father was from Virginia, and they met in Washington, D.C. So I am, like the majority of African-Americans outside of the South, I’m a product of the Great Migration too.

The interesting thing about all of that is the story seems both obvious and unknown at the same time. We look at the sociogeography of the country as it exists now. If you don’t know the history, you assume it’s always been this way or it’s been this way so long as not to have been worth noting. But actually, it’s relatively new in the history of our country.

It began about a hundred years ago but didn’t end until the 1970s. When you look at the people who grew out of the Great Migration, you realize that it’s not going back that far, and that’s why it’s such a significant development in our country’s history.

As you know from the Facebook page, it’s so much of American culture. So many people that we now view as having an incredible impact on our culture grew out of the Great Migration. We might not even know who they were. They wouldn’t have been able to become who they became had there been no Great Migration. It’s always to remind ourselves how very new freedom truly has been for African-Americans in this country.

WACOAN: I also show my students a clip of you on the Tavis Smiley show, and you talk about some of my all-time favorite musicians — Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and a bunch of others — who, as you say, would not have had the luxury to practice their art if they were in the cotton fields of Arkansas or the tobacco fields of North Carolina. But besides just entertainment, there are many other areas of American culture that have been touched by the Great Migration.

Wilkerson: We take it for granted because it’s become such an indelible part of our culture. We don’t think about how it came to be. We don’t think about what would have happened had these people not fled for the chance to become who they were meant to be.

When you asked your original question about how I remain animated or engaged in talking about this, I am forever inspired by the human desire to be free and what that can lead to and being able to live up to one’s potential, wherever you might be born, whoever you might be. I believe that this world would be a happier place, a less violent place, if people were able to live up to their God-given talents and gifts.

To me, that’s one of the main challenges we face as a species is that people are not who they are supposed to be and they internalize the resentments and internalize the frustration and take it out on others. That’s just my personal belief. I get endlessly inspired by the potential that unfolded through this one phenomenon in our country’s history.

WACOAN: I believe I’ve read that there are children and grandchildren of the Great Migration who are moving back to the South. What do you think is prompting that? Or is that even correct?

Wilkerson: It is technically true, but it doesn’t reflect the historic nature of how our country is populated.

The Great Migration began around World War I and ended in the 1970s, primarily because the animating reasons for the migration — the precipitating circumstances of Jim Crow, segregation and the violence that was seen as necessary to maintain it — were no longer enforced, and the South became more like the rest of the country. The North and the South were more evenly aligned. Therefore, the Great Migration was no longer necessary.

People no longer had to flee in order to be who they wanted to be or in order to fulfill their destiny. That means the Great Migration ended, and that has meaning — the meaning being that demographically, they were not leaving anymore. If anything, the advantages began to return to the South.

One reason I answer this question in the way that I do is that in my view, it’s really important to maintain and recognize the watershed meaning of the Great Migration itself, and that there is no demographic equivalent now. It’s sometimes hard to explain because every census since the end of the Great Migration, demographers, or whomever, have denoted that however many African-Americans are now living in the South as opposed to the previous census. Every census, there will be a larger number who are migrating.

Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time the Great Migration ended, nearly half were living all over the rest of the country. In the decades since the Great Migration ended, the percentage of African-Americans in the South has increased by 1 percent a decade. There’s a tremendous reshaping of the entire demographics of the United States [during the Great Migration], then there’s the subtle decennial flow of people to the South since that time.

And it may sound like a small thing, but to me, what is really important is to recognize that the Great Migration was the first time in our country’s history that African-Americans spread out all over the country. Now, whatever happens is sort of an echo effect of whatever happened before. I hate to have to go into so much detail with this, but I don’t want to dismiss the question because it’s something that comes up every year.

One other thing is there are many more people in the country now than there were when the Great Migration began. The numbers may be significant, but because there are so, so many more African-Americans, the number is such a tiny percentage when you compare it to the Great Migration.

WACOAN: Let’s back up here. What initially spurred your interest in journalism?

Wilkerson: I always had a facility with language and foreign languages in high school and before. Anything related to language, from grammar to Latin to, obviously, literature, that’s what I gravitated toward. And that’s really all I was interested in as long as I can remember. It was a natural thing for me to do, to want to pursue a career that would allow me to write, and that was the most compelling and obvious choice for me to make.

WACOAN: What kind of work did your parents do in Washington?

Wilkerson: My father was a civil engineer, and my mother had been a teacher. There were no journalists in my family.

WACOAN: When I saw you in Grapevine a few years ago and when I’ve seen video of other talks you’ve given, it appears that you read from the same copy of your book, and it looks well-used and well-loved.

Wilkerson: That’s a nice way to put it. It is very worn out because I do carry the same one. People love looking at it. They like taking pictures of it more than they like taking pictures of me — and that’s fine by me. It’s literally falling apart.

It was actually in Dallas, probably three or four years ago, that a librarian had mercy on the book and gave me a Mylar cover for it, and it’s now falling apart.

WACOAN: Why do you keep using that one copy?

Wilkerson: It’s become a feature of my travels. It’s become a part of my presentation. It’s become something that people enjoy looking at. It’s a reminder of the journey I’ve been on from the beginning, and I like having it with me.

WACOAN: Your copy of the book reminds me of Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger. He’s had it since 1969, and it’s scratched and beaten and has a big hole in it.

Wilkerson: I love it. It’s got all kinds of notes in it. It’s what I grab because I know somewhere in this book that is falling apart, there is something I may need to refer to at any talk that I might give, and that’s why I have it with me.

WACOAN: How did you find out that President Obama had chosen your book for his summer reading list in 2011?

Wilkerson: [Laughs.] That’s an interesting question. Again, as I’ve said, I live on planes, and I happened to have been in Sun Valley, Idaho, for a writers festival that they have there every summer. I had broken away from some event there to check my email, and when I did that, my email had essentially blown up with, ‘Congratulations.’ ‘Can you believe it?’ I was thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ And that’s how I found out.

Whenever he chose his books, the White House must have put out something. It went on the wires, it went on the social media. I just hadn’t seen it. I practically fell out of my chair when I saw it. There’s no one day of the year when he would make the announcement. I wasn’t anticipating it. I just checked my email and there it was.

WACOAN: The blurbs on the back of your book are from some heavy hitters: Toni Morrison, Tom Brokaw, Gay Talese. How did those come to be?

Wilkerson: I did not have anything to do with that. The book is out to all kinds of people before it is published, and every writer hopes that good notices will come in after people get an advance copy of the book. These were the notices that came in after they read the book.

WACOAN: Are you reading anything good right now?

Wilkerson: I’m often reading multiple things. I’ve been reading books about the War of 1812.

I tend to really look at history because there’s a lot that we can learn from our history. The answers are often in what has gone before us, so we don’t keep reinventing the wheel. We can learn from those who have gone before us. I just think we don’t often think enough about it.

That’s one of the lesser-known wars in our country. When we look at the Fourth of July and think about the national anthem, and so much of it going back to the War of 1812, which is a war we don’t know that much about, often as a people.

I’m really looking at history of the 18th and 19th centuries.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know about your upcoming visit to Waco, which is still a couple of months away from now?

Wilkerson: Because it’s a couple of months away, I have a lot of trips in between now and then. I don’t know what will be on people’s minds in particular at that time. A lot of the things that I talk about are picking up on the atmosphere around us at any given time. I don’t know what will be the atmosphere around us at that time.

You mentioned that Waco has been in the news in the past for things that have been not so pleasant, and I was reminded that Waco is in this book for something that’s not so pleasant. And anticipating our conversation, I went over that. It’s on page 39, I think.

I would say that the message I have when I’m invited to speak is that we as Americans received a really tough inheritance, and this really tough inheritance is this caste system under which we all live.

One of the reasons that Waco appeared in the book is because of the comments of one father, and his comments haunted me as I was doing all this research for this book, reading about the challenges the country’s faced, the horrors that have occurred in our country’s history that a lot of us don’t know enough about. We’re afraid to look at it because we think it will make us feel bad, feel guilty, feel shame, whatever it may be. And the message of this book, which is why I’ve been on the road all this time, is because once you read it, you realize that knowing this is not as frightening as we might think it is before we dig into it.

Actually, it’s liberating to know, finally, what is it that preceded us? What is the foundation that makes things so much more challenging for us than they need to be? One of them has to do with this caste system. We’re living with the effects of this caste system to this day. Part of it has to do with this caste system that predates our great-great-great-grandparents and yet which we still live with the aftereffects of.

The thing that the father said is that he props his son on his shoulder while a young man was being tortured in front of thousands and thousands of people in Waco, Texas. It’s important to know that this is not about Waco, Texas. This was not about Texas, not even about the South. It was about the United States of America, that it could happen anywhere. And it just happened to have been Waco, Texas, at that time. But it’s really essential to know that it’s not about one place. Other parts of the country can’t say, ‘Oh, look what happened there.’ No, because this is the United States of America, and what happens in one part of our country at any time in history affects all of us.

But what was instructive and disturbing about what the father said was he wanted his son to see this violence, this torture of another human being because he said his son couldn’t learn too soon. That is a reminder that all of us, all Americans, whether we are aware of it or not, have been affected by and in some ways victims of a caste system not of our own making, a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing up people, a way of apportioning value and hierarchy to members of our species in a caste system that predates all of us and that can dehumanize all of us when we have absorbed the messaging. You know what I’m saying?

WACOAN: Yes, ma’am.

Wilkerson: I look at it as all of us suffer. That father, in some ways, was suffering a dehumanization of himself that he was then feeling the need to pass on to his son and that we have all inherited. All of us have inherited. All of us suffer from it whether we realize it or not. That’s the reason why it made it in the book.

There are many, many examples, obviously, in the book. That one made it in there, and it’s not about Waco. It’s about all of us, as a people, as a nation, as a species. How we hurt one another, and in hurting one another, we hurt ourselves. Does that make sense?

WACOAN: It makes perfect sense. It just happened to have happened in Waco, but it was not just a Waco incident.

Wilkerson: Absolutely not. And when I’m in other parts of the country, particularly the North, there’s a sense of self-satisfaction. ‘Oh, that didn’t happen here,’ and, ‘Oh, how could they let that happen?’ And, ‘Oh, how could they do this?’ Wherever they may be, it’s not about Waco, but it’s really important for all of us to recognize this is an American challenge and a human challenge and not for one place to absorb all the responsibility or another place to absorb a sense of satisfaction and superiority over others because something exactly like this may not have happened where they are. That’s really, really important for me to make clear.

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