Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
–Tennyson

I have a poster in my office that is a pencil sketch of Bobby Kennedy. It’s one of his campaign posters and the words at the bottom read “Seek a Newer World.” To me, that is a hopeful phrase, a guiding principle that embodies more of a life philosophy rather than a specific action.

At least it was until I met Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, the main characters in Isabel Wilkerson’s stunning account of The Great Migration, “The Warmth of Other Suns.” Each of these three individuals, and millions of others, chose quite literally to “seek a newer world” when they left the Jim Crow South. Suddenly, the more idealistic meaning of that line paled in comparison to the actual journey and hardship that these individuals encountered when they chose to begin again in cities far from home.

Wilkerson’s story is about the 6 million African Americans that left the South for the North and West between 1915 and 1970. Some left because they were frightened and scared for their lives, and some left because they sought freedom unavailable in the South. Wilkerson chronicles the amazing lives of three of the millions of “migrants” and by doing so, tells us, many of us for the first time, of something as important to history of America as was the Mayflower’s arrival.

Ida Mae, George and Robert are simply amazing individuals. Each lived a hard life and yet each found ways to find fulfillment. Robert became a doctor and treated Ray Charles, and even had a song written about him. The description of his drive from the South to California is gripping as he struggled to stay awake and to find a hotel that would house him. We later learn that the author recreated this drive, which means she knew something of what she wrote. To some, I think Foster is frustrating—his place in high society is his most important concern, often more than his family. He is proud, demanding only the best clothes and cars and hotels. It is understandable, but something about it seems like he over-corrected in his attempt to become someone else. Yet his life improved the lives of thousands of his patients.

We meet George as he reached into trees to steal oranges as a kid and watch him grow old reaching for travelers’ luggage on trains going north and south along the eastern seaboard.  He ends life as a wise but lonely old man in Harlem. George’s story is perhaps the most difficult to read. He marries out of spite, in order to convince his father to allow him to finish college. The plan backfires and George’s life stutters as he spends it as a luggage handler on trains and tending to an unhappy marriage. He lives and witnesses the Great Migration train car by train car.

And Ida Mae.  A truly remarkable woman who we first meet as a tomboy in the deep south and who we leave as an old woman meeting State Senator Barack Obama at her neighborhood meeting in the Southside of Chicago. I could hear her voice and southern tone in Wilkerson’s prose and marvel at the life she led. It is Ida Mae’s quote that titled this post. And it is her life and her quiet dignity that I think inspired Wilkerson to write this:

“The facts of their lives unfurled over the generations like an overwrapped present, a secret told in syllables. Sometimes the migrants dropped puzzle pieces from the past while folding the laundry or stirring the corn bread, and the children would listen between cereal commercials and not truly understand until they grew up and had children and troubles of their own.  And the ones who had half-listened would scold and kick themselves that they had not paid better attention when they had the chance.”

This book raises topics that could be discussed for hours. The oppression of the Jim Crow South and how it destroyed families. The fact that when they went North, many African Americans found different, and sometimes more oppressive racism. The failed dreams of each of the main characters. And the scale of the migration in and of itself is jaw-dropping.

But what struck me most was the author’s thesis that the African Americans that left the South became immigrants within their own country. We are often called a nation of immigrants. This is largely true but it leaves out the unwilling participants in the darkest chapter in our history. The Great Migration was the moment when African Americans realized an immigrant experience comparable to others. Instead of being forcibly moved as they were when they arrived here, these brave souls decided to pull up roots and find a new home. Like the Irish, Germans, Italians, and so many others who came to America, the millions of migrants that left the South traveled painful journeys as they looked for a new home. They left to seek a newer world.

Rarely is non-fiction called beautiful, but this book truly was.  Like Dr. Foster arranging flowers perfectly in his garden, Wilkerson chooses each word with precision, creating a book that reads more like classic literature than the impeccable research that it actually is.  I can’t rave enough about this book or the impact that it had on me.  No doubt it will also give you new perspective on American history and an deeper appreciation for the personal histories of many African American families.