School of Journalism and New Media

The University of Mississippi

Wilkerson discusses award-winning book, writing process with School of Journalism and New Media students

Posted on: February 18th, 2011 by

By KATE SINERVO | Journalism Student

“It is very emotional for me to be back in Mississippi talking about my book,” a former New York Times reporter told journalism students in the Overby Center Auditorium.

Ole Miss and the entire South are hallowed ground because “this is the birthplace of the Great Migration,” Isabel Wilkerson said.  Her book is about the movement of African Americans to the North during the 20th century and how it shaped the nation as a whole.

“The Great Migration was the greatest under-reported story of the 20th century,” she told the audience.

Starting in the days before search engines, cell phones and other modern conveniences, Wikerson interviewed more than 1,200 people and visited cities, communities and living rooms across the country in a 15-year effort to complete the work.

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” was listed as number five on Amazon’s Best Books of 2010 list.

“We were particularly interested in having Ms. Wilkerson back to Ole Miss,” said Curtis Wilkie, director of the Overby Center.  “Race is as much a part of the history of this university as it is of this state as a whole.”

Wilkerson led the audience through an in-depth look at how the caste system in the American South, the over-abundance of workers and the demand for workers in the North drove nearly 6 million African Americans to migrate to northern cities or out west at the outbreak of World War I. This migration did not end until the late 1970s.

Before this massive movement of people, she said nearly 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South and after the migration only 50 percent were there. Wilkerson believes the migration had an extremely profound impact on how American society and culture has been shaped during the last several generations.

“Immigration is meant for the children, grandchildren and the unseen great grandchildren,” Wilkerson said.  “People who left the South carried with them the culture. Southerners living in the North raised their kids as southerners.”

She cited many popular icons who would not have been known if their parents had not participated in this migration.  Some of these include author Toni Morrison, playwright August Wilson, and musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

“This is in some ways a gift and an export to the world because (the migration) happened,” Wilkerson said. “They had the chance to build on their genius and gifts they had because they left for a place with better opportunities.”

Wilkerson said that the subtitle to her book, “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” is not just about migration itself, but so much more about the 20th century as a whole and the changes that occurred.

The goal of the book, she said, is to help others understand what makes a person do such a thing, what these individuals went through and what others would do if faced with the same situation.

“The most inspiring thing about this migration is the power of the individual. The power of the individual to change a country,” Wilkerson said. “It changed the country, North and South. It forced the country to examine itself … These people did what the Emancipation Proclamation could not do.”