Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson came to town this week.
She addressed audiences at Reynolda House on Sunday and at the Central Library on Monday. Her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” was the featured book for Forsyth County Public Library’s popular On the Same Page community reading program. Her talk before a packed house of more than 150 in the library auditorium Monday served as the culmination for the program, which began in September.
Wilkerson, a former bureau chief for The New York Times, spent 15 years conducting interviews with more than 1,200 Americans about the 55-year period known as the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans fled abhorrent racial conditions in the South to start new lives in the North and West. A critically acclaimed national bestseller, “The Warmth of Other Suns” is said to be the most comprehensive work on the movement, which extended from 1915-1970.
“This is a story that had not fully been told in part because the people themselves did not feel safe to tell it, because the people themselves had endured such pain that they did not want to burden their children or anyone else with it,” she said. “I just view it as a healing experience. This is a way of allowing their voices to be heard.”
Wilkerson, a Washington, D.C. native who serves as a journalism professor and director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University, said she was inspired to write the book because her own parents were part of the Great Migration, but were closed-lipped about their experiences.
“My parents never talked about it,” she related. “Wherever it would come up, my mother would just say, ‘I left that place a long time ago. I didn’t look back.’”
The experience of writing the book and sharing what she learned from others who were a part of the movement with her mother allowed her to establish a closer connection with her family’s story, Wilkerson revealed.
“I learned things that I didn’t know about my own family through the process,” she explained. “It was a way that she (my mother) could begin to process what she had been through … it made it safe for her to talk about, and it kind of validated it. That’s the value of being able to create a safe space for discussion, which is the goal of all of this.”
The self described “southerner once removed” likened the hardships African Americans experienced in that time, and the heinous acts they often witnessed in the South, which was rampant with lynchings at the time, to a family ordeal. She said she was hopeful the book and the conversations it sparked would help those who lived in the time of the migration and their descendants alike to find closure.
“It’s almost as if we’ve had a trauma to our family that has gone unresolved, and no one’s talking about it,” she stated. “We’re afraid of what will happen if we talk about it, but it turns out that when we do, the air gets clearer. That’s the goal of this experience, to actually validate the lives of those who lived it.”
Wilkerson’s talk attracted a diverse audience of readers and fans, ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Benjamin Harris, director of the high school at Carter G. Woodson School of Challenge, brought a contingent of students in the school’s advanced placement government and English IV courses to hear from the Atlanta resident, who has been on tour since “The Warmth of Other Suns” was released in September 2010.
“Our AP classes are expanding and I felt that the instructors could use this text as part of their curriculum. That’s the reason I wanted to bring them here,” explained Harris, a former attorney. “(I want them to see) literature is a lived experience. It’s not just reading a book, but it’s engaging with the authors, it’s engaging with other readers. Literature is a way of life.”
Hillsborough native Elnora Gore said she has participated in several On the Same Page and On the Same Poem programs at the library. After hearing Wilkerson’s talk, the retired educator said she was eager to delve into “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
“It encourages me to read the books for one thing, and just to come together as a group and experience what other people are saying,” the Clemmons resident said of On the Same Page. “It’s inspiring. I haven’t read the book, so I’m looking forward to reading it.”
Crystal Holland, co-chair of the On the Same Page program, which is now in its 11th year, said more than 1,000 Forsyth County residents participated in the initiative, which was themed “It’s All About the Journey!”
The program attracted the most intergenerational audience she has seen to date, Holland said.
“We’ve had such a wonderful time presenting this book to the community. The conversations that have been sparked by it have been incredible,” related Holland, who said her family was also a part of the Great Migration. “…I am absolutely blown away by how many people have come together from so many different parts of the community.”
After her talk, Wilkerson spent more than an hour signing copies of her book for dozens of readers, many of whom told her how reading it had touched their lives.
“It took a long time because everyone had a story they wanted to share. Wherever I have gone, generally it takes awhile because everybody has a story, and they all want to tell it,” she explained. “…The reason why people have embraced the book is because it really is their story. It’s everybody’s story.”
“The Warmth of Other Suns” retails for $16.95 for the trade paperback or $30 for the hardcover edition and is available at HYPERLINK “http://www.randomhouse.com” www.randomhouse.com. For more information about Wilkerson, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.isabelwilkerson.com” www.isabelwilkerson.com.