The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns


Isabel Wilkerson

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The Warmth of Other Suns Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson identifies as “a Southerner once removed” because her parents both participated in the Great Migration. Her father was from Petersburg, Virginia and served in World War II as one of the Tuskegee Airman (a prominent cohort of Black pilots). Wilkerson’s mother grew up in Rome, Georgia, and Wilkerson tells part of her migration story in The Warmth of Other Suns. Thanks to her parents’ decision to migrate, Wilkerson grew up in multicultural, integrated Washington, D.C., where she discovered a passion for journalism in high school. She then attended the nearby Howard University for the express purpose of working on the university newspaper. She would eventually become its editor-in-chief and take internships at papers like the Washington Post. After graduation, she spent a decade working at The New York Times. She won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for her work on the Great Flood of 1993 and in-depth profile of a Chicago fourth grader. This made her the first Black woman reporter to win journalism’s most prestigious award. Shortly thereafter, Wilkerson began her research for The Warmth of Other Suns, thanks largely to a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. For the next decade and a half, she continued her research while taking academic positions at Harvard University, Emory University, Boston University, Princeton University, Northwestern University, and Columbia University. The Warmth of Other Suns was a national bestseller and won numerous national prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction. Wilkerson spent the 2010s working on her next book, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. When she published it in 2020, Caste was also an instant success. Notably, the book also came out during the broad wave of nationwide anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd. This contributed to its popularity and its public relevance. In fact, Caste has arguably been even more influential than The Warmth of Other Suns—for instance, after choosing the book for Oprah’s Book Club, Oprah Winfrey declared that it was the most politically significant work she had ever featured. Beyond her book research, Wilkerson continues to write for and appear in the popular media. In fact, she is widely considered one of the most important journalists and Black intellectuals working in the U.S. today.
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Historical Context of The Warmth of Other Suns

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson covers the history of the Great Migration, the mass migration of Black Americans from the U.S. South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970. While she primarily presents the Great Migration through the lens of three specific people’s migration stories, she also pays special attention to its historical causes and effects. The most important factor behind the Great Migration was Jim Crow, the system of rigid segregation and coerced labor that plagued the South for a century after the Civil War technically put an end to slavery. After the end of the war, during the 12-year period commonly known as Reconstruction, Black citizens briefly exercised the same civil rights as white citizens in the South. There were hundreds of Black state legislators and more than a dozen Black congresspeople. In 1877, an agreement between the Democrats and Republicans put Reconstruction to an end and allowed Southern states to establish white supremacist governments and pass Jim Crow laws that severely restricted Black people’s economic and civil rights. Over the next 40 years, racism and all its manifestations—including segregation, lynching, and voting restrictions—reached their peak. The Great Migration took off during World War I, when the North faced a sudden labor shortage (particularly in manufacturing) and decided to fill it by inviting Black workers to migrate from the South. After moving north, many migrants realized that, beyond receiving far higher wages, they also had rights and freedoms that they were denied in the South. So many of them stayed and then helped their friends and family members make the same trip. Wilkerson notes how the Great Depression, World War II, and the violent backlash to the civil rights movement also encouraged migration over the following decades. The Great Migration ended when the civil rights movement’s major policy achievements made life far more hospitable for Black people in the South. In fact, the tendency has reversed: since 1970, many more Black Americans have moved from the North to the South than vice-versa. Fittingly, social scientists have named this trend the New Great Migration.

Other Books Related to The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson’s second major book is Caste: The Origin of our Discontents (2020), which argues that racism in the U.S. is really part of an entrenched, hierarchical caste system similar to those in India and Nazi Germany. But her reporting also features in several anthologies, including Written into History: Pulitzer Prize Reporting of the Twentieth Century (2002, ed. Anthony Lewis). Besides her extensive interviews, The Warmth of Other Suns relies on prominent scholarly works since the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the earliest include Ray Stannard Baker’s Following the Color Line (1908), the Chicago Commission on Race Relations’s landmark report The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922), and Arthur F. Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching (1933). More recent works include Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), James R. Grossman’s Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989) and James N. Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (2005). Wilkerson also emphasizes the Great Migration’s central role in Black American literary history. Landmark novels about the Great Migration include Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Wright’s memoir Black Boy (1945), James Baldwin’s essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), the novels of Toni Morrison, and the varied scholarly and literary work of Zora Neale Hurston also emerged from the Great Migration.
Key Facts about The Warmth of Other Suns
  • Full Title: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
  • When Written: 1995–2010
  • Where Written: Across the U.S.—particularly California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin
  • When Published: September 2010
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Black History, Biography, Popular Sociology, Oral History, Narrative Nonfiction
  • Setting: Throughout the United States from 1915 to 2002—mainly Mississippi, Chicago, Louisiana, and Los Angeles
  • Climax: The protagonists leave the South and then, in old age, struggle with regret and assess the broader significance of their decision to migrate.
  • Antagonist: Jim Crow segregation, the Northern color line, poverty, social alienation, poor life decisions
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Warmth of Other Suns

Rigorous Research. Isabel Wilkerson is recognized for her famously thorough research—she interviewed more than 1,200 people for this book before choosing to focus on Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster’s stories. She became a dear friend to her subjects during their final days, and she went to Los Angeles to accompany Robert Foster to important medical appointments. She even spent days recreating Foster’s road trip from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles.