Isabel Wilkerson
The Heart Is the Last Frontier

Go to the doctor and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic work of narrative non-fiction, The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s immersed herself in the stories of the Great Migration, the diaspora of six million African Americans to the north of the U.S. in the 20th century. It’s a carrier of untold histories and truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together.

Share Episode

Guests

won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times and was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2016. Her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

Transcript

November 17, 2016

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: You go to the doctor for anything, and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic book, The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s a carrier of histories, stories, truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together. Isabel Wilkerson has also become an unexpected voice on the enduring human drama of refugees and immigration. She is herself a product of one of the most under-reported stories of the 20th century which she chronicles — the exodus or Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the south to the north of the United States.

MS. ISABEL WILKERSON: Our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong.

And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And I think that whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times and is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal. The Great Migration gave the world a bounty of brilliance — from Michelle Obama and James Baldwin, to Diana Ross and John Coltrane — while also planting harder foundations that continue to touch on every American in some way.

The Warmth of Other Suns traces this story through the lens of three ordinary lives in three succeeding generations: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s; George Swanson Starling from Florida to New York in the 1940s; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who went from Louisiana to California in the 1950s. I interviewed Isabel Wilkerson at the Faith in Literature Festival at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

MS. TIPPETT: You, yourself, are a child of this Great Migration. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that. And also, I always ask this question about the religious or spiritual background of someone’s childhood. And I think that as my cumulative conversation has progressed, I have a much more expansive imagination about what that is, the spiritual background of one’s childhood. So I just wonder if the fact that you’re a child of this migration flowed into what you now might imagine as the spiritual background of your childhood.

MS. WILKERSON: I do think that they’re intertwined. I mean, I’m a daughter of two people who uprooted themselves from the old country of the South, from different states, and relocated and remade themselves in the new world, which was Washington D.C. for them. And in doing so, that meant that they were kind of leaving behind parts of themselves in order to take on this new persona.

I think that’s what migrants often do is they take on the identity of the new place that they hope will work out for them, no guarantees, a leap of faith into the unknown. When it comes to the family background, it so happens that my mother’s father was a baptist minister, and my father grew up in Virginia also in a baptist church. It also happens that my father was a pilot. He actually taught Tuskegee airmen. He was an airman, and he also taught — did flight training for them. And I think there’s something about being the daughter of a pilot that makes you feel that metaphorically you could fly too. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] I like that. So the title of the book is The Warmth of Other Suns, which comes from some lines of Richard Wright, another product of this experience, as he was about to leave Mississippi for Chicago in 1927. And I’m just going to read it.

MS. WILKERSON: OK.

MS. TIPPETT: He wrote, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown… I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps — just perhaps — to bloom.”

You’ve said that the language of “political asylum” is absolutely apt here for what people were undertaking. And it’s just not — as much as we know a lot of these stories and a lot of the things that were wrong, that feels like a new recognition.

MS. WILKERSON: It does. I think that because it happened within the borders of our own country, we don’t think about it as — first of all, it was a kind of immigration. Although, these were — this was the only group of Americans who had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens. They were forced to seek political asylum within the borders of their own country because they were living in a caste system in the South that did not recognize their citizenship. And some of them travelled farther than current day immigrants might, but that was really not the point. The point was that the country actually was kind of two countries in one, and that’s what they had to do.

I often say that the book is viewed as being a book about the Great Migration, and over time, as I’ve talked about it over these years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not about migration. The Great Migration is not about migration, and really, probably no migration is about migration. It’s about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it. This is the means that they feel they must take in order to find freedom wherever they can find it.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And this book is such a — it embodies this paradox that writers know, that storytellers know, that radio actually knows, that the more particular you can get with your story, the more universally it can be received, that others can join their life and their imagination with what you have to share. And there were these moments for me in the book that were just so human, that were so relatable, that made all these other horrors come home.

And so one of them for me was George Swanson Starling. You asked him what he hoped for in leaving, and he said, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way” — I’m getting chills — “without the fear of getting lynched at night.” And even the way it comes across — he didn’t say it — it doesn’t sound like he said it with a lot of bitterness or drama. It was just matter of fact.

MS. WILKERSON: Not even that much emotion because it was — these were the facts of their lives. And at that time when they were growing up — and this time period was a very long time. I mean, it was the end of Reconstruction until the 1970s. It encompassed someone who was born in the 1880s and passed away in the ‘60s would’ve known nothing other than this. And so, these were the facts of their lives.

And he didn’t — he was not emotional. He wasn’t bitter. It was just a matter-of-fact statement of what it was that he was up against and why he felt he had no choice but to go. I ran into a lot of people who said they don’t think they would’ve lived if they had stayed. There was actually a tremendous amount of fear that a lot parents in the South had for their children if they were extroverted and opinionated.

MS. TIPPETT: If their children were?

MS. WILKERSON: Yeah, if they were spirited and expressive, there was a need to reign that in. I mean, in other words, childhood itself had to be controlled and repressed because it could mean their very lives. And so he grew up under that. And his father said, “If you’re going to continue doing this work, the things you’re doing, it’s best that you go.”

And one of the things that happened in this Great Migration is that it spread people all over this country. I mean, people — these places that they went, there had not been a significant African American population. So you look at the African American population of all of the cities in the North, Midwest, and West are a result of this. We’re seeing the manifestation of that, Seattle or Oakland or Los Angeles.

MS. TIPPETT: Detroit wasn’t Detroit.

MS. WILKERSON: No, it wasn’t. None of these places were what they were at the time. And a lot of them are filled by people who felt they had no choice and that they would not have lived if they hadn’t gotten out.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s not like they were being welcomed with open arms when they landed in northern cities.

MS. WILKERSON: No. Many of them, sadly — I mean, the great tragedy is that they were brought in as strikebreakers by the companies who were trying to break the unions. And so that meant that — one of the great tragedies of the 20th century is that there were all of these people arriving in these big cities in the North, industrial cities, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, all of these places, and there were people coming in from parts of Europe, Eastern and Southern Europe, for example, and there were people coming from the South, African Americans — all wanting the same thing.

And there were places – in Milwaukee, for example – that said no African Americans — many places actually said African Americans would not be hired. But they would stop them as they were walking up to the factory gate because it was visible that they were African-American. And so, as it turned out, many of the recruiters representing, you might say, the North — they wanted the labor of African Americans from the South but didn’t want the people. How do you do that?

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. So, I want to read a little bit of another moment for me — and this brings us to our moment — another moment in the book that was just heartbreaking. It was very early on. And it’s when you first met Ida Mae in 1996 in Chicago.

“From the open door in the vestibule, I see her. She is sitting in a cotton housedress on a baby blue, plastic-covered easy chair by the window. She is looking through a parting of the curtains at the street circus below. There they are, all scuffling beneath her: urban drug dealers, falling-down sweatpants pooling at their feet, now bent over the driver’s-side window of a late-model sedan from the suburbs; fourth-graders doing lookout for men who could be their fathers; young girls with their stomachs swelling already; middle-aged men living out of their Pontiacs; gangsters who might not make it to the weekend. She lives on the second floor of a three-flat on the South Side of Chicago.” And I want to say before I say this — she is a remarkable, joyful person, but this is a heartbreaking moment…

MS. WILKERSON: It is.

MS. TIPPETT: …to know that this is…

MS. WILKERSON: What it had come to.

MS. TIPPETT: This is what it became for her in Chicago, the promised land.

MS. WILKERSON: It’s a reflection of the structures that they confronted upon arrival. It’s all the things that — sociology and political science and the history come together and show us that they arrived invited but not welcome. They arrived making the least for the hardest work. They arrived consigned to neighborhoods in which — that were declining, but had been declining from the moment they arrived. I mean, I’m talking about the beginning of the Migration, that the subdivisions, the subdivided cold water flats that they were living in, the originating part of where these people were living upon arrival.

And they were not — African Americans were not permitted in any of theses cities to live anywhere that they wanted or anywhere that their money would take them. All of us who have been to any city in the North know exactly where the arriving district or arriving neighborhood of people of the Great Migration would be because that’s where — it’s the oldest, broken-down neighborhood in all of these cities, usually not well-positioned, by the railroad tracks or near the factories.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s almost like the refugee camps of now. Because you go to refugee camps around the world now, and you hear the word “refugee camp,” and you think it’s tents. But in fact, where you have refugee camps where generations of people have been living, it looks like…

MS. WILKERSON: That’s exactly it. I mean, that’s such an incredible observation that you’re making. These were refugee camps created in our American cities. And as they sought to expand, or if they managed to save whatever they could from these jobs — and a lot of them, new research about the Great Migration is coming out showing that they actually worked multiple jobs.

So they were actually making more money, but it wasn’t going as far because there were so many coming in, flooding these neighborhoods that were being hemmed in and pressed against. And that was the world that they had entered. They were living in the Vice Districts. I mean, all of the things that make for every possible disadvantage that you can have going in — that’s what they were facing.

Your existence, by definition, prohibited you from getting a standard mortgage. And so they would then get mortgages on the second market — secondary market which meant they were paying exorbitant rates. This is sounding very much like 2006 and 2007 for us now. And so this is all setting in motion all of these forces that were making it even more difficult for people to succeed in these big places, the cities of refuge for the people of the Great Migration.

[music: “Bad Luck” by R.L. Burnside]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.

[music: “Bad Luck” by R.L. Burnside]

MS. TIPPETT: So, between the time you first published the book in 2010 and today, these have been years in which we have been forced to confront the fact that, with all the laws that were passed and with the progress that was made, there’s so much unfinished business, and in fact, that all the progress wasn’t there.

And I wonder how you watch what has risen to the surface. I mean, I think that the good news is that we see this. It’s not unseeable anymore. It’s a moment of reckoning. And I wonder how, having traced this history, being able to see the origins of some of these dynamics that we’re facing now, how you have understood what is happening now in ways that perhaps you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t done this research and delved into this story.

MS. WILKERSON: Well, it’s kind of reminded me that our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong.

And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And I think that whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.

I’m also reminded there’s a tremendous amount of new and exciting research on the — sort of the — that this is foundational, sort of in the DNA of our country, which is what this book is about too. It’s about the caste system, the artificial hierarchy that was put in place before our great-great-great grandparents were alive. It’s something that we’ve inherited. It’s not something that we wanted. If you’re on the beneficiary end of it, you didn’t ask to be on the beneficiary end of it. Certainly, if you’re on the targeted end of it, you certainly didn’t ask to be on that. But this is where we are.

And I think that it’s calling upon us to reckon with this finally. The disturbing thing about where we happen to be right now is that, yes, these things are unseeable, but that does not mean that action’s being taken. I mean, we see that so many of these cases are really not being prosecuted. And each case that does not get acted upon, I think, deepens our own collective complicity in this injustice.

I also think that we have to recognize how we are all being victimized, too, by these images of death. We’re actually seeing human beings, American citizens, unarmed citizens, who are dying before our very eyes. And what is the effect that that is having on all of us collectively? Is that inuring us? Is that numbing us to the — to black death? Is it making it acceptable on some level? Because you see something enough times, it normalizes it. And I would like to think that this would never be viewed as normal.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I mean, here’s a striking, terrible statistic that you note, that there was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the 20th century, and it’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days. I also find great hope in the science of implicit bias. It’s also just us understanding our brains.

MS. WILKERSON: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And if you want to see it in the largest possible perspective, it’s this possibility we have in the 21st century of wholeness, of really understanding ourselves in our wholeness. I’ve never thought of it in terms of people getting inured to black death, but I do think something that happens is that these images — people feel so paralyzed by them. Right? So, it’s so terrible, it’s so inexplicable, and you have no idea how you could make a difference.

MS. WILKERSON: I would agree with you. I actually find this new research — which is why I described it as exciting. I think that what’s freeing about it — it’s liberating because it takes it away from the personal. This is not personal. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that each and every one of us can do in our personal lives in how we comport ourselves, and how we reach out to others, and how we treat those around us, and other actions that we might choose to take politically or otherwise. But it also means that — it frees us from the twin barriers to understanding, guilt and shame.

Because it’s not personal. And a caste system is a structure that we have inherited, that we did not create, that we don’t — there’s no point in pointing fingers about it, but it’s something that we — recognizing it is the first step toward dismantling it.

MS. TIPPETT: And as much as — the dynamics here and abroad — there’s a lot that is a fearful backlash, a kind of fearful and frightening resistance to this knowledge, that also comes from those primitive parts of our brain.

MS. WILKERSON: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: But I feel like the success of this book and books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates…

MS. WILKERSON: She uses the term “caste” too. It came out the same year. We didn’t — neither of us knew about the term. It was the term to use. Our independent research, separate, came to the conclusion that that was the appropriate and precise term to describe the way that we live, the world in which we live.

MS. TIPPETT: And the way people are engaging with this telling of a truth, and her work, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, I want to take that seriously because it does suggest an opening to knowing this and to grappling with this. I mean, you’ve said to me — really all you do — I mean, you’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, but all you do now is travel around accepting invitations to talk about this in rooms like this, which makes me feel really hopeful. I mean, it’s kind of a narrative of another kind of energy that’s present in this moment that we don’t tell ourselves that story of right now. But I don’t know. Am I reading that into it? What has been your experience of being out there with this material?

MS. WILKERSON: Well, it’s actually been all over the world. And I actually was in Singapore talking about this book, and I was speaking to a group of high school students, who can be sometimes challenging. And I usually like to give them examples of people who they can recognize who were part of the Great Migration, but I didn’t know how well that would play there.

And so I was giving these clues, and I said, “Well, this is an individual who was a guitarist, and his mother was from Virginia, and she migrated out to Seattle.” And the hand shot up in the back. This student just shot up, “Jimi Hendrix.” And I was just thinking, my goodness, it is just — it is really truly migrated — I mean, the culture has migrated and the appreciation for how this has unfolded and the impact that it’s had has resonance around the world beyond that.

MS. TIPPETT: And Michelle Obama is also another good — this person in the center of our culture right now, who is just a great story of — a product of this…

MS. WILKERSON: Absolutely. Product — I mean, there are so many people — Toni Morrison, August Wilson…

MS. TIPPETT: Denzel Washington.

MS. WILKERSON: …Lorraine Hansbury, Denzel Washington. I mean, there are so, so many people that you could — that’s one way of recognizing the impact that it had. Because, ultimately, what this migration was — and I think people are identifying it — is that it’s an unleashing of this pent-up creativity and genius, in many cases, of people miscast in this caste system.

You think about those cotton fields, and those rice plantations, and those tobacco fields, and on all of those cotton fields, and tobacco plantations, and rice plantations were opera singers, and jazz musicians, and poets, and professors, defense attorneys, doctors — I mean, that’s — this is the manifestation of the desire to be free and what was lost to the country. Because for centuries, for 246 years of enslavement — and I have to remind people — 12 generations of enslavement, 12 generations of enslavement. How many “greats” do you add to “grandparent” to get that back to 1619 until 1863? And that gives you a sense of how long all of these people were miscast into an artificial hierarchy as to what they were permitted to do, or risk death if they did not do that.

And one fact about this whole idea of where we are right now just sort of cosmically, I think, in terms of this — let me put it this way: no adult alive today will live to see a time when the time of enslavement was equal to the time of freedom. And so that shows you that this history is long, and the history is deep. When you go to other countries, you go in other parts of the world, in Europe or India or other places, and the history goes so far back. And the people in Portugal can still remember, “Well, there was that catastrophe in the 15th century. We still haven’t gotten over that yet.”

[laughter] Think about how this is really not that long ago in a sense of generations, in the sense of even sort of — I would view it almost cellular memory in the bones of a people. I actually was also encouraged by the fact that after the Charleston Mother Emanuel shootings, the Commonwealth of Virginia rose to the occasion and the Richmond Times-Dispatch — the editorial board said that there should be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that it should come from Virginia, which was the capital of the Confederacy. And the solutions lie in the South, I believe. I really believe that the solutions lie in the South.

[music: “Aliquot” by Poppy Ackroyd]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Isabel Wilkerson through our website, onbeing.org.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Aliquot” by Poppy Ackroyd]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson in a public event at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She wrote the epic work of narrative nonfiction, The Warmth of Other Suns, about The Great Migration of nearly 6 million African Americans from the south to the north of the United States in the 20th Century. We’re exploring the light her revelations shed on the promise and challenges of now.

MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to read something that — this was a blog, a minister in rural New England. Do you know this?

MS. WILKERSON: I don’t. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: It’s called “Faith in the Ordinary.”

“In New Hampshire, the third whitest state in the U.S. with a white population of 96 percent (and a state that borders numbers one and two — Maine at 96.9 percent, Vermont at 96.7 percent), we have to work harder to make these connections. If you haven’t read it, try and find a book called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is, hands down, the best work of nonfiction I have ever read. It tells the story of how the Jim Crow laws and their accompanying attitudes shaped the lives of three black Americans who came north during the 20th century. When I was reading it, I kept saying over and over again” — just like — “‘I had no idea. I had no idea.’”

And then, “We may be clueless and awkward around the subject of race, but we know what the Gospel demands. That we keep working at being better neighbors.” I think about that so much these days, about this work of knowing our neighbors who are strangers, and that that, in fact, is the immediate work that, in fact, is not evident how we do it because we’re so segregated in so many ways in our communities, but it’s possible. People must ask you this question. I wonder how — if there’s advice you give or thoughts you — that’s terrible — or thoughts you have about this work of coming to know our neighbors who are strangers, of being neighbors, just that.

MS. WILKERSON: Well, I think I want to start to answer the question with a fundamental, sad recognition with these police shootings and then get to the answer. And that is that there’s so many things disturbing about them, and the videos are showing them. But I think that people can disagree on what the officer was thinking, the circumstances of his arrival, what he saw, what he thought. And these are split-second decisions. There are a lot of things going on. And often, they — there’s a refrain that comes across. It says “I feared for my life. I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I feared for my life.”

But I think the human question that is disturbing and hard to reckon with is what is happening in these cases after the person is down? And I think that all of us have to think about what is it that we’re hearing, and what is it that we’re seeing? Why is it that basic human response to a person in distress — why is it that first aid cannot be administered to people once they are bleeding on the ground? Where is the threat once they are already near death? Why can’t they — even if they’re not equipped — and I would assume that an officer of the peace would be equipped, but I’m not expert in this — but even the basic human response to take the hand of someone whose life is slipping away from them and to comfort them.

That is the essential missing piece, which is empathy. Empathy and recognition in the common humanity of another person. And as I said, we can disagree on the circumstances and the details and the so-called facts of the situation, but after the person is down, where is the humanity? And I think it calls upon all of us to recognize, I think, the need for radical empathy.

Empathy is not pity or sympathy in which you are — pity, you’re looking down on someone and feeling sorry for them. Sympathy, you may be looking across at someone and feeling bad for them. Empathy means getting inside of them, and understanding their reality, and looking at their situation and saying not, “What would I do if I were in their position?” but, “What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing from the perspective of what they have endured?” And that is an additional step. There are multiple steps that a person has to take to really be open to that.

[applause]

MS. WILKERSON: Thank you. [laughs] In all of these discussions about what’s going on now, we’re so very divided, and there’s such a focus on “other.” And “other” can mean all kinds of things. And so people will often say, “Why is it that those people do that thing?” The only answer to that question is, “Why do human beings do what they do when they’re in that situation?” And it calls for radical empathy in order to put ourselves inside the experiences of another and to allow ourselves the pain, allow ourselves the heartbreak, allow ourselves the sense of hopelessness, whatever it may be that they’re experiencing.

And it’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s necessary, I think. I think one of the reasons that we’re in the situation we’re in in our country is because the laws have been changed. Lots of laws were passed, actually, in the 1860s, and then they had to be revisited in the 1960s. And why is that? Partly, I think it’s an indication that the laws are necessary, but they’re not sufficient, and that we recognize that the laws can be changed if the hearts have not changed. And so I view myself as on kind of a mission to change the country, the world, one heart at a time. And it’s a tough thing to do. I feel as if the heart is the last frontier because we have tried so many other things. And the laws that we’ve passed that we thought were written in granite we see can be erased and are in peril if, as a collective, we do not recognize why.

I also believe that, in the time of working on this book — it’s multi-disciplinary. There’s sociology, there’s psychology, there’s economics. All of these things are in there. But I think the foundation of all of those disciplines comes down to the history. When you go to the doctor, before you can even see the doctor, the very first thing they do is they give you all of these pages to fill out. And they — before the doctor will even see you, he wants to know your history. He doesn’t want to know just your history, he wants to know your mother’s history. He wants to know your father’s history. They may go back to your grandmother and your grandfather on both sides. And that’s before he will even see you.

You cannot diagnose a problem until you know the history of the problem that you’re trying to resolve. I think — you were asking about this book and how it’s moved around in the world. I think this book is proof — or the response to it is proof that it’s not as hard as it has to — as you might fear it will be, that actually you can find it, not just enlightening, but healing.

MS. TIPPETT: But I think part of the reason you made it not as hard — you opened up the fact that it’s not as hard as it has to be — is that you humanize the history. And I think that this minister is onto something when they say we need to see our neighbors. And I think “changing your heart” is a synonym for overcoming unconscious bias. There are these things that — it’s becoming more conscious about what’s going on inside us and then working with that. Another thing we’re learning is that empathy is — and this is a problem with journalism, frankly — empathy is not triggered by a statistic.

MS. WILKERSON: No.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s triggered — it’s not triggered — and we should talk about this before we finish — by now millions of people moving across Europe in search of survival and freedom and just the ability to create a life for their children. We cannot take that in, but we can take in, every once in a while, the face of one child. And that enables us to take in the enormity of the tragedy. I mean, I feel like everything you just said also explains how — and this is something where I feel like if we could frame it this way, we could reckon with this better — how this is not — this moment we’re in is not just a social crisis and not just a political crisis. It’s a spiritual crisis.

MS. WILKERSON: It’s a spiritual crisis.

MS. TIPPETT: And as much as we have to deal with it at those other levels, we have to deal with it at this level in terms of who we are.

MS. WILKERSON: Because, really, that’s all that’s left. I mean, we have dealt — the economy gets dealt with. The laws get dealt with. I mean, these are things that are — they’re front and center. And I think that, as a species, we know how to do that. It’s the spiritual aspect.

MS. TIPPETT: The human condition remains.

MS. WILKERSON: It’s looking into the human heart and examining it and allowing ourselves to feel the pain of others. You don’t want to feel your own pain. Why would you want to feel someone else’s pain?

[laughter]

MS. WILKERSON: So I think it’s an act of love and an act of faith to allow yourself to feel the pain of another.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s also why we have to accompany each other because it’s not something that any of us welcomes, to feel that pain. But we do know that, if we take something like that on together, it can become bearable. That’s why I feel like it’s so important to have a group of us in this room together, thinking about these things together.

[music: “Gbfisysih” by GoGo Penguin]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.

[music: “Gbfisysih” by GoGo Penguin]

MS. TIPPETT: Gosh, there’s so much else we could talk about. I do want to say that, as I was reading this book — and again, this is not something you could’ve imagined in 2010 — I was thinking about the refugee crisis in our midst now. And it’s not so much an American crisis, but it is, because we are all connected. And of course, we have refugees coming here. You told me last night a story about a woman from Greece.

MS. WILKERSON: Yeah. Did you want me to tell that?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. WILKERSON: Yeah. It stays with me. And actually, her daughter is here in the — somewhere, which is amazing and reminded me of it. I should preface it by saying another thing about my father. My father had been a Tuskegee airman, and after the war, they found it very difficult to find work as pilots. No one would hire them as pilots even though they were considered among the best that had come out of the war. And so he had to remake himself yet again. And in doing that, he chose a totally different path. He became a civil engineer. So my father was literally a builder of bridges. And I carry that tradition and that part of him into the work that I do. And it’s only in the time that this book has come out that I realize that.

That’s the reason why I constantly made these — this gesture throughout the book to immigrants, to recognizing that the people of the Great Migration, these African Americans, who many people have been told they have nothing in common with, they’re totally different, they’re this or they’re that, actually did the very same thing that the ancestors of so many people in this country did. But in any case, when the book first came out, I didn’t know how that was going to play out.

And I was giving a talk on Long Island on a really bitterly rainy day, but it was an extremely — it was a wonderful turnout. And at the end of the talk, there was a very long signing line. The book had just been out, so there was a lot of excitement. And at the front of the signing line was this very diminutive woman, grandmotherly figure. She had somehow elbowed her way to the front of the line. I don’t know how she did it, but there she was.

She — her arms were filled with books that she had bought. She wanted me to sign them. But her eyes were red. And she was saying, “I just cannot talk about this book.” She said, “I just — I read the book, but I just cannot talk about this book.” She said, “If I start talking about the book, I going to cry for sure.” She said, “I can’t talk about this book because this book is my story.” She said, “I’m an immigrant from Greece, and this is my story.”

And her name was Anna Stefanidis. And I don’t think she would mind if I mentioned it. I ended up going — I was just so floored by that. We got our pictures taken. It was such a lovely moment. And she said she was going to have the rest of her family read it. I then had an event in Brooklyn; she showed up at that again. We — she was in tears. I was in tears. We have never really spoken because we’re always just in tears.

[laughter]

MS. WILKERSON: And that was that bridge across the artificial barriers. That’s a communing across the expanse. It was this beautiful coming together that was — so many things have come as a result of this book, and it’s won so many various awards and notes, but that was, actually, within my heart, my hope, that it could cross boundaries. And I’ve had many, many, many experiences like that.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think, as a reader, what this opens up in the imagination is the lives of beauty and struggle and nobility that are in those crowds that we see. And you stop being able to see them as crowds, as abstractions, refugees. I want to read — there’s so much else we could talk about. I want to read, actually, the last paragraph of the book and just reflect with you a little bit on that.

“Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration. Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or will so the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.”

So you trace these stories of these individuals, these particular stories of this universal drama, and I wonder — and you really — as you said, you channel these people in your brain.

MS. WILKERSON: And heart.

MS. TIPPETT: And heart. And so how — what did you learn, what do you carry around with you about what it means to be human through these lives that you carry with you now?

MS. WILKERSON: Well, I really — I came to believe and to know that we all have so much more in common than we’ve been led to believe and that we’ve been sadly, tragically assigned roles as if we’re in a play, and this is what these people do, and this is what these people do, and this is what these people do. And the tragedy is that, regardless of which assignment that you had been put into, that might not have been your strength at all.

And I just have gained in such — the thing is, this has been out for 6 years. I spent 15 years on it, researching and writing it. I have never grown weary of talking about it. Every time I talk about it, I gain new appreciation and gratitude and amazement at what they were able to do. One of the things that I hope to do was to bring invisible people into the light. They never were being written about. We just skip from the Civil War to Civil Rights, and this entire part of our country’s history and their lives, generations, actually, of people skipped over and not recognized. And I felt that it deserved its own place and recognition.

I believe that bringing the invisible people into the light would help all of us to understand and see ourselves better because we’ve been so affected by what they did. And what these people did — by sheer force of will, they were able to make the Emancipation Proclamation live up to its name in their individual lives to the degree that they could. It means that they were able to do what a president, Abraham Lincoln, was not fully able to do. And they were able to what the powers that be North and South were not really fully able to do.

And they — it was about their agency, and their making a decision for themselves, and declaring themselves to be citizens, which they had always been, but it had never been really, truly recognized. And I wanted to tell you that — I was talking about these people from other different backgrounds who feel such a connection to them, to the people. A woman whose — she said Ida Mae reminded her — was exactly like her Norwegian grandmother.

[laughter]

MS. WILKERSON: But one of the very unusual things that has happened that seems appropriate for the conversation that we’re having is that so many children or grandchildren, children primarily, of the Great Migration have come up to me and told me with a sense of healing and completion that this book was the last book that their parent read before they died. And you would think that it would be incredibly tragic and sad, but it’s the exact opposite. The children were grateful that their parents had had the chance to read this before it was too late. Remember, these were people who didn’t talk about their experiences.

MS. TIPPETT: But it’s also — it’s not — I mean, these three — you show how people continued to create lives, full lives, even with these circumstances and through these circumstances.

MS. WILKERSON: And you don’t know how to react when someone says, “This is the last book that my mother or father read before they died.” But they say it with such joy and gratitude. And they say that it allowed them to come to terms with all that they had endured, and to give their suffering some meaning, and to recognize that they had not been alone, but that they had been a part of something bigger, some connection to immigrants around the world, other people who had come up from the South as they had, and others who had been able to express their freedom and their individuality in the way they had chosen, that it was a peaceful and, in their view, fulfilling and healing way to have left this planet.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s something you said — oh, you spoke about how part of what drives you as an aspiration “is to find strength in the discovery of what is true.” And I think what you’re describing is, however hard the truth is, it does complete us. It is a necessary path to healing.

MS. WILKERSON: Well, obviously, I’m not the first to say it, but it seems to set some people free.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s a great last word.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much. And what a delight it’s been.

MS. WILKERSON: Thank you.

[applause]

[music: “Papillon” by Tristan De Liege]

MS. TIPPETT: Isabel Wilkerson was awarded the National Humanities Medal this year by President Obama “for championing the stories of an unsung history.” Her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and has won many other accolades. I interviewed her as part of the inaugural Faith in Literature Festival at the University of North Carolina Asheville in partnership with public radio station WCQS and the Wake Forest School of Divinity.

[music: “Papillon” by Tristan De Liege]

STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Brendan Stermer, and Ross Feehan.

MS. TIPPETT: Special thanks this week to Richard Chess, Holly Beveridge, Evan Gurney, Fred Bahnson, and to David Feingold and Barbara Sayer, and all of our friends at WCQS Asheville.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at fordfoundation.org.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

And the Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Publisher: Vintage
Binding: Paperback, (640)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Artist: R.L. Burnside
Label: Fat Possum
Artist: Poppy Ackroyd
Label: Denovali Records
Artist: GoGo Penguin
Label: Blue Note

About the Image

A group of migrants from Florida rest near Shawboro, North Carolina on their way to work on a potato farm in Cranberry, New Jersey. July 1940.

Share a Reflection