Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson made her first trip to Dayton on Tuesday, Nov. 13, when she came to the University of Dayton to talk about her critically acclaimed non fiction book, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
The book depicts the Great Migration of young African-Americans throughout the 20th century as they struggled to escape oppression in the South.
Before her visit to UD, Wilkerson talked about the extensive process she went through to write her book and the rewards of doing so. Now a professor of journalism, she also gave advice for aspiring journalists hoping to succeed in the increasingly competitive field.
Wilkerson’s parents were a part of the Great Migration, and she said that it is not a part of history that people talk about or even acknowledge.
“My desire came from not knowing what they’d gone through,” Wilkerson said, explaining that she had not always known she wanted to write a book on the topic.
Before embarking on this journey, Wilkerson had already established herself as a journalist. She worked as the Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times for years, and it was one of her stories at this position that led her to become the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
Since she typically wrote long-form journalism, Wilkerson said the transition into writing a book was natural.
“I really enjoyed being able to go deep into a topic and really understand the story I was trying to tell,” she said.
In preparation for writing “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Wilkerson spent years interviewing over 1,200 sources that had been a part of the Great Migration, then decided to focus on three protagonists. She immersed herself entirely in her work, hoping to truly understand what they had gone through.
One of the protagonists, Robert Foster, drove from Louisiana to California at a time during which blacks were not allowed to stay in hotels. He tried to find a place to stay, but was repeatedly turned away and forced to complete the drive over three days with no sleep at all.
Wilkerson was touched by his story, and decided to re-create his journey in a 1949 Buick, just as he had driven, along with her parents.
“If he couldn’t stop, I wouldn’t stop,” she said, but she began to veer off the road near Yuma, Ariz., and her parents forced her to stop and rest, threatening to get out of the car otherwise.
“It made me feel even more empathy for him,” Wilkerson said.
She described another touching experience with a different protagonist, Ida Mae Gladney. Ida Mae had left Mississippi when she was 24, and returned for the first time when she was 80.
Wilkerson went along for the trip.
As they drove through the fall weather, the prime cotton picking season, Ida Mae insisted they pull over to pick some cotton.
“She said she hated it growing up, but must have felt a wave of nostalgia to see it again after all those years,” Wilkerson said.
Having the chance to meet all of these people was Wilkerson’s favorite part of the whole experience.
“I loved spending time with them,” she said. “They were not perfect, but they didn’t pretend to be. They made lots of mistakes, but had great stories and senses of humor.”
All of the hard work that went into the researching and writing process paid off in more ways than that, too. It was named one of the best books of the year by countless notable publications.
“It all happened so quickly, it was hard for me to even catch my breath,” Wilkerson said.
She thinks that people have embraced her book because they can identify with being on the cusp of life and setting out on a great journey.
“It’s a symbol of what life really is,” she said. “In some ways college itself is a Great Migration, where people leave the familiar and forge a new identity.”
Wilkerson said her favorite part of this whole experience was connecting with readers and connecting people who otherwise never would have known each other through her book.
“Journalists can be a bridge between worlds,” she said. “And anyone that writes nonfiction is a teacher because they are imparting wisdom on others.”