Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and renowned storyteller, presented a talk about her best-selling book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Tuesday, Nov. 13 as part of the University of Dayton Speaker Series.
In a room filled with students, faculty and members of the Dayton community, Wilkerson shared stories about the 15-year journey she took to learn about the six million African-Americans who left the southern United States during the Great Migration.
Wilkerson said that this migration began after World War I and did not end until the 1970s.
“Many of us owe our very existence to the process of migration, and that’s one of the things that propelled me to want to tell this story,” Wilkerson said during her presentation. “I, myself, am a very product of the migration I’ve written about.”
In an attempt to learn more about the Great Migration that led her parents from their homes in the South to Washington, D.C., where she was raised, Wilkerson set out on a mission to tell the stories of the people who lived through this part of U.S. history.
According to the presentation’s program, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, read through archived works and performed extensive research on the topic in order to write “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
In order to explain the situation of the people who migrated, Wilkerson began her talk with examples of the limitations that were placed upon African-Americans in the South.
“I make no reference to water fountains and restrooms because every third grader learns about that each February,” Wilkerson said. “I wanted to make this period of history come alive. The goal of this kind of work, which is called narrative nonfiction, is to put the reader or the audience into the mindset and into the hearts of the people that you’re writing about so that an individual could think to themselves as they’re following along a protagonist’s journey, ‘what would I have done, had I been in a world such as that?’.”
Wilkerson told stories about segregated Bibles for courtrooms, laws for African-Americans passing white drivers on the road and the overall caste system that controlled the South for decades.
After explaining the caste system and painting a picture for why people would want to leave the binding laws of the South, Wilkerson told stories of many African-Americans that made this journey and later affected literature, sports and music.
This depiction included stories of Jesse Owens, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, John Coltrane and more. Wilkerson said that all of these people were part of the Great Migration and would not have been able to share their talents if their families had not moved to the North.
“I liked how she talked about all of the musicians and Olympians and other people who were part of this migration,” said Ali Wilkens, a junior communication major. “It was interesting to hear about that and to think about how different our culture would be without them.”
“History can be changed by a single decision,” Wilkerson said. “When this migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were in the South. By the time it ended, half were living all over the rest of the country so this was a total redistribution of an entire group of people.”
Wilkerson ended the speech with a quote from Richard Wright that inspired the title “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
“I really liked the quote at the end that she had from Richard Wright,” said Megan Malone, a junior public relations major. “I thought it was a good way to wrap the talk up and put it all into perspective.”
The theme of this year’s University of Dayton Speaker Series is “Education for Transformation.” For more information on the series, visit go.udayton.edu/speakerseries.