Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson spoke Thursday to a packed Harris Hall lecture hall about her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.
Wilkerson spoke for the 2013 Allison Davis Lecture, annually presented by Weinberg and the department of African American studies at Northwestern. Prior to writing her award-winning nonfiction book, Wikerson served as the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times.
Wilkerson's book, written in narrative non-fiction, details the movement of blacks from the southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West during the 20th century. Correspondingly, the book follows the stories of three persons who are making this migration.
"No other group of Americans has had to make that heartbreaking decision to act as immigrants would in order to be recognized as citizens in their own country," Wilkerson said.
Rather than talk about the water fountains and restrooms that "every second grader" would know, Wilkerson says she tried to share the more surprising and obscure stories of the Great Migration.
"I was looking to find ways to make it come alive for those of us today who are so far removed from it," Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson talked about various laws held in the southern United States that oppressed blacks, such as a law prohibiting black drivers from passing white drivers, regardless of how slow they were driving. She also discussed famous figures such as Diana Ross and James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens who were a part of the movement – Owens was even named for "the one place on the tongues and the hearts" of the people in Alabama, Wilkerson said.
"It is truly a product of the Great Migration," Wilkerson said.
In researching and writing her book, Wilkerson spent 15 years talking to various people involved with the Great Migration and finding the three main characters of her book. When the book was released in 2010, it quickly hit number five on The New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. In 2011, Wilkerson won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction.
Wilkerson said that since publishing the book, she's been traveling non stop promoting the book.
"I didn't anticipate that," Wilkerson said. "But I'm so honored to be able to talk about what I think is really one of the great underrecorded, misunderstood parts of our country's history."
In her lecture, Wilkerson highlighted that the migration was not necessarily a collective movement but rather the accumulation of individual choices to move.
"It indicates the power in how one person, added to another person, multiplied by millions can literally change a country," Wilkerson said.
In closing, Wilkerson quoted Richard Wright, the author and poet who inspired the title of her novel. More broadly, she commended the six million blacks for their courage to leave behind parents, friends and extended families for the possibilities of life in the northern states.
"There's no guaruntee that either side will ever see the other person alive again," Wilkerson said. "Think about that sacrifice, the magnitude of that moment."