Revisiting Isabel Wilkerson

Author and 2015 National Humanities Medalist
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Joe Henson


Music Credits: “NY”, composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Excerpts from “Blue Crescent” from the album Blue Crescent, composed and performed by NEA Heritage Fellow Dr. Michael White, used courtesy of Basin Street Records.

Excerpts from “On My Way” from the album We'll Never Turn Back, performed by NEA Heritage Fellow Mavis Staples, used courtesy of ANTI- Records.

Excerpt from "Somewhere to Lay My Head” from the album In the Garden, performed by NEA Heritage Fellows The Birmingham Sunlights, used courtesy of the Birmingham Sunlights.


Jo Reed:  From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed

Askia Mohammed: "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, to bloom."

Jo Reed:  That was the late Askia Mohammad reading that evocative description of leaving one’s home in the South for another life in the North. It was in a footnote in Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy.   Wright was one of six million African Americans who made that journey in the period following World War 1 through the 1960s.  This mass movement of people became known as The Great Migration, and it’s the subject of Isabel Wilkerson’s highly acclaimed and award-winning history The Warmth of Other Suns.

I spoke to Isabel Wilkerson about her book back in early 2011 shortly after it was first published. And it’s a book and an interview that stayed with me. So I thought revisiting my conversation with Isabel about The Warmth of Other Suns and the mammoth cultural shift that emerged from the Great Migration was a fitting addition to our celebrations of Black history month. 

When millions of African-Americans left the farms of the south for the factories of the north, they transformed not just the face of the country but its culture as well.  First there was the scale of the movement: when the migration began 90% of African Americans were living in the south, when it ended half were in the north. New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles were some of the cities absorbing these newcomers and their customs and traditions.  This merging of cultures, of north and south had a profound impact on American life and American art in all its forms: literature, theater, dance, visual art, and music were all shaped in some way by this internal journey. I spoke to Isabel Wilkerson about the far-reaching impact the Great Migration had on the arts.  I began our conversation by asking her to describe the circumstances that led so many to leave the south, to migrate north.

Isabel Wilkerson:  Migration doesn’t really capture it, because they were not moving or leaving with the idea of returning at that time, and most of them were thinking that they leaving for good.  And so in some ways, I view it and describe it as a defection from a caste system into which the people have been born and were not permitted to escape, unless they actually left on their own.  So it was kind of a fleeing, a kind of seeking of political asylum to parts of the country that would be more welcoming to them.

Jo Reed:  The system they left was the Jim Crow system of the South, and it was an all-encompassing system.  Can you give us a sense of what we’re talking about when we talk about Jim Crow laws?

Isabel Wilkerson:  Yes, I think that one of the things about talking about this era is that so many of us believe that we have an understanding of it based on the pictures that we might have seen of the black and white water fountains, for example.  But in many ways, that was just the least of it.  That was, in some ways, probably what many of them might have been able to live with, considering all that they were really up against.  From the moment they would awake in the morning to the moment that they turned in for the night, there were reminders, rules, protocols, expectations, limits, restrictions on every single thing that they might do.  In Birmingham, for example, it was against the law for blacks and whites to play checkers together. In courtrooms throughout the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on.  That meant that if a black person were to take the stand, they could not swear to tell the truth on the same Bible that had just been used for the white eyewitness who might have just testified, so they’d have to stop everything and find a different Bible for that person to use, so that in every sphere of life, anything that could be conceived of was put into law.  There were separate staircases, separate telephone booths. Also, interesting enough, one that many young people respond to more than anything is the idea, the fact that an African American motorist was not permitted to pass a white motorist on the road, no matter how slow that motorist might be going. And of course, because a caste system in itself is in some ways hard to maintain--and it lasted for 60 years by law, and longer than that by tradition-- it was difficult to maintain.  And so therefore, the way to enforce it required violence, and so every four days, somewhere in the South during the time period we’re discussing, the early years of the migration-- the early decades of the migration, I should say-- there was a lynching of an African American once every four days.  And that was what was necessary in order to maintain this caste system, which in some ways was untenable.

[Mavis Staples – On My Way up and hot.]
Jo Reed:  Isabel, what did people find when they reached the North?  

Isabel Wilkerson:  They each found that the North was not as welcoming as they might have hoped.  They found anonymous cities where almost everyone had a reason to resent or feel somehow threatened by their arrival.  You had large numbers of people who had been living in a system where they had been so oppressed and so underpaid that they would have been willing to take anything, which would have driven down the wages of anyone who was already in these northern cities and working.  There was a great fear that they were going to drive down everyone’s wages, for one thing.  They also were people who had just come from the land, so they were not wise to the ways of the north and of the big cities, and they dressed differently and they spoke differently, and they were easily taken advantage of. And so they found that it was a cold, cold, dangerous and inhospitable place for them.  And yet, their goals were so modest; they merely were looking to find a place where they could get a job. So their goals were modest,   

Jo Reed:  Well, in the midst of all this struggle, nonetheless, these people who came from the South also brought southern culture with them.  And with that migration of culture, there came the transformation of American culture because of the Great Migration.

Isabel Wilkerson:  You’re absolutely right.  In fact, I think that’s one of the little-known aftereffects that is so immense that it’s hard to even put it into context.  This Great Migration was, in some ways, a transfer, not just of people, but of an entire culture.  And once the people arrived in these northern and western cities, they, by their exposure to the northern rhythms and metabolism, hearing inside their hearts and in their memories the language, the imagery, the music, the food, the culture of the South, there was a marriage of both North and South within the art and the cultural and creative expression of the people, but more importantly, I think just in a larger sense too, of their children, the children who had the opportunity to go to schools where they could actually go to school for an entire school year, as opposed to the few months when they were not needed in the field, where the children had the opportunity to say, take music lessons or to take art and to learn how to draw and to paint or to be able to go into a library, which they would not have been permitted to do in the South, to take out a library book something as simple-- that we take for granted now.  And so many people come to mind who are the products of this Great Migration, who literally combined, changed the culture as we know it. Toni Morrison.  Toni Morrison’s parents migrated from Alabama to Ohio. By going to Ohio, she would have had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, be exposed to literature in a way she hadn’t before and just walk into a library and take out a book, which would not have been possible back in Alabama at the time that she was growing up. 

Jo Reed: Isabel, there are so many people in literature whose experience is directly related to the migration and whose work actually is an outgrowth of their experience in the migration too.  Probably the first person to come to my mind is Richard Wright.

Isabel Wilkerson:  Richard Wright, whose every word, every word that he produced was, in some way, an effort to understand his experience as one of the participants in the Great Migration.  Native Son one of the greatest novels of the 20th century; Black Boy, his autobiography, was in some ways a deconstruction of his experience growing up in the South in Natchez, Mississippi as a son of a sharecropper, and then the description of his experiences, experiences that led him to leave and his ultimate arrival in the North.  And it’s, of course, from his words that the title of this book come.  And I love the epigraph in which he describes his leaving the South to fling himself into the unknown.  That is exactly what all of these people did, but he’s a great example of how the culture’s been changed as a result of this Great Migration.  The migration itself was such a watershed event in history, in 20th century history, that it has seeped into almost every aspect of the culture.  So in literature, we have Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison.  In theater, we have so many people:  Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, whose work was directly related to the Great Migration.  They are children of the migration, and their creative energies went toward understanding and recreating in their genre the experiences of the Great Migration. 

Jo Reed: And visual artists also powerfully  depicted that journey and the new life that African-Americans found when they reached the north.

Isabel Wilkerson: You’re absolutely right.  Romare Bearden, who was a child of the migration.  His parents migrated from North Carolina, and his work ended up representing the world that the migrants arrived in, the world that the migrants arrived in, the tenement life.  His collages were an ode to those experiences.  And of course, Jacob Lawrence, the great painter from the 20th century, his migration series is legendary.  Everyone has seen one of those panels somewhere depicted in the culture.  It became, in some ways, a turning point on so many levels, because it validated the experience of the migration during the 1940s when it was taken up and exhibited as truly fine art.  It also, of course, elevated him and it became an iconic representation of what the people had experienced in the North and what had driven them to the North from the South.  And in such simple, stark, beautiful imagery, he made it come alive so that there needed to be no words to express what the people had gone through.

[Dr. Michael White – Blue Crescent up and under]

Jo Reed: We’ve talked about art, literature, theater, but the impact of the migration was probably most strongly felt in the music.

Isabel Wilkerson:  Music as we know would simply not be what we can now take for granted had it not been for the Great Migration. It’s hard to even imagine what our ears would be hearing had we not had the Great Migration. All the blues musicians, from BB King and Muddy Waters, who were all carrying with them the sounds of the South, which would never have been able to get the wider audience, had these people not migrated and gone north where their art could be recorded and then sent all over the world, to then inspire such people as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones and so many others across the Atlantic, who helped to shape rock and roll and who have given, in some ways, an homage to these blues greats in much they have said about what inspired them, so that the humble music of the people of the Great Migration was heard across the Atlantic by teenagers in Liverpool or teenagers in other parts of England and inspired them. So there you see the hand of the Great Migration spreading so much farther than one would really even imagine, if you just didn’t sit down and try to deconstruct it somehow, pull all these pieces together.  And in fact, it’s overwhelming to think about the effect that it’s had on culture.  And that is just with blues.  Blues is what we commonly think of when we talk about the Great Migration.  But I like to point to the role that it had in so many other musical forms also that become, in some ways, the sound track of the 20th century.  When we think about popular music, it would be inconceivable now from where we sit to think about popular music without Motown, for example.  And Motown simply would not have existed, had there been no Great Migration.  That’s because Berry Gordy, who founded Motown, his parents migrated from Georgia to Detroit where he grew up.  And then when he became a grown man, he decided he wanted to go into the music industry, but he didn’t have the money, the funds and the resources to go around the country, scouting out talent.  He just looked around him in the neighborhood where he was in Detroit, and there was Diana Ross.  Her mother had migrated from Alabama, her father from West Virginia.  They met in Detroit and there they married and had her.  The other young women who would join the Supremes, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, their parents, too, had migrated from the South to Detroit, and there you have just the beginnings of what would become the Motown sound.  The Jackson family, the Jackson Five, Michael Jackson, their parents migrated from the South, had talented children, who came to the attention of Berry Gordy, and an entire new way of thinking about music.  It’s hard to imagine 20th century music without all of the people who came out of Motown.

Jo Reed: And of course there’s jazz.

Isabel Wilkerson: Jazz simply would not be what we know it to be had there been no Great Migration.  You can go all the way back to Louis Armstrong . Louis Armstrong who came from New Orleans and went to Chicago. Miles Davis, his parents migrated from Arkansas to Southern Illinois, where he had the opportunity, the luxury of being able to learn and hone his genius.  Thelonious Monk, his parents migrated from North Carolina to Harlem when he was five, and he too had the incredible opportunity, which he never would have had, in the tobacco country of North Carolina, to hone his craft, and his genius.  And John Coltrane.  John Coltrane migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia where he got his first alto sax at the age of 17.  It’s hard to imagine where jazz would be, where music, American music would be, where culture would be--in fact, international culture, because these are artists who have a following around the world, who changed the way we view and hear sound.  And so the Great Migration has had such a widespread impact on culture as we know it, not just in America but across the world.  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that it’s hard to imagine what would culture be like had there been no Great Migration.

Jo Reed:  I also want to piggyback on that, music was also a place where the de facto segregation of the North—and it wasn’t the Jim Crow segregation of the South, but there was a de facto segregation and music disrupted. Where an integration, however tenuous, could take shape.

Isabel Wilkerson:  I think that you’re right, because I think about how music translates across culture and across race and across boundaries and how it, in some ways, was an ambassadorial entity, in some ways, the music itself.  The music could be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds, who might never have met, otherwise.  But it became, in some ways, a way to translate the experiences and the emotions of one culture, one group of people to many, many other cultures.  And in the same way that the migration was a transfer of people and a culture across the country. The art that grew out of this migration also serves that purpose.

Jo Reed:  Well the other thing I think that’s so interesting too, because you think of juke joints, for example, in the South, the small, small places where blues musicians, blues singers, particularly, would go and how that then gets transferred to a larger and more integrated audience up north.

Isabel Wilkerson:  A much more integrated audience, because in an odd kind of way, the migration is, in some ways, a marriage of regions within the United States, and the music becomes a marriage of regions and cultures.  And then you have that same marriage occurring in the audiences.  I think of the audience as beyond just the juke joints themselves, but just the listeners on the radio, people who may not have ever even met anyone from Mississippi or met an African American, is now having that intimate experience of listening on the radio or purchasing what would have been records at that time. Listening to the music of the people from the migration is a way of, in some ways, spreading a kind of humanitarian integration without even trying, because that’s one of the beautiful things about art in general is that art is not to be segregated.  Art is to be for the world, and that’s what this became.

Jo Reed: And the cultural institutions that sprang up in the north because of the Great Migrations-- I mean, certainly the clubs, clubs as in nightclubs, but then there were also clubs as in women’s clubs, most particularly, which really became places for pushing social boundaries but also cultural institutions.

Isabel Wilkerson:  Well, you know, there’s so many institutions that did grow out of this Great Migration. It’s almost as if you’re doing a genealogy of a culture, when you look at the Great Migration.  And the National Urban League, for example, can trace its growth to the fact that it served, as in some ways, the kind of immigration repository to help the people once they arrived.  We now think of it, in other ways, as being in some ways an institution that helps to lay out the current concerns of urban America.  But it flourished as a result of the fact that it had such a great raison d'etre once these people arrived in such huge numbers, by the millions in these big cities, and the churches, which also become a reflection of the culture, because so much of the music grows out of the churches. So many of the churches, for example, at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, its membership grew dramatically as a result of the migration to the point that Adam Clayton Powell said that almost all of the members of that church had someone in their family who had come up in the Great Migration.  You know, the original people who were there, everyone in the church either had been there already and had relatives that had come up, or they, themselves, had come up in this Great Migration. So it extends to almost every institution in these great cities of the North and the West can trace its existence to the fact that there was now a population to service and needing to be serviced by these organizations, a way to gather up the interests, resources, needs, and also the creativity of the people who were arriving in these great cities.  And so there is a connection there, so it is a kind of cultural genealogy that you might say happens when you begin to look at the Great Migration and what sprang from it.


Jo Reed:  And neither of us mentioned probably because it’s so obvious but gospel music was given a national stage because of the Great Migration, and then of course an international one as well.

Isabel Wilkerson:  You’re absolutely right.  I mean, there are so many-- I mean, rhythm and blues, a gospel, all of the growing out of the spirituals that go so far back into southern culture and were carried with the people-- many of them can break out, and many of the older ones can break out into the very songs that they grew up in the small, clapboard churches in Mississippi or Georgia. 

[Birmingham Sunlights - Somewhere to Lay My Head ]

And those are the things that were carried north as well, and that tradition and that form of music is carried through and has a very wide following.  Mahalia Jackson herself was a migrant who had come from Louisiana to Chicago, had a really difficult time finding a home.  As famous as she was, the Chicago police actually had to set out guards for the home that she eventually was finally able to buy in the neighborhood that she chose to live in, which happened to have been all white at the time.  And they had to set out a guard in front of her home. So she had a very difficult time, but she too was probably one of the most famous gospel singers of all time, and she was a part of this Great Migration.

Jo Reed:   You begin each section in your book with a quote from a writer—often it’s Richard Wright, but not exclusively, because there’s some James Baldwin too. Talk about …

Isabel Wilkerson:  And Langston Hughes.  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  And Langston Hughes.  Yes, indeed.  Talk about why you chose to do that.

Isabel Wilkerson:  I chose to do that because I think that Richard Wright stands out the most, because he is often speaking directly, absolutely directly to the migration itself; it’s a pure focus on the migration and the migration itself.  That was, in some ways, his life’s work.  So I think that the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter from him stand out in particular, because he’s dealing directly with it.  But there are quotes from Ralph Ellison, from James Baldwin, from Mahalia Jackson, for example, from Zora Neale Hurston.  And the goal was to be able to show, without even having to say yet again, that this migration was huge and involved almost every famous person of African descent.  In other words, every famous African American that you can think of from the 20th century had a role in this Great Migration. Or as a product of this Great Migration. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, came from Florida to New York.  James Baldwin was the child of people who’d come from Georgia.  His origins were looking southward.  He spoke about that extensively in much of his work. So the goal was to be able to have as many voices speaking almost as a Greek chorus, as a chorus to breathe life into what you were about to read, to say that this does not just involve the protagonist, but so many other people, so many other famous people for whom the migration was deeply rooted in their own art. You have the oral history there before you with the voices of these famous people coming back and saying, “Yes, this is what we experienced.  This was our story.”

Jo Reed: And finally, tell me what first drew you to this story.

Isabel Wilkerson:  It is so hard to answer that question, because I grew up as the daughter of people who migrated from the South, met in Washington, would not even had met had there been no Great Migration, came from totally different states, my mother from Georgia, my father from Southern Virginia.  So I owe my entire existence to this Great Migration, as do many, many people.  The majority of African Americans in the North and the West are descended from this Great Migration.  When the Great Migration began, I should say, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South.  By the end of the migration, nearly half were living outside of the South; they were all over the country, so it was a total redistribution of an entire people.  But I would have to say that the awareness of my experience growing up in Washington, going to an integrated school in which I found myself exposed to people who were the children of immigrants. And the reason that, when I think about that, clearly as a child, I would not have been thinking that, you know, decades from now, I will write a book about this.  <laughs>  But it so happened that, years later, as I have thought about that and I’m able to put together the fact that I did not gravitate toward the people who had been in the North for long periods of time; I gravitated toward the children of immigrants, and they were the ones that I spent the most time with and who were my best friends, people whose parents had arrived from Finland or from Ecuador or from El Salvador or from Nepal or from Chile and Argentina.  And as I think about it, I found myself in a world in which the people that I felt the closest to were those who were going through what I was going through, which was living in two worlds at once and being a child and not really truly understanding what sociologists might have clearly been able to explain for me and also, oddly enough, not having a name for what I was, because I was not an immigrant and my parents were not immigrants.  And yet, I felt emotionally connected to people who were immigrants, because we were experiencing the same things, our mothers packing lunches that were so different from those other people who were already mainstream in the city that we all found ourselves in.  And there were lovingly prepared meals reflecting the culture that our parents had come from, but they were not the same as what we were experiencing with the others.  In other words, it turned out that maybe everyone else was having grilled cheese sandwiches, and our parents were creating other things for us that were different.  And so I found myself drawn to them.  So it’s a long way of answering the question that that is my earliest memory of how I was, in some ways, different but had no way of describing that difference. And I did not view myself as having a story to tell, because whenever it would be St. Patrick’s Day or something and people would talk about the great grandfather or the grandfather come from the Old Country with 50 cents in his pocket, and then he went on and did this, and his children went to college and, therefore, here I am.  I didn’t feel I had those stories to tell, and yet, it turned out there were millions of stories to tell.  And it’s that intersection of a little girl in Washington, DC, who is exposed to all kinds of people but seems to gravitate toward the children of immigrants, because in some ways it mirrors her own experience. That is what I would have to say is what the connection with that is what opened my eyes to the possibilities with this book.

Jo Reed: Well, Isabel, we’re all glad your eyes were opened to those possibilities, because you wrote one terrific book.

Isabel Wilkerson:  Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: That was Isabel Wilkerson, she was talking about her book, The Warmth of Other Suns.  Isabel is a 2015 National Humanities Medalist and also the author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which argues that racism in the United States might be better understood as an aspect of a caste system, akin to those in India and in Nazi Germany. And recently, she is the subject of the narrative film Origin written and directed by Ava DuVernay and based on Isabel’s writing of Caste.

 You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In honor of Black History Month, we’re revisiting this 2011 conversation with author and 2015 National Humanities Medalist Isabel Wilkerson  In this tuneful podcast, Wilkerson discusses her acclaimed book The Warmth of Other Suns, exploring the profound impact of the Great Migration on American culture. This migration saw six million African Americans relocate from the rural South to the urban North from post-WWI through the 1960s, drastically transforming the country’s demographic landscape and cultural output. Wilkerson describes it as a defection from the oppressive Jim Crow laws of the South to the more welcoming, yet challenging environments of the North. This movement was not merely a migration but a quest for political asylum; people were seeking opportunities and freedoms that were systematically denied in the South.  As Wilkerson discusses, one result of the Great Migration was  a profound merging of cultures, impacting every form of American artliterature, music, theater, and visual arts. Writers like Toni Morrison and Richard Wright and artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence were deeply influenced by their migration experiences, fundamentally altering American culture. She points out that the Great Migration had a monumental impact on music, bringing Southern blues, jazz, gospel, and, later, Motown sounds to a national audience which facilitated a cross-cultural exchange that reverberated globally. She argues that music at times served as a bridge, bringing together segregated communities, Black and white, urban and rural, and introducing diverse audiences to the rich and varied artistry of African Americans. Wilkerson also shares her personal connection to the Great Migration, being the daughter of migrants herself. She reflects on how this history shaped her identity, the broader narrative of African Americans in the 20th century, and the nation's art, music, and societal structures. 

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