Growing up in Washington, D.C., after her parents fled the Jim Crow South, Isabel Wilkerson felt like she was raised as the daughter of immigrants.
Her father, a civil engineer from Virginia, and her mother, a teacher from Georgia, held old world values from their former homelands where oppression was the everyday landscape and lynchings occurred every few days.
Education and a strict upbringing eventually became Wilkerson’s pathway to leaping over racial barriers to become the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win the prestigious award for individual reporting in 1994. She also pioneered her way to becoming the first African American to work as the Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times and a highly acclaimed award-winning journalist.
When her parents trekked up North, the writer’s only connection to the South was comforting home-style food, the Southern jargon and the former southerners all around her while sorrowful stories of the mass exodus that drew six million people to the North were stored away only in her parents’ memories.
“Many immigrants do not talk about what they endured back home,” Wilkerson said. “They were fleeing that world, and when they left they didn’t want to talk about it because there had been pain and heartbreak under the caste system of the South. They didn’t want to burden their children with what they had endured.”
But the untold stories of the country’s Great Migration ignited Wilkerson’s biggest endeavor yet. Her parents’ inexpressible memories of the greatest risk they ever took sparked the inspiration for her first book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration in 2010.
Because she wanted to tell the larger story, Wilkerson conducted more than 1,200 interviews and spent 15 years of reporting, archiving and digging into the past to craft a chronicle of one the most influential periods in the country’s history from World War I to the 1970s.
“It actually calls us to question what it means to be a hero. Those who left the South may not have seen it that way or called themselves that. But when you hear these stories, you realize you don’t have to go to popular culture to find heroes,” Wilkerson said. “We have heroes in our own background who can be more inspiring to us because they are in our own families and can guide us on how we can uniquely survive.”
Her words shaped the hardships of the book’s protagonists, Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster into forceful frameworks for conversations about minority struggles in our country more than half a century after the Great Migration. Through these accounts, Wilkerson, a brave, steadfast storyteller, challenges the country to own its shameful Jim Crow history while empowering minorities everywhere to steer their own futures.
“What I love about the stories of the Great Migration is that this is not ancient history; this is living history,” Wilkerson said. “Most people of color can find someone in their own family who had experienced a migration of some kind, knowing the sense of dislocation, longing and fortitude.”
The Warmth of Other Suns received critics’ praise as it was chosen as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 2010 and placed on numerous ‘best books of the year’ lists. Wilkerson’s work opened a floodgate of tales from the South and brought to light “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”
Wilkerson’s journalistic archeology has uncovered narratives of community struggles in The New Republic, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Her writing portfolio reads like a volume of social and racial justice records as she has uncovered the grim truth of the wave of youth committing violent crimes in the early 1990s, the plight of those living under apartheid regime in South Africa, the effects of skyrocketing poverty in urban areas and increasing prison populations that all too often pull minority youth into barbed wired penitentiaries.
“The facts are disheartening and alarming and should be a cause for concern for all Americans because we’re all affected when we have neighbors and family members who are suffering,” Wilkerson said. “We all should feel that suffering.”
Wilkerson, now a professor of journalism and the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University, has carved her place as a historical raconteur magnifying a brave generation of millions of Americans looking to start over in a place they could call their own. For Wilkerson, these tales of sorrow become indispensable when so many people are silenced in the media, namely minority communities. Her writing and her role as a professor have emphasized the need for more journalists with diverse backgrounds to get into the newsroom.
“To tell the story of this country would require that there be many different voices because there are many stories that have yet to be told,” Wilkerson said. “It should go without saying that we need as many diverse journalists as we can have to tell the story fully and truthfully. It’s not an option. It’s a requirement.”
Because of her fidelity to telling the story of the Great Migration and perseverance as a minority journalist, Wilkerson gave a keynote address at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference hosted by the University of North Texas in Grapevine, Texas, where she discussed the art of choosing protagonists.
Neil Foote, a senior lecturer at the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, said Wilkerson has stood above the obstacles of working as a Black female journalist and has let her work speak for itself.
“We need more diverse journalists to be able to share their stories and experiences,” Foote added. “There are so few people who look like her in white newsrooms, but she hasn’t let that hold her back. She has stood above challenges by her work alone.”
Hurdles don’t constrain Wilkerson or the stories she tells. The writer says she can’t even pinpoint difficulties throughout her career because focusing on them is a distraction from the real people who have real stories to tell.
“I feel the Great Migration connects us to one another, and we find that we have so much more in common than we’ve been led to believe,” Wilkerson said. “We are the products of that sacrifice that someone had to make.”