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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Delightful Wilkerson Appears at Phillips to Talk About 'The Warmth of Other Suns'

On Thursday night, I went over to the Phillips Collection to see a lecture by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. Her award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is now out in paperback. It is the "Epic Story of America's Great Migration" - the migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the period from after WWI to the 1970s. She said that she spent 15 years of her life on this book, and I can't wait to read it. She is a brilliant speaker, able to sound a bit intellectual but also personable. She frames her story by saying that everyone here has relatives who risked everything they had - some at a very young age - to pursue a better life somewhere else. That could also be from Poland or Ireland or Italy or Latvia or Russia and Romania (the last two is my lineage). Maybe they came by foot or by train or by ship (my grandparents), maybe their parents pushed them off. She named many famous African American figures and nimbly traced their families to the South: Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Theolonius Monk, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, etc. I spent a summer as Wilkerson's friend and colleague many years ago when we were interns at The Washington Post - she in Style and me in Sports. She was fresh out of Howard University, soft-spoken but confident and supremely talented. (David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, was also in that intern class. It's very easy to get an inferiority complex looking back now.)  It is wonderful to see Wilkerson's success. She teaches at Boston University now and travels promoting the book - she's already been to most states and even a couple countries in Europe. "Immigration is a universal story, she says. She laughed when she said that Alaska is next on the itinerary - in January. "I know, not the best planning," she said. Eventhough I have not read it yet, I will heartily recommend The Warmth of Other Suns; I trust Isabel. The title, by the way, comes from a quote by Richard Wright that goes like this:

“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”
Richard Wright


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