Isabel Wilkerson lecture illuminates writing process

Evan Taylor

Students and Walla Walla community members filed into Cordiner Hall this past Monday, Oct. 1 to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson speak about her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns.” This book was chosen by the office of the Summer Read Program and President George Bridges as required reading for incoming first-years.

After being introduced by Jewett Resident Assistant junior Jeremy Schofield, Wilkerson took the podium and exuded the same passion that led her to write “The Warmth.” The book took her 15 years to complete and led her to discussions with 1,200 people related to the Great Migration.

“Something was propelling me to write this book; I just had to write this book,” said Wilkerson. “I did not plan to spend 15 years on it, and yet that is what it took.”

Isabel Wilkerson, author of this year’s Summer Read, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” spoke in Cordiner Hall this Monday. Photos by Becca Mellema.

During the lecture, Wilkerson examined the sheer significance of the Great Migration in American history.

“I have learned, in the process of talking about it, what the book was about,” said Wilkerson. “This was the only time in our country’s history that American citizens were forced to or felt that they had no other choice but to leave the land of their birth merely to be recognized as the citizens which they had been born.”

Wilkerson also recognized the ever-present effect the migration has on today’s society. She used music as an example and mentioned Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix, Snoop Dogg and others as musicians who would not exist in the absence of the Great Migration.

Wilkerson’s lectures have brought her to 38 states. She calls Washington State “the farthest sun” because people in the Great Migration rarely migrated to such a distant place. Wilkerson closed with a poem by Richard Wright, whom she called a “poet laureate” of the Great Migration. From the poem, she adopted the phrase “the warmth of other suns.”

“The Warmth of Other Suns” alternates between describing the overall story of the Great Migration––from about 1915 to 1970––and delving into the deeply personal stories of three of its migrants. It follows the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster as they leave the South and create new lives in New England, the Midwest and the West.

Every year, the Summer Read Program Reading Group chooses a summer reading book and tries to bring the author or a related speaker in for a lecture. The group evaluates a list of books, nominated by the community.

“[The group] provide[s] detailed feedback about individual books, along with top recommendations to President Bridges,” said Mara Sorkin, the events coordinator in the president’s office. “‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ by Isabel Wilkerson was included in their top recommendations.”

The Summer Read Program has several objectives for students regarding the book choice and related events each year.

A student listens with "Warmth" in her lap
A student during the lecture

“Our primary purpose is to assist you in developing habits of thinking and respectful engagement with others and their views,” said Bridges in his speech at convocation in late August. He referred to “altercasting” as a way to put aside presumptions in order to receive new perspectives.

“To see some connection with your own life today and that history: That would be my greatest hope for students,” said the moderator of the evening, Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Kim.

The book also places great importance on the theme of where one comes from.

“Without the Great Migration … we would have a very different type of society today,” said Kim. “In large part, all of us are some type of a product of that migration.” First-year students in their Encounters classes are posed with the challenge of understanding the significance of origin, through books such as “Genesis” and “On the Origin of Species.”

First-year student impressions were positive after reflecting on the evening with Wilkerson.

“There’s no one who has the same dedication to the story, and that makes [Wilkerson] so qualified to tell it,” said first-year Sam Gelband. “She’s one of the most passionate nonfiction researchers/authors that I’ve certainly ever heard speak … I’m really happy that with all the resources that we have; we get to fully immerse ourselves in the text by having a speaker come.”

The discussion and ideas encompassing Isabel Wilkerson and “The Warmth of Other Suns” didn’t end with the lecture. A workshop Oct. 2 entitled “The Warmth of Future Work” by Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement, aimed to build upon the themes of Wilkerson’s lecture and discuss how students can take advantage of the offerings at Whitman and prepare for the subsequent world of work.

Wilkerson spent fifteen years working on “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

On Oct. 10, Whitman invites Mac Arnold, one of the country’s great blues musicians, to lead a master class in Chism Recital Hall. On Oct. 22, Stewart Tolnay, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, will examine the Great Migration in depth in Olin Hall 130. Wilkerson incorporated Tolnay’s extensive sociologic knowledge of the migration into her book.

To wrap up her lecture, Wilkerson left the audience with the implication of a new life––whether it be escaping the injustice of the Jim Crow laws or going to college.

“When people leave, they’re making this heartbreaking decision that’s going to change their lives forever,” said Wilkerson. “In some ways, when they do that it is such a perfect metaphor for any person coming to college for the first time. They’re leaving all that they have known and all the people who have raised them to go off to someplace new to re-create themselves.”