Another February has passed and another Black History Month fades with it. There’s an inherent sadness attached to these times, mainly because of the pattern that seems to emerge whenever a certain time is set aside for the purpose of honor. It will likely be another year until we partake again.
It’s especially sad when this non-feeling takes it place in reading clubs. Black authors are read in February, Irish authors in March. Happily, this sentiment hasn’t crept into our local book clubs, which take pains to provide balanced reading selections.
This past month, The Clovis Book Club undertook Toni Morrison’s epic, Beloved, while The Clovis Classics Club enjoyed Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning history, The Warmth of Other Suns. Beloved’s place in the canon of American literature has already been assured; it makes for lively discussion but there’s not much I can add to it here that will astonish anyone.
The Warmth of Other Suns, however, deserves special attention. Rarely has a nonfiction account combined the suspense and pathos of a great novel with profound and illuminating historical facts, but Ms. Wilkerson (already a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) works wonders with what must have been several mountains of data, personal recollections, and incisive commentary. She also manages to avoid the maudlin, easy sentimentality which could have marred the book’s lasting value.
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Warmth owes its title to an exquisite Richard Wright poem about seeking a better life (this is a mundane paring-down); most of the book reads with the same cautious optimism. The massive migration of Black Americans from southern states to the more urban areas of Chicago, New York, et al, is a curiously under reported and even less understood phenomenon in American history – a movement with no leader and no press that managed to relocate millions within the relatively short span between 1915 and 1970.
Following the Civil War, most southern states, fearing the loss of cheap labor, instituted what became known as the Jim Crow laws. (One of the book’s delights is tracing the source of this elusive moniker). Each state would enact individual, stupefying regulations designed to continue the use of black labor and oppression of freedoms under the guise of sharecropping and similar schemes.
Like many other ideologies, however, this system undoubtedly looked better on paper and did nothing to improve the quality of Black lives. And, for a surprising number of people, the hopelessness of this situation led to action.
The text follows the experiences of Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert P. K. Foster in their migration from south to north to pursue their other suns, meeting with varying degrees of success and encountering new prejudices they could not have anticipated. Their first-hand accounts, along with simultaneous historical updates, provide the real joy and voice to this wonderful book. Credit should also be given to the printed book’s physical layout, which uses bolder fonts and creative spacing so the reader can go at a fast clip without losing track of whose life or what story one is following.
A case could be made for shortening the final text by 20 pages or so; there is a considerable amount of repetition which perhaps reflects the book’s long gestation period. But readers who start and stop frequently may welcome these reminders.
More than meticulous, well-written prose, this generous slice of Americana also packs an emotional wallop that you may not see coming, as Ida Mae’s, George’s, and Robert’s experiences start to take on an eerie resonance not only to modern times but to our own shared human journeys. That may be this brilliant book’s most significant legacy.
If you’re interested in joining a book club and joining in on future discussions, below are two book clubs in Clovis.
• The Clovis Classics Book Club - 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month at the Clovis Library. The selection for April is Young Man with a Horn.
• The Clovis Book Club - 6:30 p.m. the third Friday of each month at A Book Barn. The selection for April/May is James Joyce’s Ulysses.