Pulitzer Prize Winner Isabel Wilkerson Discusses Great Migration

Students filled Cramton Auditorium nearly to capacity Monday evening during a lecture from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson.

The lecture is a part of the College and Arts and Science’s Common Text Project 2011 during which freshman students in English 002 read Wilkerson’s book, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Every year, the English department chooses a text for the freshman class to read to introduce them to the “intellectual learning space of Howard University,” according to English department chair Dana Williams, who opened the program.

“[Common Text] helps students see roles as contributors to culture and augments their developing sense of knowledge production,” Williams said.

Wilkerson, who was introduced by Patricia Elam, also an author and professor of English at Howard, entered the stage to a welcoming applause as she began to address the crowd of mostly freshman students.

“I wanted to write this book, because many of us would not exist had not someone in our background done the same thing that people in this book did — including myself,” Wilkerson said.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” is named after a portion of a quote by Richard Wright. It is based on the Great Migration, which Wilkerson, a former New York Times reporter, calls one of “the most under-reported stories of the 20th century.”

From the beginning of World War I up until the 1970s, more than 6 million black people migrated from the southern states of America to states in the West and North.

“This migration was first time in American history that people who were in the lowest caste showed that they had options and were willing to take them,” Wilkerson said.

For 15 years, Wilkerson conducted more than 1,200 interviews and traveled all over the country to tell the stories of black families and citizens who uprooted themselves from all that they knew to travel to an unknown land for opportunity and a sense of freedom.

Freshman English major Tiffany Brockington read the book for her English class and found it relatable and “real.”

“I love reading so when ever I read I can picture anything,” Brockington said. “Sometimes reading I forgot that this really happened. Some of the instances made me wonder how could they live through that and still want to tell their story.”

Brockington, who is originally from Detroit, says both her paternal and maternal grandfathers moved north during the Great Migration, which really helped her relate to the story.

Wilkerson captured the attention of the crowd of brown faces as she noted the many aspects of African American culture that wouldn’t exist had there not been a Great Migration.

Names like August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Prince and Michael Jackson, Wilkerson said, would be unknown had this historical event not occurred.

“When they leave, they’re not doing it for themselves,” Wilkerson said. “They thought, it may be too late for us, but it’s not too late for children. Not too late for unseen grandchildren.”

“They left for a place that didn’t ultimately claim them. And look what happened because of that.”

Wilkerson ended her lecture with the quote that inspired the title of the book, spoken by Richard Wright.

For more than 30 minutes, students rallied off questions to Wilkerson, who now serves as an associate professor of journalism and narrative non-fiction at Boston University, in an effort to pick her brain about “Warmth” and her experiences in putting the story together.

Freshman English major Derrick Fisher found himself relating to the people in Wilkerson’s book in his own experiences traveling from Alabama to D.C. for college.

“I love that she had the courage to tell the story of this journey, which isn’t often shared, but is an important part of our history,” Fisher said.