Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning HU Alum Isabel Wilkerson

My internship with Campus Progress  gave me the opportunity to meet one of HU’s illustrious alumna (and also introduced me to my newest inspiration as a writer). And If you haven’t picked up The Warmth of Other Suns, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Warmth is a Roots-like epic that honors the Great Migration as an underapperciated moment in American history that still affects us today.

Here is my interviw with Ms. Wilkerson (for CP’s “Five Minutes With…” Q&A feature):

Campus Progress: After 15 years of working on this project, how do you feel about the end result?

Isabel Wilkerson: I’m relieved to have completed it. It was a labor of love and I hope people will come to respect and honor and love these people that I’ve written about as much as I do.

I think they will. Do you feel more like a historian than a journalist now?

I don’t know. I feel as if I have had almost like a time-traveling experience—believe it or not. I feel more like a time traveler because I had a chance to go back and relieve a part of history a lot of us don’t know anything about. So I feel really blessed to have been able to experience that with them, and get to know them. I feel more like someone who listened to the stories of the elders, you know. I feel like someone who is the keeper of the stories. I feel like a historian and a journalist—I feel like both really. I don’t feel like one or the other; it’s a little bit of both.

And out of 1,200 interviews you conducted, you managed to narrow it down to three that you included in the book. How exactly did you do that?

I needed to narrow it down to three people who represented the three streams of the migration. There were three different ones. One was the East Coast—up from Georgia, from the Carolinas up to here in D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. There was the middle of the country, which is from Mississippi, Arkansas, [and] Alabama … up to the Midwest. The other one, the last one, was from Texas and Louisiana to California. So, I needed one from each of those. And then I needed people who had left for different reasons, under different circumstances, and would have arrived in different places reflective of the different stream they were in. I needed them to be different enough so that people could follow along.

After introducing Mrs. Ida Mae, Mr. Foster, and Mr. Gladney, you gave a summation of what the Great Migration meant to these people. I was struck by the fact that you described it as a leaderless movement. Some people continue to say that African Americans still do not have any real leaders. Do you believe that?

That is so important what you’re saying. To me, the most inspiring thing about this Migration is that our forbearers did not wait for somebody to lead them to the Promised Land. They did not wait for a Moses or a Joshua or a Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was a child when this was going on anyway. People made the decision on their own. Doesn’t that tell you how much we can do as individuals? Doesn’t that not inspire you to say, ‘If they can do they can do this, you can do anything’? You just have to have the faith. And it’s within us. This is the legacy that they left us. That’s very powerful. We need to stop looking to other people to save us.

I’m telling you when I read that, I had to stop and actually marinate on it for a minute.

Yeah, it’s inspiring. These are people who had little education, no resources, and no money. All they had was a dream and they knew they wanted to get out—and they did. In fact, many of their leaders told them, ‘Don’t go.’ You may or may not remember but in one church in Tampa the minister said: You need to stay here; you need to stay here where your ancestors were. It will get better. You know what happened to him? They stabbed him the next day on the way out.

Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were both against it.

That’s right. This is not to say that leadership cannot be helpful and that we don’t need people in positions to help put forward legislation and laws. But when it comes to making decisions that will be best for you and your own personal destiny on this planet in the limited amount of time you have, you have to look to yourself. You can’t wait for someone to save you and these people did not.

Again, not to take anything away from the leaders but to wait on them … they have too many things to be dealing with. They can’t deal with every individual. We have take responsibility for ourselves.

When you began writing your work, how did you know you were going to write it in narrative nonfiction instead of a plain textbook?

I definitely knew from the beginning I was going to write it like this. I wanted people to be able see themselves in these people. I wanted them to be able to picture what it was like to have to look at a wide-open field of cotton and I have to think about how I’m going to pick all of this. I wanted them to know what it felt like to hear that there might have been a lynching in the next county and what did this mean for you. I wanted people to picture themselves trying to make a decision sitting at the kitchen table: Should we stay or should we go? I wanted people to be able to picture what it was like in a Jim Crow cart in a train—where Black people usually sat in the back of everything—but in a train they were in the front because in the front of the train was where the baggage was. And if there was a collision it would be the first to take the hit. Just to think about that … I wanted people to experience what that was like. To see themselves in these people, and to imagine what it would be like if it were them. What would you have done if you had been in that situation? Would you have stayed or would you have gone? I want everybody to ask that question.

My people decided to stay.

Well, there was no wrong answer, but I’m writing about the people who left. There needed to be people who stayed because the people who stayed maintained the culture. There’s a quote in there from someone saying that: ‘We needed to stay here so that you could have a place to come home to.’

Did Taylor Branch’s work about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joan Didion’s Miami serve as an example of what could be done?

No, actually what inspired me more was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was about the Oklahoma migration to California—the Okies, as they were called. And he put you right in the truck as they were driving across the country and that was more of an inspiration than any single thing. There were many inspirations. But that was one form of literature that inspired me the most because while that was going on, so was the Great Migration, but there wasn’t anything written about it.

Now, that the Great Migration has ended, there’s another one happening right now involving more African Americans going back to the South. Would you consider that as a natural sequel to your current work?

I believe that it’s a continuation of the original. The original was a seat-change in our history because it was the first time that large numbers of Black people left the place, the part of the country that they had been forced to work for free and help build that land. So, that was the first time they basically turned their back and said, ‘We’re leaving.’ And that basically changed the country because at the beginning of the Migration 90 percent of all African Americans were leaving in the South. By the end of the Migration, nearly half were leaving outside of the South. So, there was a huge outpouring; there was a redistribution of the entire population really. So, the return migration is in some ways is a continuation of that: still seeking the right place for you as an individual to flourish which is really all anybody wants. So, I view it as like a continuum. I don’t view it as really separate; I view it as the children and the grandchildren and the great grandchildren as saying that, ‘Now, under the circumstances we’re living now, this is the better place for me.’ And that’s the beauty of the Great Migration. It actually helped make those options possible. You have the choice now. Before, they forced the choice onto the country by making the decision to leave. Now, we have the freedom to go wherever we want to be our best selves.

…For our pursuit of happiness.

And for our pursuit of happiness which is what we’re guaranteed as Americans.

What do you think narrative nonfiction and investigative journalism will look like in the future?

I believe that there will always be narrative nonfiction and investigative reporting done because people will need to know. So, right now, there’s a gap that needs to be filled and people always want to hear a good story. I may not come from the traditional sources we’re accustomed to—more of it will be online. People still want to know; it’s not like people don’t want to know.

You’re really talking about the difference between the content versus the delivery system. The delivery system may change. It may not be coming at your doorstep, but I think it will be coming and that’s because people will always want to know what is going on. And that’s why the bloggers are having a big role in it. The problem is how to finance it because it’s not cheap. It takes time and money to do it. And it may mean that we may have to turn to non-profit organizations to help. We may have to do other things in the meantime; we may have to hold another job while we then do this kind of work. But it has to come from a passion within. It’s not going to be done either way if you don’t have the passion for it. […] Fifteen years, it took me to do this, to do it right.

That is passion; that’s not about a paycheck. That’s about caring about getting this story out. It had to get out; it just had to get out. There will always be people who feel like that. There are many people out there who feel like that right now, trying to figure out, ‘How can I make it work?’ It’s going to be more like being an actor or a musician where sometimes the musician will be doing other things doing the day. But at night, they can’t stop playing because they care about it so much. They just have this thing inside them. Or an artist who might be doing other things doing they day, but when they go home or whenever there have off hours, they’re doing it. That will be most powerful work of all because it’s coming from the heart.


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