Q2 Benchmark: The Warmth Of Other Suns

Perspective can be used in many ways in storytelling. An excellent example of perspective being used to show diversity is in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book’s use of three diverse perspectives leads to a more accurate conveyance of the massive scale of the Great Migration. The technique used in the book is to switch perspectives to create the feeling of urgency or size. Three protagonists are followed in this tale, exploring the diversity of an event lasting for several decades.

In the first quote I have selected, the narrator reflects on George Swanson Starling’s views on the Civil Rights Act and how it affected him as a middle aged black man, rather than the more commonly portrayed hopeful young man or woman excited for their heavily revised future.

“The revolution had come too late for him. He was in his mid forties when the Civil Rights Act was signed and close to fifty when its effects were truly felt.
He did not begrudge the younger generation their opportunities. He only wished that more of them, his own children, in particular, recognized their good fortune, the price that had been paid for it, and made the most of it. He was proud to have lived to see the change take place.
He wasn't judging anyone and accepted the fact that history had come too late for him to make much use of all the things that were now opening up. But he couldn't understand why some of the young people couldn't see it. Maybe you had to live through the worst of times to recognize the best of times when they came to you. Maybe that was just the way it was with people.” 

Clearly, Starling was coming to grips with the fact that it was too late for the Civil Rights Act to help him, but he was still had a kind of excitement for the future like the typical young protagonist of a Civil Rights era story. The size of this landmark event was not lost on him, and you can feel a real sense of pride in the tone of this quote in particular.

Wilkerson uses the two male perspectives in the book as tools to represent the diversity of even two people who would be classified as the same “type of person” officially. These two men took completely different approaches regarding their new lives in the North, as seen in this quote from the New York Times’ David Oshinsky:

“Both Starling and Foster represent the contradictions of the Great Migration. Starling took a porter’s job on the same Silver Meteor that once brought him north. The life he led in Harlem was richer than anything he could have imagined. But he also knew that the migrants now riding his train would reap the blessings of a civil rights movement that were unavailable to him: history had come too late for the once promising student from the citrus groves. Foster, for his part, matured into one of Los Angeles’s finest surgeons. But his rejection of his Southern roots was so exaggerated, Wilkerson says, as to leave him adrift, nursing ancient wounds, unable to relish the blessings of his life.”

Foster and Starling took two vastly different approaches, leading to two vastly different lives. Foster felt the need to dispose his old live almost entirely, even changing his name once he moves out West. When Starling became a porter on the Silver Meteor, perhaps it was not out of necessity, but out of duty. Later on in the book, he raises money for others in need, contributing the most he can. In doing these two things, he shows a spirit of charity unlike Foster or Gladney.

Ida Mae Gladney, the sole female representative in the book, is a case study of what we imagine an immigrant from the South to be. However, just because her story is typical, does not mean it is not interesting. Mr. Oshinsky reflects on her as well:

“The first of Wilkerson’s three main characters, and plainly her favorite, is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi. Married at 16, the mother of three, Ida Mae lived to serve her husband, George, whose dire prospects reflected the feudal Southern agriculture that had replaced slavery after the Civil War.”

One of the more poignant parts of Gladney’s portion of the story is when she is with her childhood friend many years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and she sees a cotton plant on someone’s private property, They decide to pick the cotton of their own accord. After trying so hard to avoid picking cotton, she decides to pick someone else’s cotton now that she is free to do what she wants.

Without this frequent change in perspective, the reader would not be able to grasp the size or diversity of the Great Migration. The three unique stories also add a personal aspect to what would normally be an intimidating event to understand.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Oshinsky, David. Book Review - The Warmth of Other Suns. New York: The New York Times, 2010. Web.