Tuesday evening marked the beginning of the President’s Reading Series, a yearlong event that will bring distinguished novelists, journalists and playwrights to the Homewood Campus. The program is oriented towards work of social importance.
The series, which is funded by President Ronald J. Daniels, kicked off with a reading from award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson.
About 200 people gathered in Mudd Hall to hear Wilkerson speak about her debut novel: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book, which detailed the migratory experience of African Americans between 1910 and 1970, was recognized by the National Book Critics Circle with an award for achievement in nonfiction.
Katherine Newman, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, introduced Wilkerson as the series’ inaugural speaker.
“She gives us the most searing portrait of the Jim Crow south I’ve ever encountered.” Newman said. “I’ve never read anything so powerful.”
Wilkerson spent 15 years writing the book, which was inspired by her mother’s own migration to Washington, D.C. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Wilkerson noted how the discovery of an old photograph precipitated the entire writing process.
“If there was a single thing that sparked in me the desire to write this book, it was the discovery of a photograph of my mother when she arrived in Washington, D.C.” Wilkerson said.
In the photograph, she and a childhood friend are sitting on the steps of a rowhouse in Baltimore.
“They are wearing spring coats and their very finest
pearls. . .They carried themselves with such dignity and grace and hopefulness. Yet I didn’t know all that led to their arrival. I didn’t grow up hearing their stories of migration. In fact, my parents did not talk about it at all. . .but in protecting their children, they denied them the ability to really know where they had come from.”
Wilkerson’s book chronicles the flight of a fruit picker, a sharecropper’s wife and a surgeon as they abandon the segregated south in search of better living conditions elsewhere in the United States.
“This is the only time in our country’s history that American citizens were forced to or felt as if they had no other option than to leave the place they were born,” Wilkerson said. “They were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country.”
Her novelistic portrayal of the three migrants allows readers to better understand the nature of the African American journey. It provides a more personal account of the exodus and gives faces to those who participated in the movement. She feels that young readers, such as those in high school, especially need this kind of knowledge.
“The younger you get, the harder it is too even imagine how human beings could do this to other human beings,” Wilkerson said. “I was once talking to a group of high-schoolers from Hawaii, and I remember getting a lot of pushback. They just couldn’t understand that this kind of behavior took place.”
Behavior such as public lynching or the enforcement of separate courtroom bibles has become unimaginable to some members of the most recent generation.
“We chuckle at the absurdity of the caste system, and yet this was deadly serious. Every four days, there was the public-spectacle lynching in the South. They could draw thousands of spectators from multiple states,” Wilkerson said. “The more common reason for lynching was the mundane things. . .they lost their lives for the amorphous accusation of ‘acting like a white person.’”
Freshman Benjamin Pierce believes this is precisely the kind of dialogue that needs to take place.
“I think that people are afraid to confront the truth of American history. People may write about the South during the Jim Crow era, but books like ‘The Help’ obscure the atrocities of segregation with inspirational story-lines,” Pierce said. “Not everyone had a happy ending, and it’s incredibly important to have a novel which exposes the historical racism of American culture.”
After analyzing the migration streams within the historical context of the twentieth century, Wilkerson went on to explain several contemporary ramifications of the great migrations. She said that without these movements, the Motown and Jazz cultures would never have blossomed into the successful genres they are today. Likewise, it is unlikely that artists such as Diana Ross, John Coltrane and members of the Jackson Five would have become so well known.
“I think the way [Wilkerson] connected the past and present was really interesting,” freshman Elliot Frumkin said. “The way she used cultural buzzwords to connect with the audience was really engaging.”
“The event was amazing, I can’t wait to go back to another one,” said freshman Jefferson Riera. “I’m especially excited to see McCann.”
The series’ second reader will be Colum McCann, an Irish short story writer and novelist. McCann is a National Book Award winner who recently published his sixth novel, TransAtlantic. The book is a tribute to his homeland and tells the story of journeys made between Ireland and the United States.
Following McCann’s November reading will be appearances by writers Ishmael Beah and Colm Tóibín, both of whom will be visiting in the spring.