Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

First of all, thank you to those who sent good wishes my way regarding my bout of illness last week. I have a good friend who got a liver transplant last week; I have friends who have survived cancer; I have friends and family members who have gone through divorce and the loss of children. When I consider that my only illnesses are depression and migraines, I feel as though I am one of the lucky ones. I occasionally have mildly debilitating episodes; but I haven't been to an emergency room for the first one in over 30 years or the second one ever.

I did spend a day home from work this week with a migraine (one of only about four or five days of work I've missed from migraine in my life), but that gave me the opportunity to get a real start on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. I am only about a quarter of the way into this book, but I'm already under its spell. I am a "white" woman from northern Michigan - French Canadian on my mother's side (my mother's was the first generation to speak English only) and English-Scotch-German on my father's side (with my generation the first to send a significant number to college) - and I grew up unaware of the sea of privilege in which I lived. As I have read the books I have over the last year or so about the experiences of various groups, I have been forced to step outside of my own life and to see the world from new perspectives and in new ways.

Wilkerson's book is filled with stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the midst of circumstances so beyond my understanding that I'm almost treating it as fiction. Surely people who built bus stations in the 1920s South didn't have to build two separate waiting rooms and four separate restrooms (white men, white women, black men, black women)! Surely police officers didn't stop people at train stations and rip up their tickets so that they couldn't leave for the North! Surely grown adults didn't expect other grown adults to step off the sidewalk into the street just because of the color of their skin! No, these things couldn't have happened in this country! Wilkerson's book shows us segregation in intimate details like this. She gives us statistics and broad sociological theories, but she also puts us in a cotton field picking 7000 pieces of cotton in a single day and helps us to feel the pain in our backs and legs.

When I was a girl my mother told me a story from the summer she was 17. It was 1948, and she and her mother traveled from Detroit to Virginia to visit a cousin. One day, as the three of them approached a store, my mother noticed an older (black) woman also approaching the store. My mother, being the polite young person she was, held the door for the woman, who began trembling and held back. A quarter of a century later, my mother recounted with wonder that the woman would not go through the door. The cousin hissed, "Don't make a scene!" and dragged my mother into the store. This was a defining moment for my mother, who was a staunch political liberal to her dying days. She gave her children a view of the world of race relations that looked far beyond the insular narrowness of rural northern life. That older woman who hung back and refused to walk through the door held by a teenager in Virginia over 50 years ago has informed my life in so many positive ways; as I read Wilkerson's book, I've thought about her and am now finally understanding what her life was probably like.

1 comment:

Sarah Bracey White said...

Dear Liz,
I too read Isabel Wilkerson's "Warmth of Other Suns" with wide-eyed wonder -- mine because I saw my life experience spelled out on the pages of her book. Child of the Jim Crow south, my parents refused to leave South Carolina; so, when I graduated high school in 1963, I joined all the other "Negroes" who left the south seeking a better life.
Yes, experiences when we are young affect our lives as adults. For me that experience was an exchange of letters with a young white girl who lived in South Dakota. Sharon made me realize that all white people did not hate me. That knowledge allowed me to integrate my world without fear and find the life that I knew awaited me outside the south.
Sarah Bracey White