COLUMBIA, SC– The highlight of the two-day AEJMC Southeast Colloquium and Media and Civil Rights History Symposium came Friday during a lunch where Isabel Wilkerson told the story behind her recent book, The Warmth of Other Suns.
The D.C. native was very forthcoming as she told her story as a daughter of domestic immigrants from Georgia and Virginia. Her parents’ experience moving from Virginia and Georgia to the “North” was exactly what she characterizes in the 600-page book based on 15 years of research.
“I am a product of this great migration,” Wilkerson said. “I consider myself a product of a mixed marriage marriage.”
Wilkerson’s mother was from Rome, Ga while her father grew up in Southside Virginia.
A former New York Times bureau chief, Wilkerson is a former editor-in-chief of Howard University’s campus newspaper, THE HILLTOP. As a HILLTOP editor myself, I was especially gratified to be on hand for her luncheon address as was my journalism professor colleague Dr. Kim Smith, who teaches at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.
The keynote address was not just about the subject of the book, but also the methods that she used to integrate journalism, ethnography and participant observation.
Her address was filled with anecdotes from her experience interviewing people in senior centers, quilting clubs and AARP meetings to driving to strange communities or riding buses and being offered hoghead’s cheese.
“The big challenge was food. I ate well, but I didn’t [always] know what I was eating,” she said about the cheese offer.
Wilkerson rented a Buick and drove from Texas to California on the same route that one of the interviewees in her book took as he migrated away from the South in a time of Jim Crow when blacks could not stay in hotels like we can today.
“This was a world that went on for three generations,” Wilkerson said.
Even though the Jim Crow era began with the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Wilkerson’s book covers the time period from World War I to 1970.
In introducing Wilkerson, University of South Carolina Communications Dean and Former CNN Correspondent Charles Bierbauer predicted the first African American Pulitzer Prize winner for her work in journalism may find herself in the winner’s circle for the prestigious prize again with The Warmth of Other Suns.
Wilkerson is currently the director of Narrative Nonfiction in the College of Communication at Boston University.