Literary nonfiction reading: The Warmth of Other Suns

During the fourth quarter of 2018, I dipped into a couple of nonfiction books that required more attention than I could give them at the time. The only one I read with anything like the attention it deserves is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of nonfiction book the folks who devised the Common Core State Standards had in mind for students to read: The Warmth of Other Suns is truly literary nonfiction.

Wilkerson tells the story of the migration of six million southern blacks to the North in the period between World War I and 1970 through the experiences of three of those people.

Ida Mae Gladney, an unremarkable black woman in rural Mississippi, migrated in 1937 to Chicago where she remained true to her traditional southern roots—family, church, hard work, neighborliness—and earned the respect of even the criminals and addicts who repudiated her values.

George Starling, denied the education he wanted in Florida, migrated to Harlem in 1945, where he took the only job he could find: working as a railway porter on routes that took him regularly back into the Jim Crow South. Lacking his work ethic, his family fell apart, becoming statistics in the sociological studies and inside stories in newspapers.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, already a doctor and former Army surgeon when he left Mississippi in 1953 to set up practice among the black community in California, found the only way he could attract patients was by pandering to the blacks’ ideas of what success meant—a white Cadillac and flashy clothes—and giving personal attention white doctors were too busy to provide.

Wilkerson interweaves the stories of these three individuals with the broader historical picture of race relations in the United States and the socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the twentieth century.

One thing Wilkerson doesn’t do is find scapegoats.

There are plenty of people who share in the blame for the causes of the Great Migration and plenty who share in the blame for its consequences, including those who participated in it.

Wilkerson writes clearly, using the most common terms that will accomplish her aims. Hers is a scholarly work without scholarly pretentiousness.

It is also a work of journalism.

Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, sent hours talking to people, visiting in their homes, eating with them, going to church with them, retracing the routes they took out of the South. From all she sees and hears, she selects telling details.

Isabel Wilkerson.The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Random House. ©2010. 622 p. ISBN:9780679444329

(FYI, during the third quarter of 2018, I was reading and writing reviews the bestselling novels of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, which  I’ll be posting at GreatPenformances  between Jan.12 and May 28 this year.)

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Learning should go beyond teaching

Recently after I’d been talking to some folks about how to design a marketing program, someone asked me where I learned to do systems analysis work.

My answer shocked them.

I learned systems analysis while studying the Renaissance and Reformation for my Master of Arts in College Teaching in the humanities.

My courses were in literature, drama, history, and the arts, not in business and science where systems analysis is typically taught.

I had an amazing history teacher who not only presented information, but asked me questions about what the information meant, how it compared to what I learned in other classes,  how it fit with what else I knew from life as well as from books.

He made me learn to ask, “What is not here? Where are the gaps? What is the most reasonable explanation for the leap across that gap?”

Those questions—and the diverse jobs for which they prepared me—convinced me that the difference between good teaching and excellent teaching is the questions teachers ask.

Good questions not only reveal what students have learned, but also immerse students in pushing beyond what they’ve learned.

It’s not good teaching that creates lifelong learners; it’s good questioning.

Good questioning is part technique, part luck, and a whole lot of practice.

I might also add, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Get the DiRT on research and writing

Logo of the DiRT Directory websiteWorking online is an essential skill for students heading to college after high school.  The DiRT Directory — DiRT stands for Digital Research Tools — is a site where students can learn about tools available to help them do individual research as well as those collaborative projects efficiently and with minimal expense.

DiRT is a wiki with annotated list of software tools for research, writing, reading, collaborating, with special emphasis on open source (free) software.

To get a rough idea of the kinds of tools available in the DiRT Directory, it is useful to scan the category page, which lists purposes for which research tools may be needed. They include such things as data collection, image editing, and searching.

DiRT is geared toward those in the humanities and social sciences. All college-bound students should be acquainted with at least a couple tools in each category. Students heading toward office careers or entrepreneurial pursuits also need to explore these tools.

The DiRT Directory, unveiled in 2014,  grew out of Bamboo Dirt  which began in January, 2012, when the original Digital Research Tools Wiki ceased to add new content.

Note:  The original version of this post appeared in the October 2009 Writing Points. It has been edited and updated to reflect changes in the intervening years.