Summer Read author Isabel Wilkerson engages Whitties with talk on “The Warmth of Other Suns”

October 2, 2012

Gillian Frew '11

Isabel Wilkerson

Every year, Whitman assigns an important work of fiction or non-fiction to the incoming class as part of the traditional Summer Read Program. This selection provides a platform for intellectual discussion among first-year students and the wider community.

Author and award-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years researching and writing the book that would become Whitman’s 2012 Summer Read selection: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

“If this book were a human being, it’d be in high school and dating right now,” the author joked at her Oct. 1 presentation in Cordiner Hall. She also shared that it was a particular honor to be in Washington State, which represented the farthest point to which migrants traveled in the U.S.

During her visit to campus, Wilkerson stopped by a sociology class and met with community members at the Walla Walla Public Library. Her public lecture followed a series of smaller Summer Read events, including a faculty panel in August. As part of Orientation, RAs and SAs also led discussions about the book in the residence halls.

“Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book and hearing her presentation provided me with a new perspective on the challenges faced by underprivileged people all over the world and the courage they need to overcome them,” said Isaac Sappington ’16, a first-year student from Pasco, Wash. who attended the presentation.

Isabel Wilkerson - class

Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the first author to take on the subject of the Great Migration. Her book chronicles the experiences of three individuals fleeing the Jim Crow South for cities in the northern and western U.S. Between the start of World War I and 1970, nearly six million African Americans made this journey in search of better lives.

“As I read the book, I felt every anxious moment, and by the end I felt a connection to each of the characters and what they were going through,” said Jeremy Schofield ’14, an RA in Jewett Hall from Albuquerque, N.M. who introduced Wilkerson. “This book was also a springboard for an amazingly heartfelt and enlightening discussion with my new residents.”

Helen Kim, associate professor of sociology, served as moderator for the lecture and Q&A session with Wilkerson.

“She interacted very warmly with students,” Kim said. “I think that she was very impressed with the questions students raised about the book at the lecture, in individual class sessions, and in conversation with RAs and SAs.”

The audience gave Wilkerson a standing ovation, and the line of students waiting to speak to her and get their books signed after the event stretched out the door.

Gilbert Mireles, assistant professor of sociology, praised Wilkerson’s visit to his classroom, where she interacted with students in his social movements and change course.

“Her visit was especially valuable to us since we had been discussing the Civil Rights Movement in class,” Mireles said. “I think students learned a great deal by reading about individuals whose lives were affected by this momentous time in our nation’s history. This is slightly different from a more conventional social scientific approach, which may emphasize broader social forces to the detriment of the everyday lived experience of individuals. Wilkerson’s emphasis on the life stories of three black Americans humanized the movement for students in a way that most sociological texts do not.”

The book also provided the inspiration for a workshop about the current job market called “The Warmth of Future Work,” hosted by the Student Engagement Center. Ajša Suljiċ, regional labor economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department, was the guest presenter.

To view other upcoming events related to this year’s Summer Read Program, click here

—Gillian Frew '11