Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns makes The Help look like a piece of shit.

I finished this book the week of Thanksgiving, but with the semester wrapping up and the holidays I haven't had a chance to write about it until now. I had to read it as my "context book" for my Intro to Library and Information Science class. I had 6 options, and this was the only one available as an audiobook, so it won. I'm so glad this is the book I chose, because it is a fantastic book. Because I don't feel like writing it all out again, here's what I wrote about Warmth for my context book discussion (You can ignore the last two paragraphs if you want, that's where I had to talk about how the book related to libraries):

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson tells the story of the wave of Southern African-Americans who moved out of the South to cities in the North and West. Between 1910 and 1970, the African-American population of cities such as Chicago and Detroit grew by 40%. Wilkerson interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences during the “Great Migration.” She includes many stories from her various interviewees, but the majority of the book focuses on three: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in the ‘30s, George Swanson Starling, who left Georgia for New York in the ‘40s, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the ‘50s. Every story is different, but there are definitely common themes. Each person in the migration was looking for better opportunities than what they could find in the south.

The Warmth of Other Suns only mentions libraries explicitly once, when Wilkerson notes that it was illegal for African-Americans to use the “White” libraries in the Jim Crow-era South. However, there are other connections to library science that can be made. In addition to the segregated libraries, Wilkerson mentions how a popular weekly African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, had to be smuggled into the South, because it was not freely available. Limiting the access of information by banning the Chicago Defender and having separate libraries would clearly be a violation of today’s ALA Bill of Rights.

While not nearly as significant as access to information, there is also the simple fact of changing demographics. I can’t find the exact numbers, but Wilkerson mentions that the demographics of Chicago went from around 1% African-American at the beginning of the Great Migration to 33% at the end of the migration. This is a huge change in demographics in just a few decades. Public librarians at the time would have had to adapt to provide services to a large number of patrons coming from the rural South, which was a different culture than that of large Northern cities. In the library where I work I have occasionally helped people who are new to the area find resources they need, from the best ice cream shop and playgrounds for their kids to where to find good job resources. Rural Southerners fresh to the big cities would have needed similar assistance, and a library could have been a good resource.

So that's a general overview of the book, but I guess I should explain my opening statement. Two weekends ago I watched the movie The Help with my parents (we have semi-weekly movie nights). I'd already seen the movie when it was in theaters (I took my mom and grandma to see it, because we're a ridiculously cute family). The thing that was different this time watching The Help was that I had read The Warmth of Other Suns. Since Warmth is about the migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West, it understandably contains many stories about inequality and brutality in the South to explain why so many were fleeing. Some of the stories are absolutely horrifying. I find the phrase "necktie parties" profoundly disturbing. What does this have to do with The Help? Neither the book nor the movie really gives any idea of the danger the maids were in by speaking out against their white employers. Watching the movie now after having read Warmth just makes The Help seem somewhat dishonest. The Help wishes it was as profound as The Warmth of Other Suns, but it's just a watered-down, cartoonish version of American history. The Help is designed to make you feel good because you're not racist like Hilly; Warmth makes you feel bad that your ancestors were white Southern farmers. Does that make any sense?

I don't really know how to end this review, so I guess I'll just leave you with the Richard Wright poem from which Warmth takes its title:

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Grammys? I thought this was a book blog!

Two of the books I reviewed this year have been nominated for Grammys. Abby may have thwarted my attempt to completely dominate the homepage with my own reviews, but she can't take this one away from me! I've reviewed 100% more Grammy nominees than she has! That may have something to do with the fact that this is a book review blog and not a music review blog, but whatever.

Between Bossypants and If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), I'm going to have to root for Betty White. Yes, I enjoyed Bossypants so much that I listened to the audiobook after having already read the book (and then I asked for the book for Christmas so that I could read it again), but I have to be honest and say that Betty White's performance is just better. I love Tina Fey with all my heart, but all the whispering asides in the Bossypants audiobook didn't really work.