An American Reborn in Paris

Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly chronicled the journey of black Americans from South to North in The Warmth of Other Suns. But the 15 years of work and the sudden fame it brought upended her life. The cure: an odyssey of her own

by Isabel Wilkerson
isabel wilkerson image
Photograph: Ambroise Tezenas

I awoke to the cooing of pigeons on the ledge outside my window and the sight of the slate rooftops of rue Racine, gray and streaking soot from the centuries. I could make out the murmur of traffic below, the coughs from the room across the hall, the fumbling for keys and the turning of doorknobs, the whispers and knocking of chambermaids and, in the distance, the aah-ee, aah-ee, aah-eeof an unmistakably foreign police siren. I was in Paris, the last refuge of the man who had inspired me and, in a literary sense, rescued me. I was in the hotel where he’d spent his first night here, waking to the same sky and sounds that he hoped would save him precisely 66 years ago. I’d followed him as far as the trail would lead me. I was in room 703 of the Hotel Trianon in search of the Paris of novelist Richard Wright.

Only a few years before, I’d been in a deep forest, seeking a way out. On leave from the best job I could imagine—Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, where I’d won a Pulitzer Prize—I had jumped into the unknown to begin writing a book, the first I’d ever attempted. It was ambitious; I wanted to tell the story of the Great Migration, from 1915 to 1970, when six million African Americans, my parents among them, fled the Jim Crow South like immigrants within their own land, changing our culture, our politics, our country. The project was taking longer than I had ever imagined. I was in year 12 or 13, having interviewed more than 1,200 people, narrowed them down to three flawed and aging protagonists and buried myself in their lives as I retraced their journeys from the rural South to the big cities of the North and West. One of the major events of the 20th century, this was a story so big, I couldn’t see the end of it.

In the middle of what was quite enough, the moorings of my own life shifted around me. I moved from the Midwest to the South, where the people I was writing about had come from. My beloved father, who had tried nudging me into the safety of an engineering career rather than the uncertainties of writing, who had reluctantly abided my decision and then saved everything I wrote (“Isabel’s story on page A14,” he noted in his draftsman’s pen at the top of a New York Timesfrom the ’90s), passed away and would not see the fruit of my hardest labor. With his death, I inherited the role of caregiver for my wheelchair-bound mother, who had always been the proudly and lovably more difficult of the two. And within a year, my marriage of 14 years ended. As for the book I’d signed to write, I was toiling away but not moving forward.

Then I came across these words in the endnotes of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy:

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.

These words from Wright, author of Native Son, a classic of American literature, were buried in the appendix to his autobiography, as if waiting for an obsessive like me to discover them. In these lines (which are deleted in the current-day edition), Wright contemplated the moment he fled Mississippi for Chicago as part of the Great Migration. He would become the poet laureate of this turning point in American history, whose retelling had taken hold of my life.

By the time I read Wright’s words, I had worked on my book for so long that people began to doubt if I’d ever finish it. Once, they couldn’t stop asking if I’d found my subjects or completed the prologue; now they avoided any mention of it. If I brought it up, it was as if I were talking about an invisible friend. But I saw those words, and a thin sliver of daylight broke through the forest leaves and assured me that I could finish this thing. They gave what I’d been researching all these years a purpose, a breath, a name. I raced to finish it. Published two years later, it was called The Warmth of Other Suns.

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