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Isabel Wilkerson Wins National Book Critics Circle Award

COM prof’s Warmth of Other Suns wows readers and critics


Isabel Wilkerson’s “magisterial work” entailed her getting information from 1,200 interviews, numerous archives, and eBay (really). Photo by Christopher T. Martin

Isabel Wilkerson’s much-praised book The Warmth of Other Suns has just received one of publishing’s most respected honors, the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010) won the award for nonfiction. Epic in scope and herculean in production—Wilkerson spent 15 years researching and writing—the book details the migration of African Americans from the South to the rest of the country from 1915 to 1970.

Wilkerson, a College of Communication professor of journalism and director of narrative journalism, was in an auditorium at the New School in New York City Thursday night with other finalists for the awards announcements. “I learned when my name was called,” she says. “It’s a tremendous honor and an august moment.”

The award is another national honor for former New York Times reporter Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting in 1994, the first time a black journalist received an individual reporting award.

The 37-year-old National Book Critics Circle, made up of more than 600 book reviewers, called The Warmth of Other Suns “a magisterial work.” Wilkerson’s book made the New York Times best-seller list, with Times reviewer Janet Maslin referring to it as a “landmark” work.

Wilkerson, Maslin writes, “has pulled off an all but impossible feat. She has documented the sweeping 55-year-long migration of black Americans across their own country. She has challenged the dismissive assumptions that are sometimes made about that migration, treating it as a briefer and more easily explained event. Ms. Wilkerson makes a case that people who left the South only to create hometown-based communities in new places are more like refugees than migrants: more closely tied to their old friends and families, more apt to form tight expatriate groups, more enduringly attached to the areas they left behind.”

Wilkerson says her volume is “a marriage of both journalism and history,” drawing on both the newspaper and academic sides of her career. “The book began as journalism—I spent more than a year and a half interviewing people just to choose the three main protagonists. It calls upon the skills of journalism, but also ethnography.” Her research became so prodigious and stretched so unforeseeably that none of her protagonists lived to see the book published.

Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people and plunged into archives for detailed documentary information. She also found unconventional sources, such as eBay, where she picked up a 1937 Illinois Central Railroad map used by some migrants to plot their route.

“The judges’ description of the book as a ‘magisterial work’ is both accurate and extraordinary,” says COM Dean Thomas Fiedler (COM’71). “This honor tells many others around the world what Isabel’s colleagues in COM already know—that she is a master in the field of narrative nonfiction writing and that we’re fortunate to have her heading that program here.

As for a second book, “I have ideas,” Wilkerson says, “but they’re not fully formed enough for me to speak about.”

Other finalists in the nonfiction category were Barbara Demick (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), S. C. Gwynne (Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History), Jennifer Homans (Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet), and Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).

Earlier this month, Wilkerson’s book won an Outstanding Literary Work award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Read a profile of Wilkerson in the Fall 2010 issue of Bostonia.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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