The best books about the Great Migration

5 authors have picked their favorite books about the Great Migration and why they recommend each book.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Book cover of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

There has been no more searing account of the indignities and humiliations, the powerlessness and sheer terror that marked Black life in the American South in the early twentieth century than The Warmth of Other Suns; no other book has so powerfully recorded the litany of injustices that led millions to embark on the journey north that became known as the Great Migration. But the life-giving, beating heart of this book lies in the narratives that Isabel Wilkerson offers of three participants in that migration – Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Like characters in an epic novel, the three endure tragedy, seek solace in love and family, and confront as best they can the unforgiving circumstances of their lives. Meticulously recounted and beautifully written, The Warmth of Other Suns is the very model of engaged scholarship: almost miraculously, a book worthy of…

Who am I?

My three most recent books are in the genre that I like to call “narrative history.” All are historically accurate – I haven’t made anything up to create the story, and everything inside quotation marks is taken from an interview or historical document and cited in endnotes – but at the same time I’m striving to make them novelistic: to give the reader the sense of immediacy, the emphasis on character and narrative structure, and the moral complexity most often provided by novels. In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place. 

I wrote...

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

By Matthew Goodman,

Book cover of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

What is my book about?

On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days.

The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The Promised Land

By Nicholas Lemann,

Book cover of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

The first journalist and popular historian to devote an entire volume to the Great Migration, Nicholas Lemann is particularly insightful about how the exodus changed the demographics and politics of Northern cities, and by extension the shape of the modern Democratic and Republican parties and the great social policy battles of the post-World War II era. Written a decade before this New Orleans native became the Dean of the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, Lemann’s book provides a master class in explanatory reporting.

Who am I?

For more than thirty years, I worked as journalist covering the biggest news stories of the day—at Newsweek magazine (where I became the publication’s first African-American top editor), then as a news executive at NBC News and CNN. Now, I keep a hand in that world as a judge of several prestigious journalism awards while taking a longer view in my own work as a contributor for CBS Sunday Morning, Washington Post book reviewer, and author of narrative non-fiction books with a focus on key personalities and turning points in Black History.

I wrote...

Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance

By Mark Whitaker,

Book cover of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance

What is my book about?

The grandson of Black Pittsburgh undertakers, veteran journalist Mark Whitaker documents the remarkable impact on mid-20th Century American culture and politics made by the city’s small but vibrant Black community. Pittsburgh produced the most widely read Black newspaper of the era (The Pittsburgh Courier), fielded the two best Negro League teams of the 1930s (the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays), nurtured scores of groundbreaking jazz musicians (from Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine to Mary Lou Williams, Ray Brown, Art Blakey and Erroll Garner) and served as the canvas for August Wilson, America’ greatest Black playwright.

Described by Kirkus Review as “an expansive, prodigiously researched, and masterfully told history,” Smoketown recounts the stories of the Southern migrant families that produced these pioneers and explores the confluence of social factors that, like Pittsburgh’s three rivers, met to create what Whitaker calls “this glittering saga.”

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

You may in fact have read this in college as I did, but it will richly reward a return. The protagonist doesn’t have a name because his humanity is invisible to the white world. Sitting in a room with its hundreds of lightbulbs run on power stolen from the city, he reflects on the life that brought him from the rural South to Harlem, and it’s all one grotesque, horrible, comic, and inescapable bad dream. No one sees him, but everyone, from sadistic southern whites, to black nationalists, to the doctrinaire Leftists of “The Brotherhood,” wants to use him.

This is an essential American novel.

Who am I?

Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1950s I was very soon aware that I was living in a world of borders, some permeable and negotiable, and some almost impossible to cross. It was a city of Mormons and a city of those who weren’t; a city of immigrants like my grandparents, and about whom my mother wrote (and wrote well); and a Jim Crow town where Black men and women couldn’t get into the ballroom to hear Duke Ellington play. Finally, it was a city haunted by its Indian past in a state keeping living Indians in its many bleak government reservations. What to make of those borders has been a life-long effort.

I wrote...

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

By Zeese Papanikolas,

Book cover of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

What is my book about?

An American Cakewalk is about a group of American jazz musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, and yes, cakewalkers, who didn’t crash head on into the borders of racism, poetic tradition, received ideas and economic orthodoxy that surrounded them, but, like the enslaved men and women who watched their masters’ pompous cotillion, glanced off them through satire and sly subversion. I write about Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, Scott Joplin and Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and William and Henry James, Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Cahan – and squeeze in some others too.

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