Isabel Wilkerson Discusses The Warmth of Other Suns 

…and Meets Hall-of-famer Bill Russell.

One month ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson came to Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum for an evening co-presented by Elliott Bay. The occasion was her magnificent, bestselling book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House). An epic story it is; at once vast and broad while also telling on a very human-scale, it’s a story of how people’s lives and life decisions are part of history, and how history is part of all our lives.

The evening at NAAM came on a tour that had seen Ms. Wilkerson come west, then go north: Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle. With its central exhibit depicting the times and means of African Americans coming to the Northwest, NAAM was the perfect setting. The place was packed to overflowing. A large sliding door was opened, and seating was set up outside under the light of a rising moon.

Upon arrival, Ms. Wilkerson seemed a bit overcome at the response. The audience in Seattle was the largest she’d had on her book tour. She gave an eloquent, articulate, moving talk, threading some Seattle parts of the story (the family of rock legend Jimi Hendrix) with a story she’d told the previous night in Oakland. One of the three major characters in The Warmth of Other Suns, Dr. Robert Foster, was part of a diaspora that left Monroe, Louisiana for California. Most went to Oakland, but Robert Foster would choose Los Angeles following an epic drive west through a country divided by thoughts on race.

Other families that did choose Oakland included the family that brought young Huey Newton to Oakland. Newton would later co-found and lead the Black Panther Party. Another story she told—and wrote of in her book—was the fascinating story of Charles and Katie Russell, who brought 9-year-old Bill Russell out of Monroe to Oakland. There, given opportunities he would have been totally denied in the South, he attended college, became a dominant, game-changing basketball star in the amateur and pro ranks, and a major cultural and social figure as well. While telling the story, Ms. Wilkerson wondered aloud if Bill Russell might be there in the audience this night—she’d heard word of him possibly being in attendance. He was—as subtly as someone 6-10 could be in a room—among the the rapt crowd.

Sure enough, after her talk, there was a meeting…

Isabel Wilkerson and Bill Russell

In attendance with Bill Russell were two other generations of Russells, including daughter Karen, a Seattle attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School. None of them would likely have been there were it not for Charles and Katie Russell’s difficult, fateful decision to move from Louisiana in 1943. The initial meeting and greeting at NAAM then led to another meeting in New York, where on Monday, October 18, Bill Russell appeared alongside Ms. Wilkerson on a moving segment of Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word.

All said and done, basketball wouldn’t quite give Elliott Bay an assist on the connection (soccer or hockey would) in a box score. The important thing is to read The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the most beautiful, vital, eloquent books this reader has read in a long time. -Rick

Isabel Wilkerson read from The Warmth of Other Suns at the Northwest African American Museum on September, 24 2010.