• Sue Kwong

This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.

This week, in round one, bout two, Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University and coauthor of The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang chooses between Native Son by Richard Wright and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.

Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, 20-year-old black man in 1930s Chicago. The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of black migration through the lives of three unique individuals, one named Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago. Native Son provides a narrow view of the life of a young black male in Chicago while The Warmth of Other Suns provides a broader perspective of black life in the city.

These two books were very difficult to judge. I consider Native Son to be one of the best novels of the 20th century. Warmth, in just four short years after it was published in 2010, has established itself as a classic book on the Great Black Migration. Both authors, Richard Wright and Isabel Wilkerson respectively, write with authority and passion. But to me, they both tell tragic stories of black people losing themselves to the big city.

Both authors bring impeccable credentials to their books. Who better to write about black male rage in Chicago than Richard Wright? He was born in Mississippi as a grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper who finally left the south and moved to Chicago where he worked at a post office and also swept streets. Like so many African-Americans who migrated to Chicago, Wright fell prey to bouts of poverty. Along the way, his frustration with American capitalism led him to join the Communist Party in 1932.

Likewise, who better to write on the Great Black Migration than Isabel Wilkerson? She was born to parents who had left the south, her mother from Georgia and her father from southern Virginia. She’s the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. With her 15 years of labor on the book, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authoritative voice on black migration.

Like others, I believe Richard Wright wrote Native Son to tell “white folks” all about “Negroes” in America. He wanted them to experience the rage, frustration, and dehumanization of being black in America. Ultimately, he wanted “white folks” to change their minds about the “Negro” before it was too late to prevent a disaster unknown to America. On the other hand, Isabel Wilkerson, I believe, although I haven’t heard her say so, wrote Warmth for “black folks.” The meticulous labor and passion she poured into the book can be felt. She wrote as if she needed to tell the stories of “black folks” who are on the verge of ceasing to exist. It seems she wrote Warmth to prevent the question being asked, and answered: “What ever happened to the black people who were from down south (who are actually all black people in America)? Ah, they lost their history so they died.”

During her research for the book, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people who made the migration from the south to northern and western cities in search of a better life. Sadly, instead of a better life, many of them found life in cities like Chicago to be harsh, lonely, and cold. Many sacrificed their southern traditions and beliefs for better jobs in the north. In the end, many, like Ida Mae, wondered if the sacrifice had been worth it.

I feel that Ida Mae’s reliance on her southern roots of spirituality, family, morality, social involvement, and strong work ethic to cope with challenges is the more common reality of black life in Chicago. While the deleterious effects of racism on the psychological state of blacks is a common experience in Chicago as well, Bigger Thomas’s violent, criminal and self-loathing character does more to foster the aggressive racial stereotype of black males than it does to offer a symbol of black rage. I considered his experience too narrow to represent the full scope of black life in Chicago. For that reason alone, The Warmth of Other Suns gets my nod for advancing to the next round.

Just 21 percent of you, the voters, predicted that The Warmth of Other Suns would advance. Voting for round two begins January 13.

  • Sue Kwong