This Week on Reading Women: These Truths and The Warmth of Other Suns
Kendra Winchester and Jaclyn Masters Discuss New Works by Jill Lepore and Isabel Wilkerson
From the episode:
Kendra: Well, this is Women’s History Month. So I really like how we have a little play on words there for our theme this month.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I like that we’re looking at both women historians and also looking at women in history, I guess, as the subject matter of these texts. So it’s a really clever way to look at this theme, I thought.
Kendra: Yeah. And, you know, I think it was when we were about halfway through reading for this episode that we realized we were very ambitious. Both of the books that we’re discussing today are quite hefty.
Jaclyn: They’re doorstops.
Jaclyn: They’re doorstop books.
Kendra: Yes. These Truths is almost a thousand pages. And The Warmth of Other Suns is like almost 700?
Jaclyn: It’s a lot.
Kendra: It’s about 600. Okay. Still. I think I added it up, and each of us read like 1,500 pages for this episode.
Jaclyn: Definitely a record for me personally, I think.
Kendra: I think so. And they’re both great. So well worth it. But I just feel like we deserve gold stars for that. Well, speaking of doorstops, our first discussion pick is These Truths by Jill Lapore, which is out from W.W. Norton. And it is a macro history of the United States.
Jaclyn: Yeah, it’s a very, very thorough and broad history as well. I really enjoyed it.
Kendra: So as someone who isn’t from the United States, how did you find learning about the overall history of America and what that looked like and how our weird laws came into being?
Jaclyn: Well, I have studied US history at university. So I feel like I had a good sort of generalist background, but I really enjoyed the legal context that she gave . . . a lot of the formative documents and, you know, how the Constitution came together and the key players. And I really enjoyed that legal angle, and I think that continued through a lot of the substantive topics that she talked about throughout American history. So I feel like for me, that was a really good inroad to connecting with this.
Kendra: I didn’t realize a lot of how some of our weird laws came in to be. Like the Electoral College. And some of our amendments. And all these different things. Learning where they came from was really interesting because I never really had that full picture before because I think high school American history is pretty watered down, for the most part.
Jaclyn: Yeah, the amendments . . . I find them particularly fascinating because I tried to learn some of the history behind them when I was learning them for my bar exam studying. So yeah, it was fascinating to sort of have them gone into a lot more detail in this.
Kendra: So one of the themes about this particular history book . . . I think the epigraph explains it really well. It’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln in 1862. And he said, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” And it really sets the tone for the book because this is written at post-2016. And I think that a lot of times Americans, at least growing up American, we’re all very patriotic. We’re not required to fly American flags, but a lot of us do voluntarily, very like pro-American. But we like to gloss over some of the more unsavory parts of American history and the wrongs that we have done to others. And so I really appreciated this epigraph setting that tone that in this book she really wants to address those things that we frequently gloss over and don’t really want to be held accountable for. But obviously, we should be held accountable for those things.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I think that’s one of the most powerful things that she does with this, is that she really interrogates the telling of history and questions that the way that traditional narratives have erased or continue to erase particular histories. I’m thinking of particularly Native American and Black histories, that she she really goes into a lot of detail within this.
So one of the things that I found really interesting is that in her introduction, she talks about what motivated her to write the book. And she says, “I wrote this book because writing an American history from beginning to end and across that divide hasn’t been attempted in a long time. And it’s important, and it seemed worth a try.” So I think it’s a massive task to take on what she’s done writing this comprehensive and inclusive and intersectional account of American history. So yeah, I just found her motivations behind it really interesting too.
Kendra: And I appreciate how realistic and how almost fearless she was in looking at our history as a whole. And she says—at the very end of her introduction—she says, “The past is an inheritance, a gift, and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.”
Jaclyn: That’s a brilliant quote.
Kendra: Yes. Yes. I always find the last paragraph of an introduction boils it down.
Jaclyn: It’s the mic drop.
Kendra: Exactly. Exactly. And I think when we are looking at our country here in America . . . we have election this year . . . and when we have one side making America great again, I think this book is a great reminder that, uh, do we really want to go back to these times? That those times when America was great in this romanticized, idealist way was not actually great because it wasn’t great for everyone. It was great for some people at the expense of other people.
Jaclyn: And that’s such a key point. I feel like that’s at the essence of what she’s doing with this book.
Kendra: Definitely. And I was so impressed with how she tackled that. I have not really read, like I said in the last episode, a macro history of America—an overview—since I was in high school. So it’s been over ten years ago, and I didn’t get any of this. I read a textbook that was very whitewashed. It was very much about European people’s experience in America and what that came to be. But she really doesn’t let readers, especially I think those of us American readers, to sweep the unsavory things under the rug. She really looks at, you know, the indigenous people who were on the North American continent before it was colonized and a lot of different things. And like you said, she looks at the history of Black people in America and what that looked like. And it was just so fascinating to see all of that in play.
Jaclyn: So one of the points I think you made in our last episode, Kendra, that I really liked was that she’s looking at America before the colonial experience all kicked off. And I think that adds something different to what traditional history texts of America really look at. So that was one thing that really stood out for me too.
Kendra: And since we read Terra Nullius, which means “no man’s land,” I’ve thought about that a lot when it comes to countries who are the product of colonialism from European settlers and how, in America, that’s how it was treated. And I also read Prairie Fires about a year ago, and it looks at the Homestead Act and how that was portrayed as white people having this divine order to go and settle western United States because there was nothing there. But in reality, there were people there, and that was their home.
And that Homestead Act—not only was it terrible for the indigenous population—but it also disenfranchised a lot of working class people who were told they would have free land if they worked the land. But none of them had been trained in farming. And then the dust bowl happened. Right? And that’s decades and decades of history that she covers in this book and says, look at this thing that had effects for decades afterwards. And she just did such a great job with that. And I was just blown away by all the information that she was able to distill and give you in a very clear and direct way.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I think that that theme of Manifest Destiny and this idea that history is only told from a white perspective is something she really debunks in this. And I feel like she really invites the reader to think about history in a critical way as well. I think one of the things I mentioned in our last episode was how when I was reading, it felt like she was holding a mirror up to the very telling of history while she’s in the process of retelling it, I guess, herself. So it’s very clever, what she’s doing.
Kendra: By looking at our past, she brings it back to the future in the end of the book. And she talks about how much of what we believe the past to be affects how we behave in the present and how she with this book wanted to note that a lot of what Americans believe about our past is not actually true.
The common belief systems, a lot, that we have are based on recent, honestly, stellar marketing saying that we did X, Y and Z . . . and how the political parties changed over time based on this marketing and how people found certain topics or causes to get behind, were able to get people to actually act on different things. For example, how Democrats and Republicans oftentimes their positions have swapped or changed over time. It was just really interesting to see how what a lot of what we believe as Americans, having grown up here, is not actually true. It’s again, great marketing. Marketing is so powerful.
Jaclyn: That distinction between what’s fact and what’s just political rhetoric is, yeah, it’s key to what she’s doing.
Kendra: She brings it back around again to our present and how understanding our past affects how we behave in the future. And she says on page 788, “Barack Obama had urged Americans to choose our better history, a longer, more demanding, messier, and finally more uplifting story. But a nation cannot choose its past. It can only choose its future.” And I think that admitting the wrongs that we have done and trying to make amends for that is incredibly important for our country moving forward. And I think that’s something that she points out, is that, yes, we have a very terrible past in some of the things we’ve done to people groups, including Native Americans and Black people and Japanese internment camps and just a whole list of things. But we can’t change that as present-day Americans, but we can’t choose how we move forward, which is an incredible thing, I think, to take away.
Jaclyn: That’s a powerful takeaway. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. One of the things that I kept thinking about when I was reading this was how brilliant it would be if there was an Australian version because I don’t feel like there’s sort of one standalone text that I could recommend. I’m very happy to be corrected if anyone wants to leave us a comment pointing me to something. But I haven’t seen one comprehensive single history that does what Jill Lepore’s book does in an Australian context. I think there’s lots of anthologies and books that bring in a lot of different historians that do that. But I think what she’s done with this is really special because it is just so inclusive and so comprehensive all at once. So I was just bemoaning to Kendra that there isn’t an Australian version.
Kendra: Yeah, I always want this definitive text that someone can just hand me. Like I asked the other day, one of our friends, if there was like a skin-care Bible. And there isn’t one. But I think those kinds of resources are incredibly helpful. And I want to learn more about Australian history. And, you know, I would have to probably read a bunch of different ones to get different perspectives. And we haven’t even talked about the fact that this is a woman historian writing this text and how that changes the perspective and the tone and the direction that she takes, the way that she tells history.
Jaclyn: There’s so much just meaning you can look into between who’s telling the history and what they are choosing to cover and the angle that they’re taking with how they’re viewing primary materials. That whole process is so fascinating to think about too.
Kendra: here was a book I read a year or two ago with my spouse. We have like a spouse book club when we often read books together, and one of them was The Color of Law. And he was talking about mainly how African American people were oppressed by zoning codes and housing and all this stuff. But he was saying how people would say that the reports that African Americans were giving them were biased because they were from African Americans about African American people. And the author of the book said . . . but the ones from white people about white people . . . ? You know, like, word? .
And I think that really carries over the idea that we all have biases. And I think the best thing to do is, you know, you confront that bias. Once you’ve done that, you can then move forward and either make accommodations or just acknowledge it in your text. And I think that she does a great job of that as well with this because it’s so diverse in a lot of ways. And she goes, and she cites different people for the facts that she portrays. And there’s hundreds of pages of notes and all this stuff as well in the back. So I really appreciate the way that she addressed that, kind of, method in her storytelling or the narrative that she has in the book.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I think addressing bias or the lack of intersectionality is really critical when I’m reading history. And I think it gives me a lot of trust in the historian that they can recognize the limitations of their own research or their own perspective and what they’re bringing to that text when they just identify that straight up in their introduction or their author note and have that level of self-critical identification with their own work. I think that’s, yeah, it’s a really important thing to consider.
Kendra: When reading this book, I think that it’s such a great starting place to figure out more topics that you might want to read on because you know—and this is because I’m a book nerd as well—but I don’t think there’s one text that can explain all of history. I think, you know, this more is just one amongst many voices telling American history. But the benefit of a macro history at such a large scale is that you can be like, oh, this is an interesting point in history. I want to read more about it. And that’s something we talked about last time with all of our different types of histories that we looked at. We’ll also talked about later in this episode. But I really appreciate that part of it because there so many notes. You can find so many great book recommendations in the back as well.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I feel like if you read this, and there are things that kind of spark your interest, and you’re like, oh, I’d love to hear more about that. . . . This is a really great text for doing that because I feel like, given the scope of what she’s covering, there’s bound to be something in this that will make you want to read more.
Kendra: Definitely. I really wish this had been the textbook I had.
Jaclyn: Right. Yeah.
Kendra: So like we talked about last time, the way that she tells the story isn’t just covering different people groups or things that may have been glossed over. She really follows people throughout the text. And so for example, we follow George Washington and his life. And we kind of check in with him. We see how he’s doing, what’s happening in his life. And by the time that, you know, he dies at whatever date that he died, you have also met new people, and you follow that new character. So it’s like a marathon or a relay race where you’re passing the baton from one character to another, and you follow them.
And following history, like we talked about in our last episode, through characters or people in history really makes it real for you. And I really like the way that she handled that because I mean, I don’t know how she would have been able to accomplish this text without that. Because it’s so broad and covers so much.
Jaclyn: Well, it keeps your interest engaged the whole time. Like it is linear, but it’s also following these people. Makes you connect with it really well as a reader as well.
Kendra: Yes. I was just so impressed. That is so clever. And she has multiple . . . maybe “teams” if we want to continue the metaphor going at the same time. So we’re not just looking at George Washington during that time period. We also have Thomas Jefferson, and then we look at his family. And we follow them throughout history and their descendants. And it’s just really clever the way that she does that. Obviously, we both highly recommend These Truths by Jill Lepore. And that is out from W.W. Norton.
And Jaclyn, you have our second discussion pick.
Jaclyn: I do. Thanks, Kendra. So the second book that we’re gonna be talking about today is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. And this is out from Random House. So this one is a very macro history again, a lot like the Jill Lepore book. But this one is looking at a very specific period in history. It’s looking at the period between 1915 and 1970. And it’s focusing on what was known as the Great Migration. And this was a migration of around six million Black Americans who fled southern states and moved up to northern or western cities in that time period.
The way that she’s telling this history is through the lens of the experiences of three people, three very different people from different classes and professions and geographical locations. So she’s following one woman, Ida Mae Gladney, and then two men, Robert Foster and George Starling. And we talked a little bit about her methodology in the last episode. But to recap a little bit, she interviewed a lot of people, thousands of people. And also, one of the major components of her research was reenacting part or all of the migration journey that these three individuals undertook.
And I mentioned Robert Foster’s, particularly, because it was a road trip that she took with her parents. And he drove from Monroe to Oakland. And I believe it was all in the stretch of one night. So they tried to replicate this road trip. It was just extraordinary. And I think at one point, her mother made a comment. “‘You know, he must have been ready to cry right about here,’ my mother said as the car I had rented, a new Buick, as was his when he made the crossing, hurled into hairpin curves in total darkness with hundreds of miles yet to go.”
And I think that act of trying to put herself into the shoes of the people that went on this journey was remarkable. And I think it allowed her and in this case, her parents who were taking this journey with her, to have this connection and empathy with the experience that they would have had and to have some insight into what that would have looked like. Obviously, the social conditions and a whole raft of other things have changed since then. But I just . . . I was really struck by that quote and the knowing that she put that level of thought into how she was telling his history.
Kendra: Yeah, that was just really impressive the way that she looked at that. And, you know, that’s something that I feel like, as a white person, I know in our in our culture, we don’t think about the need for having to stop during travels because we’ve always been able to do that. You know, there was the Green Book and it would give places where Black people . . . it was safe for them to stop and go in and have these things. But I think that was such an incredible point as well, that not only are these people immigrating, as it were, to one place to another, but they also had to do it with no stops and no modern, at the time, conveniences. And they would have to take their own food. And there’s a lot of train journeys that she chronicles and the food that they would take with them and just a lot of different things. How she also raises awareness for the type of journey that it was. We would have this idea of what it would be like, but in reality because of the racist society that they were in at the time, their journey was much more difficult than we’d ever imagined.
Jaclyn: The aspect of this, the what we’re following with the train, plays quite a key role in one of the people she’s following because he’s literally working on the trains as like a conductor or porter, I think. And he encounters, I guess, when they’re going through southern states still when there are segregated train cars, and when they go through northern states when that changes. I also feel like as well as this journey itself, she looks at both ends of that as well. She looks at why people wanted to move north. And she also wants to contextualize what the North was like for people that were part of the Great Migration and how they experienced life as southerners who had moved when they did get to these different cities.
But one of the other things I thought was really worth noting here was the language she uses to describe the people that were part of this process. And a lot of early histories that she mentions used the label “immigrants,” you know, trying to contextualize this process of moving that way. But it’s really problematic to look at this group of people using the word immigrants because it’s not a label that they self-identified with. So she says, “The idea conjured up in the deepest pains of centuries of rejection by their own country. They had been forced to become immigrants in their own land just to secure their freedom. But they were not immigrants and had never been actual immigrants. The South may have acted like a different country and been proud of it, but it was part of the United States, and anyone born there was born an American.” I found that really striking because I think a lot of what is really interesting to look at with history is how the historian identifies the subject matter of the history. I think being sensitive to the politics around particular language was something that Wilkison was really mindful of in the way that she wrote this book.
Kendra: And she really talks about the difficulties that they had. And while they didn’t self-identify as immigrants, I feel like using that imagery helps the modern day reader understand the huge cultural differences that people who migrated from the South to the North faced and the discrimination that they faced, even from other Black people just because they had come from the South.
Jaclyn: Yeah. And I think one of the things that we were discussing was what it was like for people when they arrived in the North.
Kendra: Having lived in the South for over a decade now, it’s really interesting when I go north and talk to people because, you know, white people view the history as if Black people were going to the North and that it was a land flowing with milk and honey that welcomed Black people with open arms. But in reality, it was also extremely racist. Like it wasn’t as bad as the South, but that’s a really low bar. I’m not exactly sure if that’s something people want to be proud of. The reality is that Black people face a lot of racism in the North, and the North has its own racism, racist history that they really need to come to terms with and are culpable for. So, yeah, that’s something that I think she really points out very well in this text, especially, you know, chronicling the journeys of the three different people who are moving to three different cities outside of the South.
Jaclyn: I think she does a really great job of writing how complex the North was for southerners that were migrating and that it wasn’t this sort of straightforward arrival process. There was a lot of difficulty in adjusting to life and finding work and finding community and economic aspects, a class aspect. There was just so much that I feel like she does a really great job of illustrating by covering these three different people from very, very different backgrounds.
Kendra: One of the things that I found really interesting was her portrait of the doctor, who is named Robert. And he moves from the South to California. And there’s this moment when he’s trying to get settled there that he’s doing these in-home doctors visits. And he goes to a Black man and woman’s house, and he expects to be treated with the respect like he’s treated with in the South being a doctor. But they . . . the wife especially treats him pretty horribly. And she says . . . I’ll paraphrase . . . she doesn’t want a Black man from the South examining her. And that moment just really hit it home, I think, that imagery that even amongst other Black people, that Black people from the South still faced a lot of discrimination and prejudice. I had no idea, you know, the layers, the depth, the layers that they . . . the difficulties that they had to face. And that’s something that Wilkerson does so well in this book is to give a full and complex portrait of what their lives were like at this time.
Jaclyn: Yeah. And by the same measure, I think it was really interesting when she paralleled what the experience of northerners going into the South was around this time as well. And I think one of the most poignant examples, for me anyway when I was reading it, was when she’s talking about Emmett Till. And she says that he was “perhaps the most memorialized black northerner ever to go south, if only because he never made it back alive and because of the brutal reasons he didn’t.”
And she talks a lot about, I guess, social attitudes and the way that Black people internalized their own approaches to racism and the way they experienced it. And the way she phrases it is that she’s talking about children that were perhaps sent during summer to visit relatives. And she talks about children from the North not having the same “internalized difference of their southern cousins,” to quote her. I found that really interesting. I think it’s one thing to look at the journey from south to north, but to look at those gray areas and where things were very not straightforward and the complexities of that. . . . I thought that, in particular, the way she talked about Emmett Till was just so on point there.
Kendra: Yeah, she did just an amazing amount of research and work and portraying that. And how when people from the North would travel back home, they would try to show off. And they didn’t want their families to figure out that the North was also actually not the place that they had always imagined, that it was in a lot of ways a disappointment because of the racism that they still faced there, and how they would go home and try to make it sound like it was such a great place. It was just really impactful because I think it just goes to show the long term effects and the effects on different families of people leaving.
Jaclyn: Yeah, and the importance almost of keeping up these appearances of the North being perfect, and it being this like . . . I think she called it a Technicolor movie set . . . and the way that, I guess, other people’s experiences were maybe fed back to people that still were in the South and how that maybe motivated them or otherwise as to their own decision to stay or to move. Yeah, this is just honestly such a clever book and so complex. And I feel like this is a book that you could hand to many people, Americans and international readers. And it’s just such a fascinating experience to read.
Kendra: And I think that, you know, it illustrates how complex the history of the migration is in of itself. And, you know, that’s not a topic that I studied at all before this book. It was never really covered. I knew people moved to the North, fleeing the Jim Crow era South, but I didn’t know how complex it was. And I never wrote a book, obviously, in this kind of detail because up until this point, aside from a more academic text or papers and different things, I don’t think there was such a comprehensive text on the topic, at least none that’s been this widely read and acclaimed. I mean, this book won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award the year it came out. So.
Jaclyn: Yeah, and I think telling that story through these three people as well was more than just sharing statistics and, you know, more data-driven history. I think she really does a great job of making you remember particular people’s experiences.
Kendra: There’s this imagery at the end that she uses analyzing how the three different characters that she follows in the book handle moving to a different location. She talks about the effects of, you know, migrating and basically feeling like immigrants—but obviously, they wouldn’t use that language—and that effect that had on them and how both Robert and George were more apt to change who they were when they moved north to try to fit in better. But how Ida Mae didn’t and how she stayed true to herself and who she was and how overall, Wilkerson said, she seems to have handled it the best way in that way and not letting other people tell her that her own home culture was “less than” just because it wasn’t as well received in the North, being the South. And there’s a lot of prejudice of the North of southern people. And, you know, that was included in this whole book. That’s like half what the book is about, the northern prejudice of people from the South. And when you intersect that with the racism of the time, it just makes an incredible narrative. It’s so informative.
Jaclyn: So that is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and that is out from Random House.
Kendra: So before we end our episode today, we want to give you some further reading recommendations. So these are books that we are currently reading, have read, or maybe they’re on our TBR. We do a lot of research for every theme, and there’s always books that we wish we could mention, but we don’t have the time. So here are a few of those.
Jaclyn: So one book that I am actually currently reading is one that was recommended by another Australian historian. And it’s an anthology called The Knowledge Solution: Australian History—What Place Does History Have in a Post-Truth World. And this is a collection edited by Anna Clark. Anna was actually my very first history tutor when I was at university. So when I saw that she’d edited this, it was a must read for me.
So this is an anthology of extracts from existing works that have been published by the Melbourne University Publishing House. And they really pulled together to examine how Australian history has been told and taught. So it’s a very historiographical text in that sense, and it’s covering a whole range of different subject matters within history. It’s covering a lot of disciplines and a really diverse range of historians as well, lots of leading historians that have been published by this press. So I am enjoying it so far. I think it’s definitely a more academically angled text. But if you’re looking to do a deeper dive into Australian history, it’s definitely one to check out.
Kendra: And one of the books that I want to mention is The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. Nell Irvin Painter is a Black woman historian who then went on to get an MFA in art because she could. She’s just that brilliant. And so that was, you know, covering that book and having that memoir about her getting her MFA was the first time I ever heard of her. And then I went and did some research on her. I found out she wrote this book. And this book looks at the definition of whiteness and how it’s expanded over time. So at first it excluded, you know, Irish Americans in America’s case. And, you know, Italian people and different things. And it slowly expanded over the course of time. And I think just having a Black woman write about the history of white people is such a fascinating and much needed perspective on the history of white people. I was like, yes, I need this. I need this in my life for sure.
Jaclyn: One that I read last year and loved was She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman. And this is by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. This one’s out by 37 Ink. This one, I think is a really accessible text because it’s narrative nonfiction. It’s quite literally looking at the life of Harriet Tubman, who is a very well-known figure in American history. But this does a really great deep dive into so many unknown parts of Tubman’s life that a lot of readers may not know about her involvement in history and how much influence she had. I also found the format really accessible. It has lots of illustrations and infographics and images of the actual historical documents that it’s based on. So it was just a really interesting text visually as well. And I think it’s, again, a text you could probably give to younger readers as well and have them able to digest the content just as easily.
Kendra: And one of the history series of books that you recommended to me—and then I just found that it was a whole series, and then we just fell down the rabbit hole together, which was lovely—is this Revisioning History Series. And this is a series of . . . I think there’s five books so far. And so there is A Queer History of the United States, A Disability History . . . An African American and Latinx History . . . , and An Indigenous People’s History. . . . And then the most recent one you just picked up, Jaclyn, I think on a trip to a bookstore recently.
Jaclyn: I did. I picked up A Black Women’s History of the United States: Revisioning American History by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. I picked that one up in Denver when I was visiting BookBar.
Kendra: Yeah, I found all these on Audible. They’re not all written by women, but I think at least half of them are. So that’s pretty great. And I’d never seen stuff like A Disability History of the United States. Like I’ve never seen that before. So I was pretty excited about that.