Isabel Wilkerson: Journalist, Pulitzer-Prize Winner, Would-Be Architect

Former Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson, is currently traveling the country promoting her best-selling book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration,” which analyzes the northern migration of African-Americans during the 20th century. A child of southern-born parents, Wilkerson was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, and now shares her command over narrative non-fiction and newspaper writing with undergraduates at Boston University. WEEKEND sat down with the writer at The Study at Yale, before her Poynter Fellowship Lecture on Wednesday, for what can only be described as a meta-interview.

Q: What inspired you to do the research for The Warmth of Other Suns? How did you gather these stories?

A: I am a child of the very migration that I’ve written about. My mother migrated from Georgia to Washington D.C. and my father migrated from Virginia to Washington D.C. Had they not made that migration, totally independent of one another, I wouldn’t exist. That’s something that I never really thought about until I grew up and started to realize the things that contributed into my coming to be, I became a journalist, worked at The New York Times as the Chicago Bureau Chief and traveled all over the country.

I had to confront the fact of the migration. In Chicago, people would say, “I won’t be able to talk to you until I get back from Mississippi, I’m going to a family reunion.” Or, if I were in Los Angeles, it would turn out that people would say, “Let’s do this interview now, because I’ve just gotten back from Louisiana.”

Q: What would you like the impact of the book to be?

A: The United States is a country that exists because someone from our backgrounds came from a long long way: along the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Rio Grande. They had to make a big sacrifice and took a great leap of faith into the land of the unknown, not knowing what would come out of this journey. They had to come to alien-forbidding cities and have to make a way for themselves. They had to recreate communities as best they could and retain the cultural aspects of the old countries as best they could, while raising children in a new place and trying to protect them.

My goal is that we all recognize and can see that we have so much more in common than we’ve been led to believe. Through the lives and the journeys of the people in the book, people can, first of all, have a better understanding of what happened within the borders of our own country not that long ago and, secondly, see the connection between their own family’s journey and the journey of people they might not have thought they had anything they had in common with. Because of the human story.

Q: What made your writing about the 1993 Midwestern floods, for which you won a Pulitzer, so powerful and such a human story?

A: I found that disasters can actually bring out the best in humanity. The only beautiful thing about them is that they can strip away the barriers and turn to people that they otherwise would never have spoken to. People are forced to make alliances with people they never would have thought they would need. It’s the great equalizer because it forces people to find alternative ways to resolution. It’s a spiritual challenge to rise to your higher self. And that’s what I saw in the reporting that I did. It distills life into very small things, so that people have to decide what’s very important in life. It’s a humbling thing to realize that we don’t have control.

Q: Did you encounter people who didn’t show that humility? What do you do when someone doesn’t want to talk to you?

A: When you’re a journalist covering that type of disaster, there are usually so many people who want to talk to you that you are actually forced to figure out how it whittles down. They all want help. They all want to show you pictures. They all want to know if you have access to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). As a journalist in the field, your task is to figure out how best to tell the story and not become the social worker that people might want you to be. Because you’re not trained to be that. Generally speaking, because everyone is reduced to the same level, there will always be people who try to take advantage.

Q: How did you deal with people who had these expectations

A: The power of journalism is to understand one person’s experience and to translate that to a larger audience so that all of us can learn something from it. Those people who share their stories with us are doing a great service for all of us. They’re giving us a window into an experience that we might otherwise not have. I am grateful for them. I don’t try to figure out what their motivations are, because I’m not a psychologist. The goal is to get the story. The goal is not to understand the experience. The goal is to find someone for whom you can tell the story. I have a gratitude for those people, because without them you can’t tell the story.

Q: What is the worst story that you’ve ever written?

A: I can’t even think of that. I don’t even know how you would define that. We don’t read our stories after they’re done. You don’t want to know what an editor might have been done. Maybe something had to be cut at the last minute and you don’t want to know. “Oh no, that was my favorite quote.” You know, I actually don’t go back and read things that I’ve written. So when I think about stories that I’ve done, I think about the lessons that I might have learned that will help me in the future. I think more in terms of how I felt before doing the story and how I think of a story being good and bad in terms of what I might think the possibility was going into it. Ultimately you do what’s necessary, and if it runs, it’s a good story. I don’t believe in such a thing as a bad story. It doesn’t serve any purpose to think of something as a bad story because you have to do it.

Q: What do you have to do when confronted with a person who you have to interview and whom you might disagree with?

A: You don’t have a choice. You’re on deadline, and you have to tell the story. I’ve been in situations like that. I’ve had to interview punitive members of a resurgence of the Klan in the Midwest in the early 90s. You talk with them. There’s no way getting around that you have a story, that the story’s been assigned. You must do the story and you have to come back with the story. There’s no way of coming back without the story. I mean, you get it done and you move on to the next one, however unsavory it may be.

Q: Who was the first person who told you that you have a knack for this? Who is the big—

A: I don’t recall because I have always—

Q: But did your parents ever read your stuff when you were younger? Were they big readers? Did they read everything you wrote?

A: No. My father was a civil engineer, and he read the newspaper all the time. I’d always see him reading The Washington Post. But my parents were not interested in my going into journalism. There were no journalists in my family, no one who has done this before. They would not have known how to advise me nor were they all that excited about my going into journalism. It was just a curiosity that I managed, so it was something that I was compelled to pursue. There was never any question, there was nothing else that had drawn me at all. I never once considered microbiology—

Q: Or consulting.

A: Oddly enough, the only other thing that I might have been in is architecture. I briefly thought of that, and that might have not been a far distance from writing, about the structure that has to go into the work of writing. Writing is not a stream of consciousness, whatever comes to mind and you write it down. There is structure and order required for good writing, as with architecture. So it’s not that far of a leap. My father would have been very happy if I had gone into engineering — but I did not [laughs].

Baobao Zhang transcribed this interview.

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