By Rodeena Stephens
Formerly a Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner?and now a Boston University professor?Isabel Wilkerson is traveling the country to promote her award-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She recently took time to talk with me about her career and our issue’s theme, multicultural communications.
Did she think, I asked, that multicultural issues impact reporting today? “The language is not what I personally use,” she replied. “As I approach a story, I’m looking for an individual and how to translate the story of the individual’s experience in a way that others will understand. We tend to focus on the diversity, the [differences between] cultures, instead of focusing on what makes us the same.”
The Warmth of Other Suns is Wilkerson’s first book. She devoted 15 years to research that included interviews with more than 1,200 people. With the book, she wanted to showcase the experiences and humanity of African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North?and what they went through to get here. “My parents’ own migration north was actually the inspiration for this book,” she said. “The Great Migration made it possible for people to do what they needed to do and required a huge leap of faith to partake in.” She pointed out that African-Americans have been in this country since 1619, yet many were forced to leave one region of the country to be recognized as citizens of their own land.
Wilkerson spent most of her career at The New York Times, as a national correspondent and then a bureau chief. “The New York Times is such an inspiring place to work, because of the high standards and the history it represents,” said Wilkerson. “When you write for it, you are writing to perhaps the most influential audience in the world.”
In 1994, as the Times’ Chicago Bureau Chief, Wilkerson became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. It was her coverage of the historic floods in the Midwest and her profile of a 10-year-old boy growing up with a man’s obligations on the South Side of Chicago that earned her the award. Wilkerson was also the first African-American to win for Individual Reporting. “I was, of course, thrilled to have won the Pulitzer Prize. It was such a wonderful validation of the work I had done.” Wilkerson is currently a professor of journalism and the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University. “I began teaching when I was working on the book and needed to be in an academic environment to complete the research.
It opened up a new world to me, and I have enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and environment of a university.” When I asked Wilkerson if she had ever considered other career options, she gave a resounding no. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I never labored over it or wondered if I should major in microbiology. This is the only kind of work I’ve ever done or tried to do.”
This article was first published in the Summer 2011 issue of NYWICI’s print newsletter CONNECT.