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'Ah-Choo!' Takes On Mysteries Of The Common Cold
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One experience that most of us share and dread is the scratchy sore throat that
signals the arrival of a cold. Our guest, science writer Jennifer Ackerman,
says colds send us to the doctor's office 100 million times a year, and we
still haven't figured them out.
In her new book, she explains the latest science about the common cold and
looks at what tests show about the effectiveness of various cold remedies.
Prepare for disappointment on that subject.
Jennifer Ackerman is the author of two previous books and has written for
National Geographic, the New York Times, Scientific American and other
publications. Her new book is called "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common
Cold." She spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Jennifer Ackerman, welcome to FRESH AIR. As it happens, I am in the third
day of a cold myself, just fortuitously. But I noticed that some colds are
longer and nastier than others, and I learned from your book they really aren't
one disease, are they?
Ms. JENNIFER ACKERMAN (Author, "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common
Cold"): No. There are close to 200 viruses, probably more, that cause the
The most common is the rhinovirus. And here we are in September, when there's
actually a peak of colds from the rhinovirus. That peak begins about 17 days
after school starts, when kids are swapping germs in the classroom and then
bringing them home to the family and from there to the workplace.
DAVIES: All right, so let's talk about the experience of getting a cold. Why
does the misery start in our throats?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, this is where the receptors are that the viruses like to
latch onto to do their dirty work. And so, this is - that sort of scratchy-
throat feeling that you get when you're coming down with a cold. That's the
genesis, is these viruses latching on to your cells and your throat.
And then what happens is the body responds to the presence of the virus by
generating inflammatory agents that inflame the body cells and tissues, giving
us that runny nose and the cough.
This is a really interesting point, actually, because it's a relatively new
insight in the world of cold science. People thought that the miseries of the
cold were really the upshot of the destructive effect of the virus itself on
This is true of flu viruses. The flu bugs destroy the cells of our lower
respiratory tract. But it turns out that the common cold viruses don't really
do any direct damage to ourselves, that cold symptoms result from the body's
response to the intruders.
DAVIES: So it's the immune system kicking into gear that makes us
Ms. ACKERMAN: That's right. The body makes this whole slew of inflammatory
agents and our cells and tissues get all upset and give us these, the runny
nose and sneezing and all the symptoms of a cold.
DAVIES: Now, I thought we would talk about how we get colds or avoid getting
them. And you have a lovely description in your book of a time when you were in
a checkout counter at a grocery store and noticed that you were in the line of
a checker who appeared to be suffering from a cold. If you could just read that
little section for us.
Ms. ACKERMAN: I'd love to.
(Reading) It was a few days before Christmas, and I was in a hurry. I
considered swooping my piles back into the cart and hightailing it to the next
line over, but it was too late: She was ringing up my milk and cheese.
She looked miserable and sniffed noisily every 10 seconds or so as she plowed
slowly through my pile of organic onions, potatoes and peppers. Still, her
affliction seemed harmless enough until, with just a few items left in my
order, she suddenly wrinkled her nose, caught her breath, turned slightly and
sneezed ferociously, sending a spray of fine droplets partly into her sleeve
but mostly onto my heaping grocery bag.
Then she paused to tear off a piece of paper towel and blew her nose into it
with such audible force that I feared for the integrity of her sinuses.
To her credit, she did take a second to spritz with hand sanitizer before
reaching for my head of broccoli. However, a minute later, she wiped her nose
with the back of her hand, then picked up my eco-friendly bag and handed it
over the counter to me, tucking into it, I feared, a bonus load of
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: That's our guest, Jennifer Ackerman, reading from her book: "Ah-Choo!
The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold."
Well, I have to ask you: Did you get sick from that little encounter?
Ms. ACKERMAN: No, I didn't. I actually ran right home and washed my hands, and
no, I didn't get sick from that encounter.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about how we get colds and don't get them. I guess you
certainly want to be around not â you want to avoid being around people who are
sneezing or coughing, right?
Ms. ACKERMAN: That's right. Some cold viruses are carried in airborne droplets
from coughs and sneezes, but the most common cause of the common cold, the
rhinovirus, it's most commonly spread by direct contact with objects that are -
or hands contaminated by the nasal secretions, you know, from someone who's
So the virus is transmitted when you touch your hand to a contaminated object
like a bus rail or a politician's hand and then you touch your own hand to your
nose or eyes. This is the way the virus travels most frequently.
DAVIES: So, compulsively washing your hands is a good idea year-round?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes. Now, I don't advocate, you know, being Lady Macbeth about
this. I really adhere to what one of the scientists I spoke with called prudent
paranoia, which is, you know, you pay attention. You know, if you shake hands
with somebody who's obviously ill and, you know, you do want to wash your
hands, just as I did with the cashier at the grocery store.
The other great technique is not touching your face. And this is actually, you
know, easier said than done. Just try not touching your face for a day. I mean,
try being conscious of it. Most of us touch our faces about one to three times
every five minutes. So that's, like, you know, 200 to 600 times a day.
We also pick our noses about five times an hour, and these are...
DAVIES: Oh, seriously, really?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ACKERMAN: Studies suggest this. These are really hard habits to beat. So
when people ask me, you know, what do I do to avoid the cold this season? I say
start practicing now not touching your nose or face or your eyes.
DAVIES: All right. Now, you wrote about a study that looked at places that
might carry germs and the extent to which you'd find them there. Doctor's
office, lot of germs. Daycare, lot of germs. What about elevators?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, well, you know, we all touch elevator buttons. There are, I
would say, cold hot spots that are commonly touched by people. In the office,
it's often the, you know, the Xerox machine or the refrigerator handle in the
kitchen, the microwave handle in the kitchen.
Yes, these are places where you just don't know who's been there before you.
And they are a vehicle for transmission.
DAVIES: Okay, airplanes, hotels, beware, as well, right?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, indeed. The studies of what people leave behind in hotels,
apart from their spare change and bobby pins and that sort of thing, was really
disheartening. The scientists discovered that cold viruses are often, you know,
left on TV remotes, pencils, door handles, places that are frequently not
really cleaned by the cleaning crew.
So, you know, you enter a hotel room, and somebody who has been there, you
know, a few hours or even 24 hours before may very well have had a cold and
left you a little welcoming gift.
DAVIES: All right. Let's talk about ways that we can try and avoid them. You
know, one thing people always debate is whether you can catch a cold from
standing out in the rain or being in cold weather.
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, that is absolutely a myth. Colds are caused not by cold but
by viruses. And so, exposure to cold really has nothing to do with catching
cold, nor does your susceptibility increase if you're cold. Really, solid
scientific studies on this are pretty solid that there's no greater risk. So,
you know, going outside and catching a chill is really not going to increase
your chances of catching cold.
DAVIES: And the reason we see them more in certain seasons than others is
because kids get to school and spread them, and then I guess...
Ms. ACKERMAN: That's right.
DAVIES: Right, and the viruses do like some kinds of weather more than others,
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes. The reason that cold viruses are more common in fall and
winter is because the colder, wetter weather drives us indoors where the
viruses leap much more readily from nose to nose.
DAVIES: Are you more likely to get a cold if you're exhausted, sleep-deprived?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes. Now, there are two different things here. Fatigue, just
being worn down, doesn't necessarily increase your susceptibility. Two things,
Sleep deprivation, if you get less than seven hours of sleep, that increases
your risk of getting a cold. Very interesting study recently that found that
people who sleep less than seven hours a night are really much more likely to
get colds than longer sleepers.
The other risk factor is chronic stress. When we are under continuous stress,
we are more susceptible to getting a cold.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jennifer Ackerman. Her new book about the common
cold is called "Ah-Choo!" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with science writer Jennifer
Ackerman. She's written a new book called "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your
So let's talk about remedies and cures. Vitamin C, for years and years, people
have sworn by it, both to ward off colds and to fight its symptoms when
infected. Anything to it?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, unfortunately, you know, Vitamin C has been the subject of
study for years and years and years. And the bottom line is that when it comes
to preventing the common cold in the general population, Vitamin C gets a grade
of about D.
If it's taken on a regular basis, it really doesn't help to prevent colds in
the general population. If you take daily Vitamin C, it may reduce the severity
of symptoms but only very slightly. It has this ability to dry nasal secretions
a little bit. So there is some positive effect when you have a cold. It can
actually shorten the duration of a cold just a tiny fraction.
There is some preventive benefit for people who are engaged in endurance
exercise or people who are exposed to extreme cold. The studies suggest that
for these people, these sort of - in these extreme environments or doing this
extreme exercise, a daily dose of about 200 milligrams actually reduces the
incidence of colds by half.
DAVIES: So if you're a marathon runner or work on an ice-breaker, maybe, huh?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes.
DAVIES: Another remedy that's arisen in recent years and until I read your book
was one of my favorites was zinc lozenges. They say take them quickly, and
it'll knock the symptoms down. Anything to it?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, I share your disappointment. Zinc lozenges were favorites
in my family for years and years. When my, you know, kids were little and they
had a scratchy throat, I'd, you know, give them a lemon-flavored zinc lozenge
to suck. And I was just sure I was doing the right thing as a mom.
But it turns out that studies suggest that the mineral is touted as this way of
reducing the severity of symptoms and shortening a cold, but as it happens, the
only really consistent effect reported by the high-quality studies is this very
bitter, medicinal aftertaste in the mouth.
And moreover, with zinc, we have to be a little bit concerned about the zinc
nasal sprays and gels, which have been shown to cause permanent damage to the
sense of smell in some people.
DAVIES: All right, now another product that was hot for a while was a tablet
that you dissolve in water called Airborne, right? What do the tests show about
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yeah, Airborne is the number one natural cold remedy. I think it
has sales of something like $150 million a year. And, you know, it was billed
as this homey product invented by a schoolteacher, this, you know, fizzy
concoction of vitamins, minerals and herbs. And the ads claimed that, you know,
all you had to do was take it before you entered a germy environment, and you'd
instantly be protected. And if you were already down with a cold, the ads said,
you know, it was clinically proven to nip colds in the bud.
Well, baloney on both counts. It does no such thing. The watchdog groups who
look at these products and test them have really called it just an overpriced
vitamin pill that's been really cleverly but deceptively marketed.
If there's any effect of Airborne, it's due to really high dose of Vitamin C,
which weâve discussed, you know, has some effects of drying secretions and
shortening colds slightly. But it's far, far cheaper to just buy the vitamin
than to buy this, you know, overpriced, multivitamin product.
DAVIES: Okay, what about Echinacea? People talk about that as being helpful.
Ms. ACKERMAN: Yeah, Echinacea has also been widely used and, you know, I
certainly gave it to my kids, too. And I think it's, in terms of popularity for
cold sufferers, it's still the sort of king of herbal remedies.
But there's pretty solid evidence that it doesn't work. It won't protect you
from catching a cold and it does very little to relieve symptoms once you have
one. And another point to make here, a lot of these Echinacea compounds
actually contain very little of the herb at all.
So if you've had success with Echinacea, and you believe in your, its ability
to heal you, whether it's from the placebo effect or actually from the herb,
just beware of the product that you're buying and make sure that it actually
contains the herb.
DAVIES: Is there anything out there that really helps to either avoid colds or
reduce their severity or duration? Chicken soup?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, chicken soup is interesting. You know, it's been touted as
a cold remedy by grandmothers, including my own, for, I don't know, the past
thousand years or so. And as it turns out, you know, there may be some
medicinal value to chicken soup but not in the way you might think.
There was a lung specialist from the University of Nebraska whose wife made
this wonderful chicken soup with vegetables for her big family every time they
got a cold. And he thought, well, I'm going to put the broth to the test and
see whether it actually has any biological effect.
And he did find that in the Petri dish that the chicken soup had some anti-
inflammatory action. So again, we know the cold symptoms are caused by
inflammation. And the chicken soup seemed to, in a Petri dish anyway, have some
Now, it's never been tested in humans this way. In theory, it may actually ease
symptoms. But I actually think that it's the warm broth and the love that goes
into making it that makes it healing.
You know, there are some studies that suggest that empathy can actually cut
short a cold by a full day. So if you think that somebody is really empathizing
with your misery and makes you this wonderful pot of chicken soup, you know,
that's better than any drug on the market, and there aren't any side effects.
DAVIES: All right, so if we can't cure the colds, and we can't avoid them,
maybe we can treat the symptoms. Let's talk about what you do when you have
this affliction. First of all, there are a lot of multi-symptom cold medicines.
Are they a good idea?
Generally, experts say no. Multi-symptom cold medications include a mix of
ingredients, some of which may be useful and some not, depending on what your
most severe symptoms are.
And also, they often contain a pretty substantial dose of pain reliever, you
know, for instance, acetaminophen. And if you take that multi-symptom cold
medication not sort of understanding that it has this big dose of
acetaminophen, which is, you know, the active agreement in Tylenol and other
products, and you take a Tylenol or some other acetaminophen-containing pill,
you can actually risk overdose, and that can put your liver in trouble.
DAVIES: So you can treat individual symptoms. And you hear sometimes people
say, well, you know, the symptoms are there for a reason. That's your body
fighting the infection. And if you treat the symptoms, you might actually be
prolonging the duration of the cold. Is that true?
Ms. ACKERMAN: Not from what I understand from the experts. The advice that I
heed is advocated by Jack Gwaltney, who studied the common cold for 40 years,
and he's arguably one of the world's foremost experts.
And what he recommends is taking two single-ingredient drugs every 12 hours.
And you start at the earliest sign of a cold, that sort of scratchy throat, and
you continue until your symptoms are clear.
And the two drugs that he suggests taking are, first, a non-steroidal anti-
inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or naproxen, something like that. Then that
helps to ease your, that sense of malaise and cough and sore throat.
And he also suggests taking an antihistamine. And the one that he suggests is
the older, they're called first-generation antihistamines, the kind that make
you drowsy like Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton. These are the sedating types of
antihistamines. And those will help relieve runny nose and sneezing.
It's important to note that the newer antihistamines, such as Claritin, which
are really designed for allergies, do not have this beneficial effect on the
But taking those two drugs, the anti-inflammatory drug, you know, most of us
know them as pain relievers, and these older antihistamines, it will ease your
symptoms. And also, it limits the buildup of nasal fluid, which can actually
lead to secondary infections. If you have too much nasal fluid, sinusitis is a
very common complication.
I also use a saltwater gargle to relieve sore throat and those nice lemon-mint
throat lozenges, which I actually think help relieve cough. These things all -
they make you feel better while you're getting better. They don't actually
shorten the duration of your cold. They're not curing you. They're just making
you feel better while your body gets you better.
DAVIES: Well, Jennifer Ackerman, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. ACKERMAN: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
GROSS: Jennifer Ackerman spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new
book is called "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold." You can read
an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
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Great Migration: The African-American Exodus North
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
In the decades between Reconstruction and the enforcement of civil rights laws,
nearly every black family in the American South had a decision to make, writes
my guest, Isabel Wilkerson. The decision was to stay in the Southâs segregated
caste system or make the pilgrimage north or west, in the hope of escaping
racism and having more access to jobs, housing and other opportunities. From
1915 to 1975, nearly six million African-Americans left the South, during what
has become known as the Great Migration.
In the new book, âThe Warmth of Other Suns,â Wilkerson follows the stories of
three people who made the journey and describes the larger historical event
they were part of and how it transformed America.
Wilkerson is a former New York Times bureau chief and in 1994 became the first
African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. She considers herself a child
of the Great Migration. Her parents journeyed from Georgia and Southern
Virginia to Washington, D.C.
Isabel Wilkerson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to tell the story of
the Great Migration?
Ms. ISABEL WILKERSON (Author, "The Warmth of Other Suns"): I wanted to tell the
story because I felt it was this huge gap in American history, that it had such
an effect on almost every aspect of our lives, from the music that we listen to
the politics of our country, to the ways the cities even look and feel even
today. The suburbanization and the ghettos that existed that were created as a
result of the limits of where they could live in the North, and also the
effects on the South, because the South was forced to change in part, because
they were losing such a large part of their workforce through the Great
Migration. So I felt that it had so many effects on our country and yet it was
a forgotten chapter of history. And I wanted to elevate it in some ways to its
rightful place in history.
GROSS: So, to tell the story you focus on three people. But you spoke to over a
thousand people, right? Do I have that right?
Ms. WILKERSON: Yes, thatâs correct.
GROSS: So what are some of the places you went to to find older African-
Americans who had left the South for the North during the period of the Great
Ms. WILKERSON: Well, I went to every place that I could think of that senior
citizens who were still healthy might be. And that I meant I went to senior
centers. I went to senior day picnics. I went to various clubs that actually
existed and still exist in many of these northern cities that were built or
created by the people. Once they got to these big cities they actually
clustered together and created clubs from back home representing their home
towns, Lake Charles Louisiana Club in Los Angeles, the Greenwood Mississippi
Club in Chicago, there are churches in New York where almost everyone is from
South Carolina. So I went everywhere that I could think of that I could find
people who had left - seniors in these cities that I focused on.
GROSS: And when you found people and you talked to them did they usually think
of themselves as part of this great movement, the Great Migration?
Ms. WILKERSON: Not at all. Not at all. I would go to them and I would make an
announcement at these senior centers that I would go to, and I would say to
them that if you migrated from this particular state during this particular
time period then you were part of the Great Migration. And they would say
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILKERSON: Sometimes they would even say well, I migrated from Texas to Los
Angeles in 1947. Would that mean I was part of it? And that meant that they
were right smack in the middle of it. But they didnât see themselves as that
partly because these decisions were individual personal decisions. And in some
ways, to me, thatâs one of the inspiring and powerful things about the Great
Migration itself: it had no leader. There was no one person who set the date
and said on this day or on this particular day every year people will leave the
South. They left on their own, of their own accord for reasons that - there are
as many reasons as there are people who left. And they made a choice that they
were not going to live under the system under which â into which they were born
anymore. And in some ways, it was the first step that the nation's servant
class ever took without asking.
GROSS: Letâs talk a little bit about the conditions in South during the period
of the Great Migration before the Civil Rights Act. Let talk about some of the
conditions that African-Americans faced, some of the laws that they felt they
needed to get away from. Can you talk about some of the Jim Crow laws? I mean
we know about, you know, segregation in buses and restaurants. What are some of
the other things that were going on that made life so difficult?
Ms. WILKERSON: Anything that could be conceived of that would separate black
people from white people was devised and codified by someone in some state in
the South. There were colored and white waiting rooms everywhere, from doctorâs
offices to the bus stations, as people may already know. But there were
actually colored windows at the post office in, for example, Pensacola,
Florida. And there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. And
there were separate windows where white people and black people would go to get
their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi. And there were even separate
tellers to make your deposits at the First National Bank in Atlanta.
It was illegal for black people and white people to play checkers together in
Birmingham. And there were even black and white Bibles to swear to tell the
truth on in many parts of the South. And thereâs a great story of one case in
North Carolina where the judge actually stopped the court proceedings because
they couldnât find the right Bible for the black person who had just taken the
GROSS: So even though conditions were pretty unlivable for African-Americans in
the South in public life, when African-Americans started migrating north, the
South was losing a lot of cheap labor and they didnât want to lose cheap labor,
so suddenly there were new laws to try to prevent African-Americans from
leaving. What were some of those laws and some of the things that weren't laws
but that happened anyways to try to prevent black people from moving from the
South to the North?
Ms. WILKERSON: Well, one of the things that they did was that they reenacted
many of the codes that had been used to keep slaves from leaving during the
time of slavery. So they reenacted some of those laws. They also created new
laws to prevent Northerners from coming south and recruiting black labor to go
north. And they exacted these exorbitant fines and license fees that would've
made it all but impossible for anyone to afford to come in and recruit blacks
In one case, Macon, Georgia, for example, created a law in which anyone who
wanted to recruit black labor had to pay a $25,000 licensing fee, and this
would've been during World War I. It would have been exorbitant now. It
would've been astronomical at that time. And for anyone caught breaking that
law, they would have to pay an additional fine and face one yearâs hard labor.
So there were many, many ways that they worked really hard to prevent this
labor from leaving.
Beyond the actual laws that prevented people from recruiting blacks from
leaving the South, they also took to reinstating the peonage laws, in which
they could essentially arrest anyone if they were caught trying to buy a train
ticket, if they were caught waiting on the platform, and they even boarded
trains and would arrest people if they were caught trying to leave. Sometimes
in some places they would actually stop the train â keep the train from
stopping at a particular station because they saw that there were so many black
people there waiting to board and so therefore those people wouldnât get to
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Isabel Wilkerson. Sheâs a
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who used to be the Chicago bureau chief for
The New York Times. Her new book is called âThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic
Story of America's Great Migration.â
Isabel, letâs take a short break here and then weâll talk some more about the
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her new
book is called âThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great
In your book, you follow the lives of three different people who emigrated from
the South to the North during the Great Migration. And they had reasons why
they left. And two of them in particular had like precipitating events that
made them think we got to get out now. So, would tell us the story of why Ida
Mae Gladney and her husband realized itâs time to get out?
Ms. WILKERSON: Yes. Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropperâs wife in the hill
country of Mississippi, who was terrible at picking cotton and was not much
help in the field. And she and her husband left Mississippi for Milwaukee and
then for Chicago after a cousin was beaten nearly to death for a theft he had
He was accused of having stolen turkeys which belonged to the planter for whom
they all worked as sharecroppers. And they had suspected him of stealing these
turkeys - such a small thing it seemed - and they actually, in the course of
searching for him, came to Ida Maeâs house at a time when her husband was not
home and they frightened her greatly. She had to stand up to them, didnât know
what was really going on or what they were looking for and they did not really
tell her what it was they were seeking. They said it really was none of her
concern. But who they were looking for was her husband's cousin, who had been
accused of stealing these turkeys.
And when they finally found him, these men, the posse, they beat him within an
inch of his life and then he was just taken to jail. And it was there that Ida
Maeâs husband had to go and retrieve his cousin. And when he returned from
having cleaned the wounds of his cousin, he came back and he told his wife,
this is the last crop we're making. And then they set out to prepare to leave
without telling anyone.
GROSS: Now, another person who you write about - and this was in 1937.
Ms. WILKERSON: Correct.
GROSS: Another person you write about is George Starling, who worked as a
citrus picker in Florida, and he left in 1945 for New York.
Ms. WILKERSON: Correct.
GROSS: What was the precipitating event behind him leaving?
Ms. WILKERSON: He had been a college student and so he had some education and
only returned to picking fruit because the money had run out for college. But
because he'd had some education, he was quite aware of how the workers were
being cheated and how the unfair working conditions under which they had to
toil. And so he began to try to organize the people for better pay.
They were being paid 12 cents for a box of oranges or grapefruit and they had
to put themselves at great peril in order just to pick them because they had to
sometimes splice ladders together in order to get into 30-foot-high trees. And
sometimes people would fall and they would break a limb. It was extremely
dangerous and very poorly paying job for these people.
So he began to argue for better wages. And in doing so, he got on the bad side
of the growers, of the grove owners who were not accustomed to people â black
people, the workers, the pickers, questioning anything. And so, this was a
really treacherous period of time to be standing up to the grove owners, and he
did that. And as a result, there was a lynching planned for him. And a friend
who overheard a conversation about this, warned him and he left town and headed
to New York.
GROSS: And the third person you write about, Dr. Robert Foster, left Monroe,
Louisiana, in 1953. Why did he leave?
Ms. WILKERSON: He left because he was a surgeon. He had worked â served his
country in the Army. He was a captain and had performed surgery in Austria
during the Korean War. But when he returned home, he found that he could not
perform surgery or even work in the hospital in his home town of Monroe,
Louisiana. And so he set out from Louisiana to California in order to make a
way for himself and for his family in a new land.
GROSS: When millions of African-Americans started moving from the South to the
North, a lot of white people in the North were not happy about that and a lot
of African-Americans in the North weren't happy about that either. Why were
some African-Americans not happy about this migration?
Ms. WILKERSON: Thatâs a great question. One reason that they were not happy -
it was because, of course, they were a tiny minority. At the beginning of the
20th century, before the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans
were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of
them were living outside of the South in the great cities of the North and
West. And so when this migration began, you had a really small number of people
who were living in the North and they were surviving as porters or as
domestics, as preachers, some had risen to positions of professional jobs, but
they were in some ways protected because they were so small, they did not pose
any kind of threat. There was a kind of alchemy - a perfect alchemy or
acceptance of that small minority of people in these cities.
And so, when you had this great wave and flood of people coming in from the
South, many of them untutored and unaware of the ways of the big cities, it was
in some ways threatening to those who were already there because they feared
for the positions that they had worked so hard to achieve and that were tenuous
at best in these big cities. So that's why there was a great deal of
resistance. In fact, maybe the greatest resistance came from those who were
most affected by their arrival.
GROSS: Now did the three people who you focus on in your book face resistance
from whites or African-Americans when they moved to the North or the West?
Ms. WILKERSON: They faced resistance from all of those segments. I think of
Robert Foster first because he had a really difficult time establishing a
practice there or finding work even though he was a physician. He actually went
door to door to many of the black physicians in Los Angeles upon arrival and
met with no success. It was - he had a very difficult go of it trying to make
his way there. He met with much rejection from physicians who did not know him,
did not want to give him referrals, did not really trust or have any interest
in anyone who had just arrived from the South. There were so many stereotypes
and assumptions made about them and he had a really difficult go of it.
GROSS: Anyone else have a lot of resistance that they faced?
Ms. WILKERSON: Ida Mae Gladney had a difficult time just finding work. I think
her - she and her family - she and her husband actually, had probably the
hardest time getting situated and finding work because they had the least
skills of the three people that I've written about. They were both of the land
and her husband, for example, first found work hauling ice up the, you know,
three and four flights of stairs in the cold water flats on the South Side of
Chicago. That was one of his first jobs before he finally found work on the
soup line at Campbell Soup Company, and new - at the time was a new complex, it
was state of the art and he found, you know, factory work there.
But she had an incredibly difficult time. It was actually more difficult for
black women to find work than it was for black men because they could find
work. Strong backs were valued in every place from the slaughterhouses to the
foundries of steel mills. And so there was more work to be had for the men. It
was more difficult for the women.
One of the things that I discovered was that there actually was such
desperation on the part of black women to find work that there were what they
called slave markets that would be set up in all of these cities where the
black women would just show up and hoped to be picked by a white housewife who
might need a little help in her home. And they would just - they would come
very early in the morning and they would sit on crates waiting to be chosen,
hoping to be picked, which also meant that that kept the wages down. They were
so desperate that they might take almost anything just to be able to get a
little money for the day. So these were day laborers, day workers.
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her new
book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great
Migration." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
If youâre just joining us, my guest is Isabel Wilkerson, and her new book is
called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."
There's just one more story I want you to tell about the people who you
interviewed. And this is a story about the doctor who - one of the people in
your book, Robert Foster. And he went back down south to Louisiana where he was
from, the place that he left because of segregation. He went back there to bury
his father. And you describe how he ate at a formerly white diner that he
couldnât have got into when he lived there. And he goes into the diner and it's
so ordinary. It's such an underwhelming experience after all those years of
being denied entrance and dreaming of being inside. And you say how could it be
that people were fighting to the death over something that was so very
ordinary. What did you think about when you were writing that part?
Ms. WILKERSON: As I was writing about it, I was thinking about the mundane
nature of all the laws that were created. The smallest thing that could be
conceived of someone thought about it and wrote about it and said we cannot
have this happen. Something as small as black people and white people could not
walk up the same staircase at a workplace in South Carolina, for example.
I was thinking about the great degree to which people were protecting something
that really in some ways had so little value on some level, it was so mundane.
And I also thought about my mother. I mean my mother migrated from Georgia -
Rome, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., where she then met my father, who was a
Tuskegee Airman who was from Southern Virginia. They migrated to Washington and
I wouldnât even exist if it were not for that migration. And I brought her back
to Georgia, both my parents, actually.
And one day I decided I was going to treat her by taking her to the Fox Theater
where we would go and see a play. She'd never been able to go into the Fox
Theater in the front door when she was growing up. They'd have to go through
the side steps. And so we went through the front door and the Fox Theater is
beautiful. But she'd been to many, many other theaters in the time since she
had left. And she said to me, this is really nice but is this what they were
keeping us from? And it occurred to me that what was being protected was not so
much a thing but the caste system and the superiority - the superior place that
was so necessary in order to maintain the labor force as they needed it to be.
And so it was quite sad to me. And I think actually for Dr. Foster, it was a
kind of cleansing moment because he didnât return after that as far as I know.
And I think he had made peace with it, had made peace with the fact that he had
not really been kept from that much after all, that it was all a creation, a
false system which had been created to keep people separate but was really not
worth all that after all.
GROSS: Now, youâve lived in Washington where you grew up. Youâve lived in
Chicago where you were The New York Times bureau chief. Youâre in Atlanta now.
You moved there in 2001, while you were writing your book on the Great
Migration. Why did you move to the South?
Ms. WILKERSON: Well, I moved for circumstances that had nothing to do with the
book. Life circumstances brought me here. And yet, I needed to be here in ways
I had not intended. I'm actually grateful that circumstances led me here
because I needed to be in the South in order to see exactly what they had left.
The reporting that I did for the book, the early part of the reporting, meant
that I was spending most of my time in the North talking to people who had
left, many of them having an exile perspective in which they had this love-hate
relationship with the place that they had left. They could only see in some
ways, the negative things that they'd experienced and they had lost touch in
some ways, some of them, not all of them. Ida Mae Gladney always seemed to have
a very balanced view of both North and South. But I'd gotten this exile's
mentality and I needed to understand what it was like where they left.
And so coming to Atlanta allowed me to be able to see the enormity of their
loss. The fact that they had to leave a beautiful, beautiful land with trees
and with flowers that bloom. They're actually roses - I thought they were roses
when I first got here, they were blooming in January. I asked what they were
and I was told that they were camellias. The beautiful scents of daphnes that
bloom in the winter. It's a magical place that they left. And on top of that,
they were also leaving family members that they might never be able to just sit
and, you know, have a coffee with or sit and chat with in the same way ever
again, so they were losing a lot.
And by being here and actually reconnecting in some ways with my own Southern
past - I've been described as a Southerner once removed, there are all
different descriptions I guess for people like me - I had a better sense of
what it meant for these people to leave in this Great Migration and then it
formed my writing in so many ways.
GROSS: Well, Iâd like to end by asking you to read the epigraph that opens your
book. Itâs a passage from Richard Wright, and it's the passage that gives your
book its title, "The Warmth of Other Suns." Can you just tell us why you chose
Ms. WILKERSON: I chose this passage because it speaks to the immigrant heart
and the yearning of anyone who has a dream and is figuring out a way to try to
fulfill that dream. And I think it applies to anyone who has ever left one
place that they - where they're from for another place not knowing what kind of
future they might be embarking upon and so it reads...
I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part
of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the
warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom.
GROSS: Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the new book "The Warmth of Other
Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.
I'm Terry Gross.
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