For the first time since arriving at Bennett College, I was in the throes of a panic attack.

I couldn’t turn down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I had been researching and studying her writings in courses for two years.  So, I inhaled, exhaled – and then inhaled and exhaled a few more times before beginning to write an introduction for a woman whose words rejuvenated my passion for journalism when I was sure that I had lost my fervor.

An hour-and-a-half later, Isabel Wilkerson was standing and applauding.  She was pleased with the introduction!  “I have heard tons of introductions,” she said.  “But that introduction was the most accurate and inspiring of them all.” I am still beaming with pride.

Bennett College was the first of several HBCUs featured on Wilkerson’s college book tour.  Along with her campus book signing, she was the featured speaker for the annual Fall Honors Convocation on October 20, 2011.  In her 30 minute speech, she emphasized the importance of knowing our histories.

“The Great Migration 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,” she told us.

Wilkerson’s latest masterpiece, “The Warmth of Other Suns” details three people in different decades who are participating in the Great Migration.  According to the NPR website, the Great Migration brought more than 6 million African Americans from the south to northern and western cities from 1915 through 1970.  Due to Jim Crow Laws, African Americans were facing continuous prejudice which forced them to leave in search of better opportunities and fairer treatment.

“There were colored and white waiting rooms everywhere, from doctors’ offices to the bus stations,” Wilkerson said in her speech. “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.”

After fifteen years of research and 1200 interviews, Wilkerson, who is also a product of the Great Migration, captures the essence of this movement in her narrative. “The Warmth of Other Suns” has won several awards since its’ release including the 2010 National Books Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the 2011 Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, and the Independent Literary Award for Nonfiction.

  At the conclusion of her speech, students stood and applauded the renowned journalist. Senior Jasmine Lewis, Journalism and Media Studies  major at Bennett, was deeply moved by her chance to interact with Wilkerson.

“I couldn’t believe she was actually standing there talking to me,” she says.  “To us, she is considered the Holy Grail.”

In journalism, Isabel Wilkerson writes herself into history – literally. She is the first African-American to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of a nine-year-old child living on Chicago’s south side and the 1993 mid-western floods. Currently, she is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction in the College of Communications at Boston University.

Even after her speech, an intimate dinner, and the chance to speak to one-on-one with such an acclaimed journalist, the best part of Isabel Wilkerson’s visit to Bennett was receiving a free autographed copy of “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Evette Dionne
HBCU Buzz Staff Writer