Plenary Connections – Isabel Wilkerson

November 03, 2016

By Meredith McQuaid

The 2016 presidential election is upon us as I write this. It has been a time of division and rancor in the country; strong words have been uttered and published – the pain from which will take a long time and great effort to heal. But these sentiments are not new, nor are the possible consequences insurmountable. We have stories from men and women of today, and from decades past to remind us that we have been here before – and that we still have a great deal of work to do.

The stories we share can help us learn from each other. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns tells of one the greatest internal migrations in the history of the United States, when some six million individuals of color, over a fifty year period, made their way from the South to places they believed would provide better opportunities. Wilkerson focused on the trajectories of three individuals, in three different decades, to bring that history to light. These are unforgettable stories we would be wise to keep fresh in our minds.

I have always been proud to be a "Northerner," and what that represented in the assumed story we told ourselves about how much wiser and more humane we were than those who lived in and ruled the South. I was more than humbled by Wilkerson’s book – I was ashamed. The conditions in the North and the Midwest were different for black Americans than in the South, but they presented their own challenges, and they were far less transparent. Wilkerson’s book reminded me that we ought not to judge, lest we be judged; that it is our duty to explore those parts of history that have been denied.

Wilkerson is a thoughtful, provocative writer. The Warmth of Other Suns reads often as a novel, with compelling, well-developed characters that draw the reader into their lives. But, it is also evidence of Wilkerson’s journalistic talent – with facts, statistics, and incidents that inspire the reader to understand the impact of the concerted actions of so many.

I hope you will join me at the opening plenary address in Los Angeles at the NAFSA 2017 Annual Conference & Expo to engage with one another about our past – and, our future.


Meredith McQuaid is the associate vice president and dean of international programs for the University of Minnesota.


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