Isabel Wilkerson spent most of her journalism career at The New York Times where, as Chicago bureau chief, she won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the midwestern floods of 1993, and for her profile of Nicholas Whitiker, a plucky ten-year-old boy from the rough-and-tumble South Side of Chicago. She’s the author of the best-selling The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), for which she interviewed more than 1,200 people to tell the epic story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North and West. It won a slew of awards, including the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction, the 2011 Hillman Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-fiction, and the Lukas Prize for History, and was cited as one of the best books of the year by some twenty-five publications, including the Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Wilkerson is director of the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University. Known for her literary style, the soft-spoken Wilkerson becomes animated when talking about reporting. “The methodology is an extension of who I am,” she says, likening that methodology to a mix of ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and journalism. Pamela Newkirk interviewed Wilkerson in New York City in April 2011.
What Would I Do?
I tend to be quiet, introverted, the one sitting on the sidelines watching. It gives you a chance to analyze from afar. At a certain point in my life I wanted to be a playwright or an architect. An architect thinks about structure; assesses the contours of the land, the pilings. A playwright thinks how this is going to look, sound, and feel on stage. My father was a civil engineer. It’s how I think. I’m taking in the scene. Most of my work is with regular people. I’m extremely happy talking to regular people. The intimacy that I describe requires time and a kind of feeling that the two of you are in a bubble, a rare moment to share something important in this person’s life that’s going out to a larger world. When we are reporting, the definition of news when it comes to an individual is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance or an extraordinary person in an ordinary circumstance.
I’m entering people’s lives so I have to give thought to how to enter their world with gratitude for what they’re giving, and also a sense of humility because they don’t have to talk and it’s often difficult to talk about and recognize the dignity of who they happen to be. I feel it’s my duty then when I’m talking to people who are not famous, not celebrities, to recognize the responsibility that comes with that, and the privilege that is being afforded me about their willingness to open their hearts and souls to me for the greater good.
That does not mean that you don’t present the fullness of their life stories, the triumphs and the trials. They’re not portrayed as perfect. That’s what allows people to see themselves in the people that I talk to. And they feel a connection. This is the kind of reporting I consider my calling: anthropology, ethnography, and a search for human understanding.
The joy is being able to see another person’s experience from their perspective—being able to truly understand what it’s like to be another person. Making these discoveries is like experiencing what feels like anthropology and archeology of the heart and spirit. Most of my work involves crisis or disaster, whether it’s the flood or hurricane or the migration of millions of people: an individual at the juncture of some challenge that often they did not seek. I’m the person who comes in to convey that to a larger audience. The joy is to find that individual who will represent something larger than themselves and be open to sharing their experience with the world. It’s hard work.
You Can’t Recreate the Field