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Wilkerson to discuss ‘Racial Moment of Truth’ in CCSS lecture

Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55, might never have become a celebrated writer had her parents not migrated from Alabama and Georgia to Ohio, journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson noted in a 2017 TED talk about the Great Migration.

Their moves north enabled the future winner of the Nobel Prize in literature to visit libraries, something she would have been forbidden to do had she grown up in the Jim Crow South.

“By making the single decision to leave, her parents assured that their daughter would get access to books,” Wilkerson said. “And if you’re going to become a Nobel Laureate, it helps to get a book now and then.”

At 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21, Wilkerson will deliver the Cornell Center for Social Sciences (CCSS) annual Distinguished Lecture in the Social Sciences, titled “Our Racial Moment of Truth.” Registration is required for the virtual event that is free and open to Cornell and the greater Ithaca community, presented in partnership with the Migrations Global Grand Challenge and cosponsored by the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.

Wilkerson will address the persistent national challenge of racial injustice and what we can learn from history while working to resolve it, at a time when high-profile killings of unarmed Black Americans have raised questions about how far the nation has come since Jim Crow, according to the CCSS.

“We are honored and thrilled that Isabel Wilkerson will give our Distinguished Lecture in the Social Sciences,” said Peter Enns, associate professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences and CCSS co-director along with Sahara Byrne, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Wilkerson is a leading voice helping us to better understand and improve ourselves and this country,” Enns said.

A native of Washington, D.C., whose parents migrated from the deep South, Wilkerson won the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others, for her 2010 debut book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Migration.”

Her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” is an Oprah’s Book Club selection and was dubbed “an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far” by the New York Times.

In her 2017 TEDWomen talk, Wilkerson described the migration of 6 million Black Americans to cities in the North and West between World War I and the 1970s as a response to a caste system maintained by violence. It was the first time American citizens had to flee the land they were born in to be recognized as citizens, she said.

“This great migration was not a move; it was actually a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country,” Wilkerson said. “They were defecting a caste system known as Jim Crow. It was an artificial hierarchy in which everything that you could and could not do was based on what you looked like.”

Through the Great Migration, she said, members of the nation’s lowest caste, despite meeting enormous resistance in the North, became the advance guard of the civil rights movement. They ultimately achieved what Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation could not, said Wilkerson: “They freed themselves.”

Wilkerson in 1994 became the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, winning for feature writing as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. In 2015 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal “for championing the stories of an unsung history.”

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Gillian Smith