In her illustrious, richly crafted book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly shows the journey that many African-Americans embarked on during the Great Migration. But it’s another Wilkerson work that I return to, over and over, as a guide to inform my own journalistic mission: her Pulitzer Prize-winning profile of Nicholas Whitiker, a fourth-grader from the South Side of Chicago.
Through vivid and robust details, Wilkerson compassionately shows us a Black family, the obstacles they face, and the sacrifices the oldest son makes to help his mother advance. She helps us see the toll too much adult responsibility takes on a young boy and helps us relate to a 10-year-old whose story could easily be overlooked.
Her portrait of Nicholas reminds us of his innocence, his humanity. He’s a child, a young Black boy—a group too often portrayed as the image of gun violence and too rarely highlighted for ambition, sacrifice, and for being the backbone of a family. Wilkerson shows us a boy aggressively trying to tackle poverty, racism, and historic inequities in ways he can’t even articulate.
The reporting and writing are perfection. Wilkerson isn’t heavy-handed, she doesn’t label the family or pass judgment. She simply tells the story through the eyes of Nicholas with authority. She reminds us of this family’s integrity.
I re-read Wilkerson’s profile repeatedly because not only is it a great blueprint, but it reminds me why I do this work: to amplify the voices of the unheard and to help communities better understand each other.