It’s likely that few Americans living today have been properly educated about African-American history.
One of us remembers a college political science lecture on the Civil War in which the professor claimed, “The Civil War was not about slavery. It was about economics.” He didn’t follow that up with the appropriate caveat, which would have been something like, “Those economics were based on the enslavement of millions of Africans brought to this country against their wills.”
During Black History Month, we who would be well-informed – whatever our skin color – might choose to read one of the numerous bestselling books of late that address the Black American experience.
A number of these books are intended to help people recognize their internalized racism and attempt to overcome it, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and Robin Diangelos’ White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents takes a different approach, one that is especially appropriate to Black History Month. The American Prospect called the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s second book “the missing puzzle piece of our country’s history.”
Researched in meticulous detail, the readable narrative weaves together American slavery, the Nazi regime and the Indian caste system into a single fabric, so that the domination of groups of people in very different circumstances is laid bare for what it is. A master of metaphor, Wilkerson describes caste as “the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”
More directly, she notes that caste is “the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.”
Wilkerson then proceeds to explain caste in light of eight “pillars” that function to support it.
This structure, this careful dissection of the problem, is necessary, but it is Wilkerson’s storytelling about the violence committed against Black people, during slavery (1619-1865) and since, that is most shocking.
We all know about lynchings, for example, but few of us have likely read the stories of specific people not just denied due process but tortured and killed in front of cheering white crowds, their deaths documented in postcard photographs of the events. (A book of these gruesome postcard images documents the horror: Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen.)
Wilkerson recounts these stories factually, not gratuitously. Some of the events happened long ago, but many are more recent, like that of a 15-year-old Black boy named Willie James of Live Oak, Fla. Willie naively wrote a Christmas card to a white girl he wished could be his sweetheart; white men hog-tied and dumped him into a river to drown in front of his father, who was held at gunpoint – in 1943.
Wilkerson also records the systemic racism that has supported the caste system in the United States and reminds of us the many recent acts of violence that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.
She calls for “a public accounting of what caste has cost us, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so that every American can know the full history of our country, wrenching thought it may be.”
Having read Caste, it would be difficult for most reasonable people to disagree; such a commission is likely a necessary component to any collective recovery from our past.
Reading Caste can be a first, if painful, step in learning the history we were never taught.