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“CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontent," by Isabel Wilkerson.(Random House, New York, 2020)


Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste The Origins of Our Discontents, published last year, was received with great acclaim. A review in the New York Times described it as "an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Publishers Weekly called Caste a “powerful and extraordinarily timely social history.” The Chicago Tribune wrote that the book was "among the year’s best" books. The book peaked at number one on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. On October 14, 2020, Netflix announced Ava DuVernay will write, direct, and produce a feature film adaptation of this remarkable book.

This book is the culmination of her long career as an award-winning journalist and author. Beginning as editor-in-chief of the newspaper at Howard University, Wilkerson won a George S. Polk Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1994. She has lectured on narrative nonfiction at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and has taught as a Professor of Journalism at Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, and Boston University. In 1994 she won the Pulitzer prize as the Chicago Bureau Chief of the New York Times.

Taking leave from the newspaper she spent 15 years researching and writing her acclaimed and bestselling book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” interviewing more than 1200 people in the process. Published in 2010, it tells the story of about the six million Black people who moved from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970 exploring this massive movement by focusing on the journeys of three people: a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife, a Florida citrus picker, and a Louisiana surgeon. But it was in her research that Wilkerson arrived at the topic of her next book, Caste: the idea that traditional conceptions of race and racism are inadequate in describing the circumstances facing Black Americans. In writing The Warmth of Other Suns, she chose to avoid the word racism entirely; it does not appear at all in the book.

Wilkerson is essentially a private person and virtually vanished from publishing for another 10 years while she researched and wrote Caste, telling few people about her project.

Wilkerson's central thesis is that Caste, while a global occurrence, achieves its most violent manifestation in the treatment of American Blacks, set at the lowest level in society through historical and contemporary oppression, marginalization, and violence — all legally maintained through systems of law and order. "The English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology," Wilkerson writes, quoting the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley. Tracking the inception of the country’s race-based “ranking of human value” to the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, Wilkerson draws on the works of historians and sociologists, tracing the racial divisions, and finds startling parallels to the caste systems.

With this system as a paradigm, the author offers a new framework with which to understand identity and injustice in America. As she peels back the dark layers of history and sets them in a much broader world context, she compares the situation of African-Americans to that of untouchables in India and Jews in Nazi Germany, which both jolts the intellect and challenges the senses. She achieves a remarkable refocusing on race — a kind of anthropological clarity using personal and shared anecdotes, historical stories, and pointed metaphors that make the book in spite of its dark subject, extremely readable. Putting stories behind the statistics, she brings injustices to life, providing the reader with a sense, of how this plays out in the lives of millions of people every day. Through sharing her personal experiences, Wilkerson adds to and broadens the scope of black experience in contemporary America, contrasting this with what it means to be white. But as she shines a light on the history of racism in the USA, we are also reminded of its appalling violence. She does not shy away from the brutality that goes hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. Her descriptions of lynchings are particularly shocking.

Her comparisons are profound and often revelatory, but what makes this book so memorable is Wilkerson’s extraordinary narrative gift. Highly readable, Caste is filled with a multitude of stories, many of which are tragically familiar, such as those of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. She lets history speak for itself, turning the events of the past into necessary fuel for our current national dialogue.

The one area of research that I surprisingly found to be absent other than in a few scant references, was the failure to speak about Africa itself and especially South Africa. However, in a book of 475 pages that is already heavily documented, I admit that such an important and extensive topic might need a second volume in which to complete the study.

It is an engrossing, enlightening, and fascinating book, that in spite of its academic underpinnings and debatable premise, is very readable and offers a new approach to both old and current social challenges.

Michael Barrington is a local writer and the author of “The Bishop Wears No Drawers” (2016) and “Let the Peacock Sing,” (2020).

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