WE have been forced to walk each day with death for the past year—so many lives snatched by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Some people were taken in their prime, just as they were beginning to find their place and their voice; others had reached the age of wisdom but had not fully shared it with their families and the world. Each day, I have reminded myself that I have been lucky; no one personally close to me has died--although several of my friends struggled with the disease; they came out on the other side, but their bodies were ravaged with scars that tell a story deeper than their words can fully convey.
When we remember 2020, it will be as the year of dying. Equally disturbing is the fact that it was also a time when, in many instances, the dead were denied a proper burial. Families were denied the opportunity to offer a proper good-bye, to have the closure, which is extremely important for moving forward.
Then, we saw, in plain sight, the murder of yet another a black man--George Floyd. Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kept his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe, and bystanders asked for mercy pleading for Chauvin to let him up--roll him over and stand him up.
The trauma of 2020 is incalculable.
It pushed into 2021 with the attack on the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists, who believed lies and propaganda advanced by a man who had long been discredited and who seemed to suffer all the failings of a sociopath; five people were killed or died as a result. Former U.S. President Donald J Trump’s tactics, even before losing the 2020 election, where comparable to what was used in Germany under Adolf Hitler to wage war against Jews and to attempt world domination.
Despite, the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, it offered many of us time for personal and familial reflection, time to understand the things most valuable in our lives, in the world. It also provided me an opportunity to return, with greater deliberation and purpose, to the book: a place of facts, ideas, entertainment and pure imagination.
I found pleasure in fiction, like Walter Mosley’s “Blood Grove” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Archer.” I re-read Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing,” simply because it took me into nature where I longed to be, instead confined to an apartment, imprisoned by government restrictions designed to fight an unseen enemy.
Perhaps the book that has had and is having the greatest affect is Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.” I had previously read “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.” I thought it was impossible for her to top that book, which examined the movement of Black people from the south to the north. I was wrong.
Caste is a masterful work of storytelling, political and cultural analysis. It is filled with new reporting and little-known historical facts. Wilkerson’s book is crucial to understanding African Americans’ struggle and place in the he United States of America. She takes readers on a journey through several countries, like India and Germany, to locate the root and foundations of American racism, which is most relevant in this time of the coronavirus, Trumpism, the resurfacing of white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
Race and racism are man-made constructs, used principally for political and economic control. I have argued that not only have Black, brown, and other people of color been victims of it, so have been whites, particularly those who are low income.
Think of the overseer during slavery, who also lived at the mercy of plantation owners. The value of those whites, not part of the ruling class, often was evaluated by their ability to keep the enslaved people in their place. Foolishly, overseers believed themselves better than slaves. What overseers didn’t realize was that they, too, were being kept in their place, in their caste.
While reading Caste, I reached the conclusion that the Republican Party and their members owe a debt of gratitude to Democrats—although it may take years for them to fully appreciate that reality. I should note that I am an independent; I have no political affiliation because I do not believe either party serves citizens as well as it could or should.
In the opening chapters of Caste, Wilkerson presents two powerful stories—one from 1934 around the budding Nazi Party, noting its fixation with American racism and how enslaved Blacks were effectively, and brutally, separated from others, including prohibited from marrying anyone who was not their color or in their caste; the other is her conversation with woman who attended an event where Wilkerson was speaking.
In 1934, the Nazi Party was collecting and shaping itself into a formidable political force in Germany. Several of its key leaders were debating policies around race and purity, which eventually would become the hallmarks of Hitler’s regime.
Wilkerson tells the readers that Hitler had made it to the chancellery through a “brokered deal that conservative elites agreed to only because they were convinced they could hold him in check.” They were wrong. Interestingly, at the height of its popularity, at the “polls, the Nazis never pulled in the majority they coveted and drew only 38 percent of the vote in the country’s last free and fair election.”
By the time elites realized the monster they had unleashed, it was too late. “Hitler had risen as an outside agitator, a cult figure enamored of pageantry and rallies with parades of people carrying torches…
“Hitler saw himself as the voice of the Volk, of their grievances and fears, especially those in rural districts, as a god-chosen savior, running on instinct. He had never held elected office before.”
Who does that remind you of? The relevancy of Wilkerson’s Caste to our current moment is indisputable.
The other story may be even more enlightening: While at the British Library in London where she had gone to present a lecture, she had an exchange with a Nigerian-born playwright, who told Wilkerson that “there are no black people in Africa.
“Africans are not black,” the playwright said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black…They don’t become black until they go to America or come to the U.K.”
Wilkerson was affected by that conversation, as was I. She noted in her book that it wasn’t until the “making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red or brown… It was in the process of ranking that we were all cast into assigned roles to meet the needs of the larger production.
“None of us are ourselves,” she said.
The question I have asked myself, during this time of deep reflection, this time when there has been a racial awakening of sorts in America, how do we move forward. What should be our first step?
How do we come to understand ourselves, outside of the labels and systems others created to keep us in our place, to ensure we remain segregated, not just physically but also in our own minds?