Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Happy summer, as happy as it can be, I suppose. I wanted to drop by to rave a little about Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, Caste, publishing soon and definitely one for you to pick up. Here’s my full review from the Sunday Boston Globe and an excerpt:

“With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “America is an old house.” It is a simple analogy that is classic Wilkerson, whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” chronicled the Great Migration through the masterful weaving of thousands of narratives within the United States. In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s.

A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, “Caste” removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson explains, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry.” Using examples from around the world, she goes on to demonstrate how the codification of caste throughout the world has hardened economic and political inequality into seemingly permanent markers of difference.

Meditations on Staying Safe in the Bronx

Probably like everyone else, I have my decent days under self-isolation and I have my difficult ones. Increasingly, they are complex, especially as the parental holidays approach…but every day now has some kind of asterisk, doesn’t it? Here’s my latest on Medium, (here’s a friend link!) which, like everything I seem to write, is about the Bronx but also about trying to navigate grief and humanity and showing up for ourselves in the midst of all of it.

Before the pandemic, my hometown had been changing dramatically, while also remaining very much anchored in what it has always been. The Bronx is always treated like a predominately Latinx and Black outpost of New York City. But it is actually the city, too. At last Census count, there were roughly 1.4 million people here.

Like Queens, the Bronx has been highlighted as an epicenter within an epicenter of the coronavirus because of the high rates of infection and death among people of color here. The deaths of people of color from coronavirus have been at rates 50 percent and higher here in the Bronx compared to Manhattan, with some of the wealthiest zip codes in the city.

Many stories have documented the health disparities that have been laid bare — showing that many black people at higher risk of being infected because of long-standing problems accessing affordable health care, distrust of healthcare providers and our likelihood of being among the ranks of essential workers.

I share in the collective anticipatory grief — grieving those you know will die — that now hangs over the city. It also feels hauntingly familiar. My father died by suicide a decade ago this month. As shocked and confused and angry as I was then, as long as it has taken for me to try to peel apart all of the emotions that still feel fresh in that grief, I know that to lose him now, when the way that we mourn is even shifting, would come with an additional stain and stigma.

I felt the most anticipatory grief for my mother, who died almost two years after my father in 2012. I watched her skin shrivel around her eyes and cheeks as Stage IV cervical cancer ate away at the fleshy, coy expressions she always made that taught me the finer ways to flirt, to help joy shine from one’s face.

In those months and days before she died, I felt a lot like I do now: I kept a daily vigil at the edge of the world I used to know with her at the center, whether I wanted her there or not. Mourning itself felt like a virus I needed to save others from.

A Black History Month Reading List, Part 2

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So you may have already seen my other list of recommendations, but if not, here’s Part I. Part 2 is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, because there are many lists of books about Black history and culture that you can check out for even more recommendations, including the Zora Canon of 100 best books here, this Penguin Random House list of 25 contemporary fiction and nonfiction  or this Electric Literature list of 10 books about Black Appalachia and then there’s Goodreads and Twitter and a dozen other places.

I realized when I was thinking about some of my favorite works of history or of historical significance about Blackness that they were across genres.

For instance, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange was actually the second or third book of hers I read. Before that, I was in love with Liliane, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, her poetry collection, The Love Space Demands. But what I loved most about for colored girls — which was recently a sold out production in all of its glory at The Public Theater — was that it showed Black women in our multicultural context. As being in relationship to Latinx, Caribbean and African spiritualities, dreams and aspirations. It showed our love and joy and pain as being Diasporic like a lot of Ms. Shange’s work.

In this way she was definitely a part of the literary tradition of recovering the wholeness of Black womanhood in the way that Zora Neale Hurston did in Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of my favorite novels of all time.

Much has been said about the beauty and timelessness of Their Eyes Were Watching God; to understand more about the life of Zora, however, an essential text is Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows. It is a classic example of the ways Black women’s lives are cherished in unique ways when we have Black women biographers to attend to the beautiful and brutal details of our lives.

Speaking of the unique beauty of having a Black woman author reflecting the details of Black women writers, bell hooks’ work has been foundational in helping me decode and externalize internalized biases that get in the way of my work. This includes everything from Sisters of the Yam, Writing About Race (a book in which I was surprised to find myself cited!!) to one of her most important books to me, Remembered Rapture: The  Writer at Work. I often talk about this book because it was the first time I read a respected black woman author say that no Black woman could write too much; that we are always writing against time because of the illnesses that take us out, because our ancestors were silenced and we don’t have to be and much more.

I have not mentioned one of the most important writers in my development and understanding of the myriad possibilities for Black writers and intellectuals on a global scale yet, James Baldwin, in part because the book by which I was introduced to him is no longer in print. I had the great fortune to pick up a thick book, The Price of the Ticket, a collection of Baldwin’s essays in the early 1990s. Published in 1985, it represents some of his most powerful writing from 1948 to 1985. I read it in seventh grade and kept the book with me, somehow, across a lot of moves to a lot of different places. It reads to me like sacred text, and its beautiful cadences and nuances, the confidence and fear, the anger and disappointment, all elegant and alive, helped me really see America for the country that it is instead of the country I believe most of us want it to be.

A Black History Month Reading List, Part 1

Some of you have been kind enough to follow my musings about individual books on my new YouTube channel, Black Book Stacks. This is a natural endeavor for me, to find, devour and support books by and about Black people, who I define as people from throughout the African Diaspora. This is an evolving definition, I guess; I was reading David Yoon’s Frankly In Love, which is an addictive YA book that delves into interracial dating and intraracial friendship, including with his Black friend Q. Frankly In Love is a good, recent example of the kind of book that blends a lot of different kinds of diversity and that was part of what thrilled me about it.

I forget who I was talking to who said this, but it stuck with me: Black people in this country do not have the luxury of having as long a literary tradition as any other group in America because of the legacy of slavery. Because of being forbidden to read or write. To me, that makes it that much more important to lift up books that recover and restore us to ourselves; that expand what we know of ourselves and our lineage, real and imagined. Anyway, here is the beginning of a list of some essentials of Black history, to me, anyway, that can be a good resource and are some of my favorite books that filled in important gaps for me along my reading journey:

  1. (New) Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby | I have the great fortune of having both a copy of the original Daughters of Africa, and the newest addition, which just expands the important, vast collection of significant work to include 200 writers. A classic.
  2. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde | “Poetry is Not A Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” and many other seminal works by Audre Lorde were first written or delivered as lectures in the 1970s. Like the Combahee River Collective as a whole, she was integral to giving us language to describe and express the interlocking oppressions we know now as an intersectionality framework.
  3. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keanga Yamahtta-Taylor | I was not familiar with Dr. Yamahtta-Taylor’s work until I taught it at the New School, and hearing first hand from the likes of Barbara Smith, Barbara Ransby and Alicia Garza helped contextualize not only a lot of what we’re seeing now in terms of how Black women are dismissed or lifted up, depending on the community, but also how much has happened behind the scenes along the way.
  4. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire | No disrespect to Rosa Parks, but I did not know the name of Claudette Colvin until I read McGuire’s book, of my own volition, long after undergrad, where I had Africana Studies as a minor and learned a good deal, just not enough.
  5. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson | It’s hard to believe that 2020 is the 10th anniversary of this book’s publication (!) but what an incredible work of scholarship, recovery and re-membering from Wilkerson, who, if memory serves, interviewed thousands for this book, including a young pre-presidential hopeful named Barack Obama. No list of important Black historical texts is complete without this one.

Words of Fire is another underrated anthology of Black Feminist thought; Black Skin, White Masks has always haunted me, and Sisters of the Yam, by bell hooks, was the beginning of my understanding of wellness and self-care.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on these books if you’ve read them, or what books you consider essential to learning about Black history are.

Cut Me Loose | Oxford American Winter 2019

So on Mother’s Day, I wandered around Orangeburg to make peace with the parts of Marguerite I didn’t quite know but which still clung to me like smoke. Early in the morning, I parked my rental across the street from the Edisto Memorial Gardens, home to fifty-four varieties of roses. Babbling in the background was the longest blackwater river in North America, an oil-colored waterway connected to the Combahee River—the same water Harriet Tubman used to lead one hundred fifty Union soldiers to various rice plantations on June 2, 1863, to free seven hundred fifty slaves. One thing I knew for sure: my mother loved water and she loved roses.

Only two or three people were around, so I had the place to myself. Downhill, past incredible, tall trees, I went to the water, looking north and south. I walked west, toward the rows and rows of peach- and wine-colored roses, speckled, small, wide, glorious, with names like Glowing Peace and Coretta Scott King and Perfume Delight. Did you ever visit this place? Now, or then? 

Fondling the delicate velvet of a full-bodied rose, I thought of everything a rose would have meant to my mother. How I took for granted a ten-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers when I wanted to attend to my heart, but how such a simple gesture would have been too much for her to even dream about. Even though no one was around me, I didn’t want to disturb the silence, and also, the unchaining. Something rusty and dark in me moved aside, a stone rolling away from a tomb. This was not the raucous, grandstanding, trumpet-blaring Free At Last freedom I’d always said I wanted, but something more profound. A healing. What sounded like my mother’s voice in my ear. I can’t believe you made it. 

I looked up to stop the tears and spotted a Confederate flag flapping with nonchalance above the trees.

Only after my trip would I realize that, geographically, Orangeburg is a kind of nadir as defined by Imani Perry: “the lowest point in an orbit. It is the location directly below the gaze.” Look for it on a map: in comparison with its northern and eastern neighbors, Charleston and Columbia, Orangeburg is down and out of the way, overlooked. 

The rest of my essay in the Winter 2019 issue of Oxford American’s South Carolina issue is here.

The Nuances of Harriet

This was one of Harriet Tubman’s common refrains:

“If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”

We all need to hear that message all the time, regardless of who delivers it. I wrote about my thoughts on the movie, Harriet, on Medium. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve seen it.

A Letter to my Nieces & Nephews on Ella Baker’s Birthday

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Photo Credit:  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My loves,

One of the greatest Black women poets of our time, Lucille Clifton, is not frequently taught in schools — or at least not taught enough. Her poem, song at midnight, contains a line you may have seen on the internet, in part. We like to circulate it among ourselves as a clarion call, a prayer, a balm & mantra, especially the last lines, but here is the second part of it, from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser:

born into babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

The epigraph to this poem is from a Sonia Sanchez poem: “…do not send me out among strangers.”

Black women’s lives, for so long, were shaped around survival, and it had always been so, it’s true. In The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, in the introduction, though, I was reminded of something else.

“It is amazing,” she writes, “that the former Africans could ever smile and laugh, let alone make up riddles and songs and jokes and tell tales. As slaves, they were forced to live without citizenship, without rights, as property – like horses and cows – belonging to someone else. But no amount of hard labor and suffering could suppress their powers of imagination.”

 

Continue reading “A Letter to my Nieces & Nephews on Ella Baker’s Birthday”