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.


My Poets & Writers Cover on Natasha Trethewey



I’m so excited about this cover story I wrote about Natasha Trethewey for the July/August 2020 issue of Poets & Writers, which is only available in print but you can order your copy here (better yet subscribe!)

I feel like I have been wanting to post about it since I got the assignment months ago, so now I’m bursting with joy and excitement. I wanted to just share some more about the wonder of Black creatives, the lessons we have across timelines & movements.

I thought when I read Memorial Drive that what magnetized me to Natasha Trethewey’s work was our common mother loss, but no, it was so much deeper than that. I loved and still do her resilience, her strength, her vulnerability and her focused ability to transmute pain into real, lasting beauty and triumph.

In our interview, I was honored that she trusted me so much to hold space for so much of her journey. She talked about going up to read her work and people introducing the life-shaping story of her mother’s death “with the word murder hanging in the air,” so her memoir was an opportunity to re-contextualize the life of her mother, the social worker and self-advocate who did not live because we have no way of really protecting victims of intimate partner violence and what a failure that is.

There’s so much more and I hope you will read the print issue. Here is more, another part that stays with me: “They have a saying in South Korea that you don’t bury a mother in the ground; you bury her in the chest, or you carry her corpse on your back…As much as I carry her corpse around, I have also planted my living mother in my chest, and she grows there continuously. I have both, two mothers.” May that offer some kind of comfort and/or recognition to all of us as we mourn not just our mothers, but Black daughters like Breonna Taylor & the many others whose names we can’t forget to keep saying.

How We Show Up: A Q&A with Mia Birdsong

My friend and radical visionary Mia Birdsong has written the new necessary and inspiring new book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community (Hachette Go, June 2, 2020) I contacted Mia about her book a few weeks ago, hoping to share her words in a broader forum. My humble blog is as broad a forum as I have, so I hope you find her words about alternative forms of care, especially community care, as  therapeutic as I did. I was struck by examples of how Mia, who is partnered and has children, shows up for her single friends like Mariah, which is what frames the first question.

I love the attentiveness and care you mention in the book related to Mariah and her managing diabetes as a single person. The model of attending to her needs outside of coupledom feels like one we need to adopt, especially now. What did you learn about attending to your friend in this way that might be helpful for others as we try to connect virtually now?

Being in Mariah’s life in this way meant that both of us had to push back against some deep American socialization. For me, it was claiming the truth that my loved ones are my business. That means I can butt in if I see a need, gap, place that needs tending to. I was definitely worried about being intrusive, sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong, overstepping, but I also knew that if I pissed her off with unwelcome meddling, we could talk about it. I also thought about how hard it is for people to ask for help, especially when, in this case, the support I was thinking of wasn’t about addressing an immediate need or a crisis, but establishing a long-term, committed kind of support. Ultimately I decided that all the worse-case scenarios of me not butting in were worse than the possibility of pissing her off.

On her end, she had to wrestle with the way we, especially as Black women, are taught to handle shit ourselves, to be super women, and, frankly, to not be dependent on anyone because they might fail you. When you’ve lived your whole life being extraordinarily competent, independent, and excelling at everything you do the way Mariah has—all while managing a condition that could totally kill you and the racism and sexism of America—it’s super hard to allow yourself to lean on someone in such an intimate way.

It’s not like she couldn’t survive without me or the other folks who have become part of her care circle—she has been for her whole life– but she shouldn’t have to. I think that is a critical realization that a lot of us need to come to terms with—just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Our practice opened a new way for us to think about care and she’s built more around that that I’m learning from. Having a handful of people instead of one is really powerful. One night when her blood sugar not adjusting, two of us were in touch with her and then in touch with each other. We get to build relationships with each other too.

Now that Covid Times are here, she has actively reached out to the circle of folks that she’s gathered up around her to talk about how to get food, to vent about people not physically distancing properly, to share the latest info, to freak out, to laugh. It’s been a gift to all of us.

Having this practice with Mariah meant that when Covid Times hit us, I was more comfortable with the idea of inserting myself into the lives of my people who live alone, especially if they are high risk. I have a handful of folks that I check in on a few times a week, I bring them food or whatever. And I check in with our friends in common about them to see if I’m missing anything and to encourage others to insert themselves as well. I have a friend with whom I talk about what he wants to happen if he dies, what of his stuff he wants various people to have, where his documents are, etc. That’s a totally new conversation for us.

I guess all of that is to say, I think we need to be brave right now about thoughtfully pushing ourselves into the lives of our loved ones and asking for our loved ones to tend to our wellbeing in ways that might be uncomfortable. We ought not assume that our folks who have lots of friends, or our folks who present as strong and having all their shit together, or our folks who seem ok on their own don’t need our presence and support.

It feels more evident to more people that our racialized capitalistic society and healthcare system has failed us and COVID-19 response (or in some cases, lack thereof) underscores this. What practices, processes or alternative frameworks inspired by and/or explored in How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community do you think can help us to respond to this disappointment and collective trauma — individually and collectively? 

I’ve been so heartened by the way folks have shown up for each other as soon as it became clear that we are all we have when our systems (which function as they were designed) are failing to care for us in the ways they should. And I worry about our ability to sustain our mutual aid networks and also hold our government accountable for not doing the work we are now doing. Right now we are trying to fill in for failed systems and we can’t just be cool with that.

One of the things government can’t and shouldn’t do that I see folks doing for each other is creating space to process, to grieve, to connect, and to celebrate. My women’s circles—Tough & Jolly and Black Women’s Freedom Circle—are meeting twice as often now to hold space for ourselves. Having those opportunities to be in our feelings and hear from each other has been life giving. My friend Mac started what is essentially Sunday church. We check in, and every week a different person leads us in song or reflection or meditation.

The other thing I’m loving is the dance parties. I interviewed my therapist a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to understand trauma more. It was clear to me that everyone of us is experiencing trauma. It may hit differently, but it’s universal. She explained fear cycles and what happens when they get interrupted and where people are getting stuck. She also talked about how we can hack our system to make sure we reset it regularly. One of the things she’s recommending to her clients is that they dance every evening. Celebration lets our system know that we are OK—if we’re dancing, we aren’t in immediate danger. So all those DJs on Instagram are helping us reset our system so we release some of the trauma.

How do you imagine reclamation of our communities, family and friendship in the after times – what some call the new normal – will shift in light of the global pandemic, if at all?

This is such a hard question. I’ve been sitting with the fact that while the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, the arc of the material universe doesn’t care about whose fault it is that we have a global pandemic or that our systems were designed to disadvantage Black and Indigenous people, people with disabilities, queer folks, unhoused people, etc. The virus is not out here trying to eliminate the polluters and oppressors. It is going to kill the people with the least power, the weaker immune systems, the least money and access to health care.

So I’m horrified by the thought of what that means for who is getting care now, who will get access to a vaccine when we finally have one and who will be left in a few years when this comes to some kind of conclusion. It feels inadequate to say “we’ve got us,” or “build community” when the forces in power conspire to exploit this moment for profit and continue to leverage their power for their own gain.

This is all on top of the fact that even after they “open up the country,” we are still not going to be able to hug each other, to hold hands, to share meals in each other’s homes, to gather to worship, celebrate, plan, protest, and just be together for a painfully long time. It’s demoralizing and heartbreaking. And at the same time, it’s still absolutely true that we’ve got us. We are already figuring out how to be with each other, support each other, celebrate with each other, feed and nurture each other. And I imagine we will figure out ways to be together that are safe and support our emotional wellbeing—like maybe we’ll have to plan dates, dinner parties, and small gatherings far enough in advance that everyone can quarantine for a few weeks before getting together. (That is not a recommendation.) Maybe we will have to really do the work of dealing with our own wounds and damage and building grown-ass relationships with excellent boundaries and explicit communication and expressed desires and needs so we can cultivate the kind of trust that would be necessary to gather like that.

Get your copy of How We Show Up here. You can book Mia Birdsong to speak by way of my amazing friends at FRESH Speakers

A Black Girl Joy Poem: Rhythm

As published in Kweli Journal’s Black Girlhood Issue – My gratitude to Laura & crew for selecting it.

Sunup to sundown, a hundred shades of Black girl beauty. Caramel & pecan-colored, rays springing from our lips, mouths full as golden balloons, sweet as Jolly Ranchers. Sugar bubble gum breath, tongues grape purple, hair deep brown or bright pink or braided royal blue, slicked with shea butter & coconut oil, edges smooth & dry elbows oiled like our thirsty shins.

We stay ready – we don’t need to get ready.

We spring after winter, a breeze of competition. Eyes prying youth open to look inside at our becoming, hips spreading womanhood wide east & west.

Bass flying through rattling windows, energy lodged in earth thrumming, shoulders curved in, protecting our hearts & the fly chains at our necks from the chill as our bodies learn to be the sounds of the city.

Our souls sway to drums that never stop pulsing.

Our feet never stop moving.

If we can’t move, we don’t exist.

We are some bodies, so: we rock, we roll, we slay with Janet Jackson levels of control.

Spring, a short bridge to summer, means time to show these people we mean business.

We pound out hood morse code on cafeteria tables, rocking steady, swaying up against the wall with our loves, legs scissored, hair turning back from the humidity we make as we become songs.

We grown in every moment we steal, singing to our own soundtrack.

Tamika & Amecca & Ayana & Monique make another party with us, names like songs, like prayers rising from the Atlantic floor so we would always be music.

A drumbeat, a declaration, a love song.

A step, a cheer, a chant with our mouths, the beat vibrating from hands on flesh.

We make celebration between the long hours of what else is there? Passing notes or sending texts or watching the timelines & scrolling & scrolling. Sweat reminds us we are alive & we are here & we are planted.

The rest is here.


Lessons from Self-Isolation in 2012

One of the abiding lessons from my newsroom days as a reporter was to follow trends. I’ve been surprised that sometimes these trends emerge still in conversations, even during times like these. In recent days, new friends that I’ve made as part of my extended work family have invited me to be in conversation with their students. My friend Jen who is a poet and English professor, read my memoir during the early part of our self-isolation and quarantine. She emailed to say that it was helpful to read in these times, and that she was curious about what I learned when I spent all that time inside years ago.

I tucked it away — I feel reluctant and hesitant about going back to that time, emotionally, even though it was so many years ago, now. I feel more tender and vulnerable now, even though I am stronger than I was then in many ways.

But then yesterday, I was in my friend Vani’s class talking about the memoir, to emerging Bronx writers and students. And one of them wrote in the Zoom chat, “FWIW, I think there is a seed of writing there where  you talk about self-isolating now that all of us are inside all the time.”

So, while I like the rule of threes and I probably abide by it too much, it felt important to share what I think I know about self-isolation from that period from roughly 2011 through 2013 when I stayed mostly in my Austin home with my dog, Cleo. I published it on Medium since I have a broader following there, and this is a friend link for those you who are not Members so you don’t have to worry about any kind of paywall or anything.

The very first thing I learned was that there was something that could always keep me connected to myself if I let it: Writing. I blogged almost everyday. I gave myself the goal of self-publishing my first book, an eBook, based on that blog. It was, surprisingly, not a novel I had always dreamed of writing, but an extension of my journalistic work, which felt less daunting and more fun: The world had said that single Black women were the reason for the fall of the Black family, but I knew differently, so I wrote it out.

I had always known how to be apart from others. I told myself I knew how to do it best because on a very basic level, poverty is the experience of never going out; always finding a way to believe in survival, even if everything you need is outside and requires things you do not have.

But I was wounded and broken. Outside felt like the last thing I needed. I just wanted to be left alone.

I slept at all hours or not at all. I ate as much as I wanted, which turned out to be not that much. I was living off of my savings in a house that I could only barely afford. I had a master’s degree I wasn’t sure I could use, but I still had to pay for. I just needed to rest but I rarely got comfortable enough to do so.

It was time of deep learning, mostly accidental.

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.

Book Review| Memorial Drive : A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive

I barreled unexpectedly through Natasha Trethewey’s beautiful and painful memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. I was compelled to finish it quickly the way we are taught to rip Band-Aids off our wounds to ensure that we won’t prolong a stinging sensation, so that we can get on with the healing part and rush through the grief. I explain a little more, too, in my video review on YouTube.

It is not so easy to recover from wounds that involve our mothers, particularly when they do not survive the failings of the world — the world that’s supposed to protect them.

Memorial Drive is the story of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn, through the past and present lens of her daughter’s keen, writerly eye. No detail is spared, which includes transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Gwendolyn and Trethewey’s former stepfather Joel, a haggard, menacing Vietnam War veteran who continually threatens the uneasy peace that opens the book and remains a question mark throughout its pages.

Poets are gifts to us in times of happiness and relative ease but particularly in times of despair, I think, because they can distill what we would normally couch in euphemism down to its essence. In short, they remind us that events are not only what happened but our histories are our active destinies. We can shape them as we wish, but the facts — comforting or not — well, those remain. For women and Black women most of all, there is a way that this power of witness can override the willingness and tendency of others to forget us.

The ache in my heart spread and flourished every time I read a new detail of Joel’s torment of Trethewey, his disregard for her mother or her brother. His manipulation was a knife, twisting and turning with every page; at one point, he breaks the lock to Trethewey’s new gold-edged diary and the violation the poet felt then and perhaps every moment after she had “found her audience,” was so visceral I had to stop reading.

Part of my reaction to the book, of course, is remembering my own mother’s experiences with abuse; the cavalier way in which she would recount having her nose broken by an ex-husband, the way we fled similar boyfriends and sought shelter in homes for what were then called domestic violence shelters. When I posted a review on Instagram, someone mentioned, too, that one of the other aspects of the global pandemic in this moment has to do with a common feature of disasters, which is a rise in intimate partner violence.

The neglect to which my mother succumbed was very different and, besides, you can’t compare one mother’s death to another’s. But what feels the most true here is that I understood that no one was listening to my mother, even when she documented her experience, even when I was a witness. From this, I learned that women were not considered the authorities of their experiences; that even if they were hunted and pursued until they were broken, they would likely not be deemed worthy of protection under the law.

This is a belief I would rather be convinced is untrue. It’s not really in my nature to give into despair. And yet, here is what happens in Memorial Drive, here is what takes the poet three decades to begin to approach & even now, with great suffering and agony: After many attempts to document the abuse and violence and to escape it, Gwendolyn was murdered by her estranged husband in June 1985. Like so many people who have experienced intimate partner violence, she could have been saved — there were so many people warned, so many signs, documented evidence of his threats to her life — and yet, she wasn’t.

This is devastating on so many levels, but especially in Memorial Drive because Trethewey composes the poetry of her extraordinary experience with clarity, grace and generosity while also compiling detail by way of utilizing the economy of every word to perfect effect. As a result, Memorial Drive reads like a classic memoir of grief, like a tragedy in slow motion, the narrative arc, already known, lingers over the text like a set of strings.

Reading in the Time of Pandemics

If we have anything in common (and maybe we do, since you’re here), it’s difficult to pull yourself away from the surreal every day world into a book at this moment. This morning, news about some of the major independent booksellers that I love laying off hundreds of workers makes me feel small and powerless. There are still things in our control: Our attention, for starters. And, if we have enough to give, our support of authors and others whose book tours and gigs and opportunities have been gutted, canceled and rearranged due to our new world disorder and chaos.

We can also:

  • Read All The Things: I pulled Aja Monet’s My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter & Tanisha Ford’s Dressed in Dreams off a dusty bookshelf to get started after I finish a few of these books, mainly by people of color, about pandemics & surviving them for HuffPost. I am greatly enjoying Sharks In The Time of Saviors. I just finished the very readable & inspirational More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth. What are you reading?
  • Pre-order: When I was still moving freely about in the world, last weekend, one of the first things I did was pre-order Elizabeth Acevedo’s two new projects: Write Yourself A Lantern & Clap When You Land. Because I could and I wanted to and she is one of the writers I adore. (It’s such an unusual thing for me to do from my phone that Apple called me to alert me to fradulent activity!! So much shade.) It also feels nice to believe in the future ahead of us and beyond the pandemic. We will flatten the curve and life will not be the same, but we can hope that all of us will still be here with good books.
  • Stop Reading & Go Outside: This is also book related. It is safe for you to take your book to a park or walk it around the block with you, for now, I guess. But also good for your brain and your retention of story for you to step away from the screens as much as possible and ground yourself.

You have other tips? Let me know in the comments. And be well. Thanks for stopping by.




Book Review: When You Were Everything

Book Cover for When You Were Everything, a novel by Ashley Woodfolk

I have been desperate for stories and narratives that have nothing to do with pandemics, so that’s part of the reason it took me less than a week to tear through this sophomore effort by Ashley Woodfolk. The other part is that it is really, really good and it’s a topic that is almost never raised in literature, which is sad — the topic of friendship break ups.

The story at the center of When You Were Everything is essentially this: Cleo and Layla have been friends for a long time. Layla has a speech impediment (she stutters) and Cleo is, for the duration of their friendship, generally encouraging and supportive of Layla being brave enough to tackle things like school musicals and other environments where she knows her friend can shine, impediment be damned. But then, things start to shift. Layla needs Cleo a little less when she encounters the Chorus Girls, a group of musical nerds at their high school. The adults start acting weird too, and suddenly, Cleo’s parents are separating and her father, a librarian, transfers to a different school. There’s a hot guy named Dominic Grey — yes, even his name is hot — who mostly distracts Cleo from all the chaos, but romantic love is not a salve for losing your best friend to a bunch of snotty choir brats. At least, it’s not always; not at first.

So I won’t give away much more of what happens in the book, but I had so many emotions and feelings almost from the opening pages. ( I say a little bit more on my book tube channel, so you can listen to me go on about my feelings here, if you’d like.) First, like most people, I have plenty of ex-friends who come to mind immediately. Female friendship is one of those intimacies and sisterhoods that can feel even deeper than any romantic bond because of how sacred and sweet it can feel when it’s good. The emotional wreckage, though, feels arguably worse than any romantic break up, too, because weirdly, it feels like you can always replace a romantic partner but a friend of your soul and spirit? A little, tiny bit harder to do, no?

Woodfolk puts this well in the book, when Cleo tries to describe what happened with her and Layla:  “The hurt feels so much like when my parents decided they didn’t love each other anymore that I can feel a shift in my breathing. ‘We…broke up.’

Dom snorts. ‘It’s not like it was a relationship,’ he says, and I frown, annoyed at his reaction. Perhaps he doesn’t know how it feels…to break in this particular way. Or perhaps it’s different for boys? But girls cling to their friends for dear life as they wade through the rough waters of learning who they are while everything around and inside them is changing minute by minute. And aren’t we all a little bit in love with our best friends?”

One of my first published essays was in an anthology called “Secrets and Confidences: The Uncomplicated Truth About Women’s Friendships,” published by Seal Press in 2004. It was about the shifting, challenging dynamics of a middle school best friend who, sadly, did not remain my best friend for too long into adulthood. At the heart of parsing out the whys and the hows of a deeply intimate and close friendship ending was the core of what makes When You Were Everything so beautiful and helpful to have, particularly for young adult readers: We all change and grow. Sometimes the people we love the most change and grow in different ways, or they don’t at all, and that’s somehow more heartbreaking. Our culture of loose ties has made it seem like the norm to stay “friends” with people from your past indefinitely by giving them and everyone else unilateral access to the performance of our lives and happiness online. But the truth is, sometimes it’s the healthiest thing for a friendship to have its season in our lives and be over. You might shed some tears over that sentiment and certainly while reading this book, but it’s good for the soul, I promise — on both counts.