I was honored to be asked by NPR Books to review Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the compelling new work of nonfiction from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson:
To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading — to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and form one is about to encounter, safe and secure that the structures will not collapse beneath you.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Wilkerson evinced a rare ability to craft deeply insightful analysis of deeply researched evidence — both historical and contemporary — in harmonious structures of language and form.
Now, in her sophomore effort, the former New York Times Chicago Bureau chief does not disappoint. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterwork of writing — a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands, also, as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis.
What is caste? According to Wilkerson, “caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Racism and castism do overlap, she writes, noting that “what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system.”[…]
For NPR Books, I write about the new luminous new memoir Memorial Drive, written by the brilliant Natasha Tretheway, former US Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This book is unparalleled. It is the kind of book that comes around once a century, if we are lucky.
In the closing pages of her memoir Memorial Drive, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey writes: “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
The memoir, out this week, is a meditation on Trethewey’s own life as well as those of her mother and grandmother — an interrogation of the self and of family history haunted, in large part, by the abuse Trethewey and her mother both suffered at the hands of her stepfather. It ended, ultimately, in the murder of Trethewey’s mother by her step-father when Trethewey was 19.
Like Lucille Clifton’s poem “june 20,” a rising tension is created between the threat of the known violence that is to come and the present movement of the narrative building to that moment. “I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy” writes Trethewey in the opening pages. Structurally, this tension becomes the driving engine of the book; thematically, this becomes a ghost of the terrifying future that haunts the present text.[…]
For the Paris Review, I write about some of the horrific racial violence we have seen and connect it to the violence of the racial humor that is accepted, and really should not be accepted, about these things:
I have had the KKK joke made to my face by non-Black people not just at school, but also in personal situations and in professional ones—from after-school jobs as a teenager to the boardrooms I sat in decades later. Now, in the midst of the current global Black Lives Matter protests, when someone wields the KKK joke, I think about how my aunt’s Minnesota neighborhood and several students in my town here in Nebraska have recently been attacked by the KKK and other white supremacists. Since he was six months old, my son and I have had run-ins with white supremacists, unhooded and in daylight, who tell us to go back where we came from while they threaten what violence they are going to do to us if we don’t.
There is no one KKK joke. There is, however, a wide catalogue of unabashed racism to choose from in creating one. There is always a certain kind of person who feels like it is important to make jokes about the KKK, whether or not Black people are present. This is often the same kind of person who thinks Blackface and pretend AAVE—or jokes about raping women or killing transgender individuals—are important as well. It is part of a consciousness—often white, often male—that does not see us as human beings but as objects to be violated because of our Blackness. And, if it cannot be physical or legal violence, then it will be the violence of language and ideas, disguised as humor. This is what I call the KKK joke.
The pain of the KKK joke is so big you can’t even process it all at once—like how can’t you see the solar system, or even the planet, because of the overwhelming immensity. The pain of the KKK joke is that because you cannot name it directly, everyone else pretends not to see it, not to notice that it is there. The pain of the KKK joke is that no one defends you; you must be the one, yet again, to speak up and say: Racism is bad, please don’t do it; it hurts me. It hurts others.
The pain of the KKK joke chokes all the air out of your lungs like a handheld noose slung around a Black unbreathing throat and up over a tree on a hot, wet, American summer night. […]
Drawing upon my lifelong experience of being the only Black woman, or one of two Black women in elite white spaces, here are 20 questions to to make this process safer for Black folks in your organization: Downloadable PDF here: 20 Questions for Anti Racist Work 2 Page Version. Hope Wabuke
20 Questions For Organizations Starting Anti-Racist Work:
by: Hope Wabuke
- Are you centering the Black voices in your organization? Are you listening, rather than ignoring or speaking over these voices?
- How are you personally and institutionally creating a space where the Black and people of color in your organization feel safe from harm from racism and microaggressions?
- Are you expecting the Black and people of color in your organization to do all the diversity work alone? How are you supporting their efforts?
- Do you tell the Black people in your organization that they are lying when speak about the racism and microaggressions they detail experiencing in your organization?
- Do you engage in meaningful anti-racist reflection and meaningful anti-racist action in your organization?
- Are you mindful of diversity and inclusion in all decisions in your organization?
- Do you think as a collective? Or do you delegate a token nothing diversity statement to the token Black or person of color who is part of your organization?
- How is your organization investing ideologically and financially in diversity & inclusion?
- Do you empower leadership and voice from the Black people in your organization? Or do you only like them to be silent token symbols and get angry when they speak?
- Can you resist the temptation to have all anti-racist action revolve around “donating?” (But if you are donating, donate money or else the specific thing that is requested by the donation recipient, rather than what you think is needed).
- Can you engage with Blackness with equality, communication, and support, rather than white savior charity?
- Can you respond intentionally? Do you get defensive and retreat into white tears or speak over the Black people in your group?
- How can you invest in a critical mass of Black and people of color representation so that this immense weight of representation does not fall on one, or even two, or even five members of your organization?
- How can you commit to a greater diverse demographic in your organization? How will you eradicate your unconscious bias so that you hire Black employees and employees of color BECAUSE they are the best candidates rather than passing them over because you think that Black candidates cannot be as good as the white candidates for some reason you invent?
- Are you interrogating your privilege? Are you paying attention to how internalized your white supremacy is? Do you notice that you ignore when the Black woman in your organization speaks but applaud when one of the white men in your organization says the same exact thing 10 minutes later, for example?
- Do you read and educate yourself on how to be proactively anti-racist and create safe inclusive spaces so you can create that for your Black and people of color board members and/or employees? How are you being accountable?
- Do you admit that institutional racism and bias exist in your organization as part of the inherent nature of institutional racism?
- Do you implement regular diversity and sensitivity training from a reputable outside consultant as a norm in your organization?
- Do you acknowledge the difference between people of color and Black? Do you acknowledge the presence of anti-Black people of color, and the damage anti-Black people of color do without the presence of Black people of color?
- Will you make an action plan that means something and is not just hollow lip service & commit to follow through?
**if these questions are useful to you, please consider donating to one of these two causes:
1. The Fundraiser for the Family of James Scurlock, a 22 year old Black youth shot by Jake Gardner, a white Omaha, NE man with ties to white supremacy and homophobia. I wrote a little about this here.
2. The Color of Change National Bail Out Fund: This program helps incarcerated Black mothers return home to their children. Many women who are in prison are there because of self-defense from domestic abuse and other violence. From their website: “At least 80 percent of women caged behind bars are mothers who have only been accused of minor offenses but not found guilty. The reason they are still in jail and separated from their families is because they are too poor to afford bail.”
For The Los Angeles Review of Books, I write about Westworld’s problematic depictions of violence against Black characters and the meaning of TV’s fantasies of racial violence:
I was so excited for Westworld before it premiered. I was excited for the plot, sure to be brilliant because of the genius of its creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. I was excited to see not just one, but three black leads on a show that wasn’t about slavery or basketball. I was excited to watch the excellent black actors here work; they are brilliant. Science fiction and fantasy have long been known for representing stories of marginalization and oppression through allegory and code; I was excited for Westworld to explore these concepts with the talent involved.
But what has become clear over the course of the series — what has become especially clear after this third season — is that although there is diversity in Westworld, the diversity is still relegated to stereotypical, and often painful representations. One wonders which is more harmful: absence, or toxic representation?
Let me begin with this: every single black child on Westworld has been killed. Every single white child has survived to do violence and mayhem — humanized with point of view and background narrative despite committing the most ruthless violence.
To put this another way: all three of the main black characters on Westworld — Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) — have children who are killed. These deaths of their black children serve as foundational character moments and pivotal plot points for the show. It is safe to say these deaths becomes each character’s driving force and thus, violence against black children is one of the primary narrative engines of the series. General anti-black violence becomes another. And so, the same way women of all races critique the pornography of violence against the female body that is a driving force of so many cop and action dramas, I ask this: can we not get more imaginative than only imagining black pain as a catalyst in black life — than monetizing very real black pain for white entertainment and white profit?
Thanks to the editors at LAROB, who are amazing. Read the essay here.
For NPR, I review Meredith Talusan’s gorgeous memoir Fairest:
“This nuance, this careful attention to looking and attempting to understand this journey not just from her own perspective, but also from those affected by it, gives a welcome maturity, depth and resonance to Talusan’s memoir. One of the most touching scenes in the book is in the beginning of Talusan’s transition to womanhood. Talusan’s partner, Ralph, just wants her to look “normal,” as he calls it and asks Talusan to dress like a man, without make-up, for a friend’s important event at Carnegie Hall. Talusan promises — but when she goes to the bathroom to scrub her face free of make-up, she cannot, eventually collapsing crying on the floor. To erase her make-up, to erase her femininity—to make herself look like a man when she is a woman — is destroying her in that moment. And Ralph, hearing her pain, comes into the bathroom and hugs her. He tells Talusan that he will never ask her to take off her make-up again.
The make-up, a stand-in for true selfhood and identity, functions in conversation with the usage of the mirror, a central grounding conceit for Talusan’s flights into astute analysis of race, gender and sexuality not just here, but elsewhere in the book.”
This is one of my favorite books I have been asked to review for NPR. You can read the rest of my review here.
For NPR, I write about the stunning new poetry collection from Natalie Diaz:”
“How do we center, in this postcolonial experience, not the perspective of the western European colonizer but the perspective of the indigenous, black, and people of color who were colonized? Even the very language of this concept — postcolonial — betrays a perspective still situated around the white colonizer.
So we begin with this question: How do you create meaning when the language itself undercuts the meaning you are trying to create?
Natalie Diaz, whose incendiary When My Brother Was An Aztec transformed language eight years ago, addresses these ideas in her new poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem through authorial choices that center Native perspective in content, point of view, agency, and normalization of Native culture and mythos — in short, the myriad ways the white gaze is normalized in the literary imagination and which readers are socialized to accept as the default normal as well.” […]
For NPR, I write about this important new memoir from Sarah Valentine:
“When one thinks of American blackness, there is the unsaid ugly truth that nearly all American blacks who have descended from the historical African diaspora in America have one (or several) rapacious white slave owners in their family tree at some point.
Here, in the early days of the United States, was the invention of racism for economic necessity. From 1619 until 1865, white male Americans chose to breed a black enslaved workforce through the state-sanctioned rape of black women to build the new nation and support their white supremacist class. Race became the single unifying identifier — determining everything about one’s life starting with this most basic division: enslaved or free.
The American law was that the “condition of the child followed that of the mother,” backed up by the “one drop rule,” the legal framework that dictated even one drop of blackness made an individual black, never white. The idea of blackness as a pollutant, a taint that would erode the purity of whiteness, was seized by politicians around the world then — and now.
Because of this legacy of sexual violence and anti-blackness, black and white mixed individuals have long been considered black in America.
To a much larger degree than many people would like to admit, race still determines a vast part of one’s life — social networks and mobility, birth and other medical care, employment opportunities and so on. Indeed, there is an entire genre of literature and film, popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, composed of blacks “passing” for white to avoid this racism. Some of the most famous examples are Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing; James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 opus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; and the 1959 film The Imitation of Life.
Sarah Valentine, the author of the memoir When I Was White, did not choose to pass for white; her mother made the choice for her. So Valentine was raised as white by white parents in white middle-class communities — only to discover as a young woman that her biological father was actually black. As Valentine endeavors to explore what her new identity means to her, she searches for ways to connect to her blackness. For Valentine, learning that she is black is to reject whiteness; she cannot comprehend how the privileges of whiteness can be held hand in hand with the racism the black body is subject to.” […]
I have loved books every since I was a child. So I am incredibly honored to be elected to the NBCC Board to serve with such a fantastic, brilliant group of book critics and be part of honoring amazing books and writers with recognition and awards. Read more here.