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.[…]
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.”
Many thanks to The The Poetry Journal’s Jennifer MacBain-Stephens for this lovely new review of Movement No.1: Trains. Writes The The Poetry Journal:
“Using fluid language and an almost dream-like tone, Wabuke gives us glimpses of humanity’s core like spying on a commuting passenger through the windows of a subway car: intense yet indirect, witnessing a presence briefly…Like a mystical living force the train gives birth to shadow and light. Turning corners unseen, making noise, consuming space. We read these poems as blurry–eyed infants seeking out black and white shapes, alternately lulled and startled by Wabuke’s insightful words and descriptions.”
Read more here.
Ruminate Magazine has been publishing vital, gorgeous writing for a decade. I am extremely honored that they asked me to contribute two poems for their tenth anniversary issue. Read more here.
I am honored to have a poem in the latest issue of Salamander Literary Journal. Go here to read.
The lovely Bola Mosuro interviewed me for the BBC about writing and life. Listen on the BBC website.
summer’s end settles
into small new beginnings
of growth of dream; life.