BOOK REVIEW: CASTE: The Origins of our Discontent, by Isabela Wilkerson

 

By Susan D. Peters

Caste: a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion. Merriam Webster’s dictionary 

If ever a book turns the accepted definition of the “race problem” on its head, CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson is-that-book. CASTE explains, for me, at least, why in the seventh decade of my life, I still find my people, the descendants of enslaved Africans, in much the same predicament in America that was prevalent when my family migrated to West Africa in 1979. We hoped to escape a racialized United States that choked our spirits and our daily existence as surely as the thick neck chains that constrained my ancestors from escape. They were forced and marched to awaiting slave ships destined to provide their free labor for generations to build America into a global superpower. 

After publishing my memoir, Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, written after our eleven-year sojourn in Liberia, I was often asked, “Why would anyone leave America for Africa? I realized then, as now, that in America, we would never be allowed to flourish, but I never fully understood why. After reading CASTE, I better understand why the progress we hoped to make as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and all the events that culminated with the election of a Black Man as the President of the United States never came to fruition. Isabel Wilkerson helps me/us understand that our handicap was deeper than race. Slavery enrolled us in a race-based American caste system created to hold Blacks as a perpetually stigmatized underclass in which “race is the skin and caste is the bones.”

“Everything that is faced cannot be changed but everything must be faced.” James Baldwin

Wilkerson introduces the idea of caste primarily through three caste hierarchies: the ancient Hindu caste system, the American race-based caste system, and the Nazi German’s interpretation of caste institutionalized to justify the enslavement and systematic extermination of millions of German Jews. Throughout her book, Wilkerson compares, contrasts, parallels and crisscrosses between these three systems. In each caste system, some members would perpetually be relegated to the bottom. In the Hindu caste system, it is the cast-less Daliets, more commonly known as the Untouchables. In Nazi Germany, the Aryans at the top with scapegoated Jews at the bottom, and the American caste system devised for the elevation of Whites while containing Blacks as the permanent under caste.

By designation of lowest caste rank, one can never acquire enough spiritual wisdom, intellect, or wealth to rise. These artificial designations of status continue perpetually for the individual, but this inheritance is passed on to one’s generations.

Wilkerson identifies the 8 Pillars of Caste in section Purity versus Pollution. She details the creation of Whiteness as a group into which initially only the Anglo Saxons belonged and into which others were selectively enrolled to meet a need for numerical superiority and control over Blacks as they were forced into underclass status. It is interesting to note that the Irish, Poles, Jews, Greeks, and Italians, were not automatically considered White. In Louisiana, Italians were lynched and were considered by some “lower than the blacks.” 

The racial designation White has been a bouncing ball in the hands of the eugenicists and progenitors of white supremacy until somewhere in the early 1900s the so-called “one-drop rule” was used to define Blackness. She points out that if that rule applied with today’s DNA analysis, millions currently living their lives as White would be considered Black. 

She indicates as I discovered while living in Africa that Africans on the continent do not define themselves by their color, but rather by their ethnic origins. Skin color only comes into play when in Europe or America.

This race-based controversy found its way into the election of the 44th president of the United States. It is now being debated over Joe Biden’s selection of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in his bid to become the 46th president of the United States. Harris is of a mixed racial heritage that places her in two caste hierarchical systems. She is the daughter of an East Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Yet again, a swirling controversy has ensued by Whites, and sadly some Blacks questioning her caste membership rather than her fitness for duty. 

CASTE: The Origins of our Discontent, by Isabella Wilkerson, has joined a list of books that have set the table for serious movement towards reparations for the descendants of the millions stolen from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.

In her epilogue A World Without Caste, Wilkerson leaves us with a vision of what might be possible for humanity if we could only surmount the superficial divisions that caste has imposed upon our gifts. Yes, where would we be indeed?


Susan D. Peters, aka, Ahnydah (ah-NIE-dah) Rahm, brings a wealth of experience gained as an expatriate living in West Africa. Her memoir Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, received the Black Excellence Award for Non-Fiction from the African American Alliance of Chicago and the Mate E. Palmer award for Non-Fiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association. Broken Dolls, Susan’s second book, represents her foray into the mystery market and is the first of a series featuring Detective Joi Sommers as its heroine. Her most recent publication is Stolen Rainbow, a short story focused on the post combat recovery of a beautiful marine captain after a devastating combat injury. Her work is featured in three anthologies, Baring It All, the Ins and Outs of Publishing, Signed, Sealed, Delivered … I’m Yours, a contemporary romance anthology, and The Anthology of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. Buy her books online and at www.SusanDPeters.com.

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