The coronavirus pandemic has upended everyday life on an international scale. Among other societal woes, the COVID-19 crisis has accentuated racial disparities in the United States as the disease continues to disproportionately affect communities of color. As the virus spread, protests erupted nationwide following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; thousands called for accountability for police violence, marching in the streets or watching at home from lockdown.
Two recent, timely books — “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson and “Intimations” by Zadie Smith — frame a year defined by the twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism. Read reviews of each here:
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” is an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
Wilkerson borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
This is a complicated book that does a simple thing. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while at The New York Times and whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, avoids words like “white” and “race” and “racism” in favor of terms like “dominant caste,” “favored caste,” “upper caste” and “lower caste.”
Some will quibble with her conflation of race and caste. (Social class is a separate matter, which Wilkerson addresses only rarely.) She does not argue that the words are synonyms. She argues that they “can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” She persuasively pushes the two notions together while addressing the internal wounds that, in America, have failed to clot.
A caste system, she writes, is “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.”
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance,” Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits; Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews; and America’s treatment of African Americans. Each country “relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”
Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. It takes resolve to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. It’s the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.
Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. She poses this question: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?
What pundits have not considered, Wilkerson writes, “was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest.” Even if preserving that hierarchy means forgoing health insurance, risking environmental contamination, or dying.
Wilkerson largely avoids the word “racism,” yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
“Caste” deepens our tragic sense of American history. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Wilkerson’s book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It’s a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
— Dwight Garner. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
“Intimations” by Zadie Smith
Writers often experience an ambivalent relationship with trauma. Such phenomena do provide a subject, but can also invite rashness that results in rushed fiction, or the odd bewildered, floundering essay.
Something about analyzing our present climacteric feels improper, particularly if — as novelist and essayist Zadie Smith concedes in her new meditation on pandemic life, “Intimations” — it has been undertaken in the midst of “this strange and overwhelming season of death.”
Smith’s sensitivity to the difficulties raised by her project are articulated with thoughtfulness and a concerted absence of grandiosity. These six essays are, she says, an attempt to “organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me.” The result is a slender and moving compendium of reflections that is “above all personal,” written in deference to two “intimations” yielded from Marcus Aurelius: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”
Much of what we overhear in these intimate acts of emotional and intellectual exploration varies in subject matter and tone. In her opening piece, “Peonies,” Smith writes of an experience that took place in the early stages of the “global humbling” of the spread of COVID-19, during which she found herself clutching the bars of Jefferson Market garden, enraptured by the vision of a host of tulips. Accompanied in her reverie by a gathering of women, also in middle age and “teetering on the brink of peri-menopause,” she recognized that a “powerful instinct” had drawn them to gaze at this “gaudy symbol of fertility and renewal in the middle of a barren concrete metropolis.”
Smith writes with insight about what motivates our acts of creation, and about what it means to create under conditions in which death is rampant and time is “out of joint.” And in a “Postscript,” which focuses eloquent anger and desperation on the police killing of George Floyd, she addresses the ways in which his death is emblematic of the “virus,” and she calls it, “of contempt.”
Yet what unites these quietly cerebral vignettes is a pervasive interest in and empathy for the lives of others (Smith writes lightly and with appealing self-deprecation about her own feelings of distress). Her curiosity and attentiveness are inexhaustible, and her book is richly populated by concern for friends, fellow-feeling for acquaintances and a resistance to delivering emphatic condemnations of the lives of people whose silent anxieties and private wounds we are unable to comprehend.
— Matthew Adams, Special to The Seattle Times
“Intimations” by Zadie Smith, Penguin Books, 112 pp., $10.95
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 474 pp., $32
Isabel Wilkerson will speak at a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company at 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. Head to st.news/Caste for details.