Books that exposed and reduced my ignorance
First, a confession: most of the reading I do nowadays is fiction, the good guys always win, and evil is thwarted … until the next time. But sometimes, some non-fiction sneaks in, and I end up learning something new and my paradigm shifts. Some time ago, it was “Guns, Germs and Steel.” Apropos to this time, it showed how the conquest of Africa and the New World was primarily due to depopulation of the native inhabitants due to viral pandemics introduced by European explorers. They themselves were immune, having been exposed and infected and then achieving “herd immunity’ after being exposed by their horses and other domesticated animals.There is a LOT more to it than that – if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.
This year I was horrified by the senseless death of George Floyd, and I was motivated to learn more about the big picture that fed the responses to his killing. The first book I got was “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. I hear it got mixed reviews, but for me, it was a fascinating read. Chapter by chapter, Ibram takes us through his own genesis as a Black man discovering the racism buried deep within himself. As I followed his progress, I discovered very similar issues on the walls of my psyche that had been painted over so many times that they had become invisible to me. Once the paint was scraped off by the introspection enabled by reading Ibram, I needed to recognize it, and try to clean it off.
If you had asked me before I read this book, I would have said “I’m not a racist,” and believed it. Subtly and skillfully the author makes a convincing argument that saying those four words reveals an unawareness of how deep, how buried, how profound are the subtle shades of unrealized racism that are under the many years of coats that cover over past and present history that makes up my and your perception of racism. He then shows us ways to create a metamorphosis from being “I’m not a racist” to “I’m an Anti-racist.” This book just kept me hungering for more as I read it, and I often had trouble putting it down.
Not so with “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” an Oprah Winfrey book club selection written by Isabel Wilkerson. Reading “How to be an Anti-Racist” inspired me to dig even deeper, and the reviews of this book made it look very interesting. It was so much more than that. As I was reading, instead of having a hard time putting the book down, I found I could only read a few pages at a time, and then having to take a break so my conscious and subconscious could process what I had just read.
Most of us probably have a cursory awareness of the concept of caste, as we think about the “Untouchables” of India. Some of us may be aware of the Warrior Caste, the Priest Caste, the Merchant Caste and the Labor Caste. Once born into one of these castes, the framework of your future is constrained by what is allowed in your caste, and you must follow rigid protocols in dealings with other castes. The genius in this book is in recognizing that the treatment of Black peoples in America are perfect exemplars of caste.
There is SO much to unpack in this book. Did you know that when the Nazis were setting up their system of dehumanizing Jews that they came to America to study how we had done it to the Blacks? Horrifyingly, they chose to not take it as far as we did in many respects; for example, in the South, you were considered Black if you had ONE DROP of Black blood in your lineage. In Nazi Germany, you were considered “pure” if you had no more than 25% Jewish blood in your veins. If a Black person were to somehow swim in a “whites only” pool, they would drain and clean the pool before a “white” person could swim in it.
If only this type of dehumanization had ended at the end of the Civil War, or even after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, but unfortunately, it continues in full (but often disguised) form today, and shown by so many examples in the book, and as we see in the news almost daily.
Reading is power when done with curiosity and an open mind. Frankly, I was shocked and appalled by my own ignorance, but I am grateful to the brave, intelligent and thoughtful authors who have taken me on this journey of education. Maybe it will challenge you to go on your own journey, whatever it looks like. And wait until you see my next book review! Until then, happy reading.