Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and two-time author, but she is also in a sense an archeologist. She does not just tell stories of the past, but excavates them, sifting through archives, narratives, and testimonies to exhume the truth.
This summer, Wilkerson—whose last book The Warmth of Other Suns came out in 2010—released Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The New York Times called it an “instant American classic.” Oprah picked it for her book club and made a podcast about it, too. It has been a New York Times bestseller since August.
And in the meantime, it has made thousands of readers hold their breath, as Wilkerson traces the ideological and social roots of some of the same virulent forces that have dominated the news this summer: the enduring inequalities that persist (and are enforced) between white and Black Americans, the subtle biases and blatant discrimination that have been used to marginalize Black Americans, and the extent to which race relations in America can be compared to other hierarchies of oppression around the world.
Throughout her career, the playwright Lynn Nottage has considered similar issues in her own work, focusing on groups of people who don’t tend to be immortalized on the stage. In 2008, she debuted Ruined, a play set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2017, the New Yorker deemed Sweat, which premiered at the Public Theater in New York, “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era: a tough yet empathetic portrait of the America that came undone.” It netted Nottage a Pulitzer later that year—her second.
But more than shared interests or similar approaches to their respective fields, Wilkerson and Nottage have used their work to ask the same essential question: How did we get here?
Here, Wilkerson and Nottage discuss the new book, the trauma of racial violence, and their small, blooming hope for a better future.
Lynn Nottage: To start, I was wondering whether you could talk a little bit about how you came to “caste”—and the caste system—as a concept for describing and understanding race in America.
Isabel Wilkerson: Well, I came to the use of the term caste with my first book, The Warmth of Other Suns.
Which is an amazing book.
Well, thank you, and that means so much to me given the nature of your work and how connected you are to the Great Migration in your work and I assume also somehow in your family lineage.
To answer your question, though, it happened in the process of learning what life was like for people who were living under the Jim Crow regime. I came to realize that it was so much more than just pure hate for a group. It was so much more than just not liking these people. It was even more than just what we would think of as structures that were set up to hold people back. There was an investment in keeping people at the lowest rung of a ladder that was deeper than just emotion, which is sometimes what gets attached to racism.
It was once against the law for a Black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham, [Alabama]. There were separate Bibles in courtrooms because that same sacred object could not be touched by the hands of people of different races. There’s something deep-seated and bigger and more powerful underneath that. That is what I was discovering in the process of working on that book. Then, it turned out that there were anthropologists and ethnographers who had gone into the Jim Crow South while this was actually in progress. They emerged from their research with the word “caste,” and that’s how I came to be aware of it. That’s the word I used in The Warmth of Other Suns. I don’t use the word “racism” in that book.