I used to do this thing in college and graduate school where I would block out a full day to write, sit down and stare at my computer, dither around, and realize I hadn’t done any research, therefore I had nothing to write. Then at some point I’d have to surrender. I’d trundle myself off to the library where I read the books that provided my frame and a sharp thesis. I remember the spark of those moments, and how I suddenly knew what to do, hungrily gathering quotes to support my perspective.
I thought I was manipulating those words, because it felt so good when they connected, but now I see that I was finding influences that fed me and brought my writing to life.
And those books were required.
Every book bears the influence of other books, the ones that unlock its depths and I’ve been needing something more for mine. I’ve already storyboarded every scene and written half of them. I know what belongs there. BUT! / AND! I was stuck.
OK. So this book. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson.
My mom told me to read it and it took me while. It’s about Germany, America, and India. Emily PG Erickson talked about it on my most recent podcast last week. And I decided that probably I should take a look.
I have pored over it all week. I have taken notes. I have had so many wide-eyes moments reading. This book explains so much.
Like, mysteries I’ve struggled with my whole life. Suddenly there’s context where nothing else has made sense. Yes, it brings in Germany — and most of that information, I knew. I taught it for seventeen years.
Germany built a caste system and deconstructed it over the course of twelve years, five years fewer than I taught it, and a fraction of the time we’ve obsessed about it in America, pointing at that German atrocity.
But WE — yes, the United States — were the model.
Even given all that I already knew about American and German history, this book snapped my life stories into focus, from early childhood, through high school, through my teaching career, right up until now… And I’m a White woman. It’s mind-blowing. Unfortunately the picture is shocking. Fortunately, Caste provides a name for the system that keeps us ALL bound up.
Which is good, because I’ve been trying to write about it — and wrap my mind around it — for months.
Suddenly I know exactly how I have to write it.
If you’re struggling to make sense of our homeland, I strongly recommend you read this book. Do it now.