Three Books on Race: A Review
One of the things coinciding with the COVID pandemic, has been the explosive growth of social justice movements, including “Black Lives Matter.” Perhaps it was the spate of police killings of unarmed Black men and women–combined with the racial inequities in health care and economic opportunity laid bare by the pandemic–that sparked the conscience of our nation, leading to mass demonstrations.
As a self-identified “progressive” I sympathized with the cause. But at the same time, I realized there was just so much that I really did not know.
Fortunately, a number of books have come out during this time. I will review three of them here: “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi; “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” by Eddie Glaude, Jr.; and “Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson.
Ibram X. Kendi
I read “Stamped from the Beginning” first. Subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” the book begins his history in 1500’s Europe. Kendi then takes us from the arrival of the first slaves in America in 1619, and up to our current historical moment. He employs an interesting literary technique, telling the story of race and racism through the eyes of important historical figures, both Black and White: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Dubois and Angela Davis.
Kendi identifies two dominant strains of thought and action that weave together through our history: racism and anti-racism. He traces these movements, which he claims are always at work, right up to the present. He defines racism simply as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Anti-racism is defined as individual action taken to counter policies that support the dominance of one group over another. Kendi calls out the “assimilationists”: people he identifies as a sub-group of racists, who believe that it is best for Blacks to adopt the ways of the dominant (White) culture. To do so, according to Kendi, suggests that the dominant culture is the superior one, and Black culture, by contrast, inferior.
Kendi is a tough critic, and few people in this story, with the exception of Angela Davis, escape his critical wrath; not even the revered W.E.B. Dubois, who he brands as an assimilationist.
Reading “Stamped from the Beginning” reminded me how little I was taught about slavery—or even American history. Growing up, history was a simple timeline that circled the upper wall of our classroom: 1776, the Declaration of Independence; 1812, the War of 1812 (whatever that was about); 1861-5, the Civil War; 1898, the Spanish-American War; 1917, World War I; and so on, war after war.
We learned nothing of life in the North and South during slavery; nor of Reconstruction and Jim Crow; of the civil rights movement and its many faces; of the racism baked so deeply into the American soul. Kendi deftly addresses these subjects with an engaging literary style.
For those of us seeking an education that very few of us had in school, “Stamped from the Beginning” is essential reading and a great place to start.
Eddie Glaude, Jr.
In “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own”, Glaude dives deeply into the work of literary giant, James Baldwin. Baldwin–through his novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction–critiqued the systems of oppression that Black people faced during his lifetime (1924-1987). He was also a keen observer of human relationships and emotion.
Baldwin described the “double consciousness’ that W.E.B. Dubois first wrote about in the 1800s: the awareness of one’s own sense of self that was constantly in conflict with who one was believed to be in the eyes of the dominant White culture.
Baldwin, with his beautiful but often challenging prose, articulates what was/is the essence of being a “Negro in America.” And he was not only a chronicler of this history, but a participant. He was there for the early civil rights movement, traveling through the South and experiencing first-hand the terror of post Confederacy Jim Crow, still very much alive in the 1950’s. He was a friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Malcolm X, and clashed with some of the leaders of the Black Panthers over their more militant ideas and strategies. Some of these young activists saw Baldwin as having “aged out,” too old to understand the needs and demands of the new movement.
When the pain of being Black in America became too much, Baldwin left the United States for Paris and Istanbul. He was escaping the constant and painful reminders that as a Black man, no matter his gifts, he would never be afforded the respect, that he had rightfully earned and deserved. And like too many others, he numbed his pain with alcohol. His body failed him, but his intellect never faltered.
But this book is more than a telling of Baldwin’s story and a critique of his work. The book begins with Glaude maintaining an intellectual distance from his subject. But as the narrative unfolds, he seems to almost merge with Baldwin, embodying his spirit, feeling Baldwin’s pain as his own; though in Glaude’s case it is the reality of life as a Black man, no matter how successful, in Trump’s America.
And we see this embodiment reflected in Glaude’s writing. His prose becomes more penetrating; elevated; as if Baldwin himself is pushing Glaude to soar to new intellectual and artistic heights. Indeed, Baldwin is a muse for Glaude, a guiding light whose literary canon informs Glaude’s work.
This book is a must read—not only for its portrait of Baldwin’s brilliance (and why his work is so relevant today) but as an observation of the creative process, and how great art can beget great art.
In her first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson told the story of the great migration, the mass exodus of African-Americans from the agrarian Jim Crow South, to the industrial north and West.
In her new book, “Caste,” Wilkerson reframes the conversation about race by comparing the state of race relations today to the caste system of India and the debasing of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rather than viewing race relations as a binary Black/White dichotomy, she sees these relations as a graded hierarchy, with White people at the top and Black people at the bottom. Between these two ends one finds multiple gradations: Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, etc.
Wilkerson describes caste as “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 on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.”
This hierarchy was established early in our history and reinforced through the centuries, often with terror. To rationalize slavery, the early settlers created stories about White humanity and Black savagery, or sub-humanity. The brutality of slavery itself was followed by the codification of inequality with Jim Crow laws, which continued being enforced all the way until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Public lynchings became a form of entertainment, and even today the noose is a frightening symbol of power and oppression.
Wilkerson finds common ground between the plight of Black people in America and the “Untouchables,” or Dalit, of India. As a Black woman she describes the fellowship, the familiarity, that many Dalit felt with her during her visits.
Strategies of dehumanization are a necessary part of maintaining stratification and power imbalances. Like the Dalit in South Asia and Blacks in America, Jews in Nazi Germany were seen as less than human—which justified their banishment and murder.
In America, “whiteness” is constantly being redefined. When waves of Italian, Irish, Slavic and Jewish immigrants came to the US, they were also cast as sub-human. But they had a powerful advantage over Blacks who had been enslaved for hundreds of years: They could blend into the dominant White group. This privilege was not possible for Black or Brown people or those of Asian descent. And so the hierarchy was maintained and reinforced, feeding the persistence of White supremacy.
Wilkerson’s thesis explains why so many White people seem to vote “against their interests” when voting for political parties that don’t help them economically. The reality is that compared to maintaining what they perceive as White privilege, economic concerns pale. “Whiteness” is the ultimate issue for many. An entrenched belief that the lowest White person is still “better” the highest, most accomplished Black person, helps maintain the American caste system Wilkerson describes.
Until we recognize the reality of this system, it cannot be dismantled.
Why does this matter?
Why am I including a review of these books on a health and wellness website? Because a healthy individual depends on a healthy society. We are suffering a collective sickness that most of us are not aware of. Unless and until we address the toxic effects of racism, we will suffer these effects in our bodies, minds and souls.
These books are medicine that can help us begin the healing process.
Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based chiropractor since 1986. In addition to the treatment of back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, he works as a consultant in the field of health and wellness with companies dedicated to re-visioning health care for the 21st century. He is the founder of the health news and information website, Condition: Health News That Matters. His first book, “Back Pain Relief Plan” will be released in April, 2021