I’ve written posts about how you don’t know what you don’t know. We all have blind spots, spots where our knowledge is incomplete, incorrect, or not there at all. I’ve also written about how I am reluctant to read books that have been so highly praised and reviewed that I’m just sure they will fall short of the expectation that has been built up. This post is about both.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Caste has been praised in every review I’ve read. Many people have recommended it to me. It has been on Best Books lists from the ones for a year or a season to the ones that are topic and theme specific. I finally dove in to listening to as well as reading the book. Not one of those reviews, reviewers, list makers, and friends over sold this book! This is by far one of the best books I have read in a long time.
I love reading an extremely well-written book about history. This book absolutely fills that bill. It is eloquent and well researched. The book touches on the caste system as it existed in Nazi Germany and as it exists in India and the United States. I’m not as well-read as I’d like to be in world history, but I think of myself as fairly well-read in American history and in the area of civil rights. I was not prepared to find out how little I actually knew! This book was eye opening from all three geographic locations.
I keep thinking about how people are declaiming the removal of statues commemorating our history. They maintain that taking away these statues removes history. They rightly believe that we should remember the past. I agree…at least to a point. As I said, I am very interested in American history. However, I understand that statues are erected to glorify leaders and memorialize events. Some of the leaders being glorified have been put up on pedestals (literally) for wrong reasons. Studying the history of some monuments will illuminate that. Some should never have been put up as a shining example to emulate. Some were actually erected as much as a warning to segments of society as for any other reason. It’s a complicated discussion that I will leave for another day. I bring it up only to highlight something that I really thought about as I was reading this book.
If you are someone who is truly worried about “cancel culture” and what it is doing to our knowledge of history, who wants to make sure that we know our history in all of its actions, people, and government – warts and all – I challenge you to read this book. There is a great deal of our history that we were never taught, at least I know I wasn’t. And I’m not talking about philosophical issues. Not re-writing the past. Not taking down our heroes because they have faults. I’m talking about events that I didn’t know happened. I’m talking about laws and actions of our government that can be easily documented, but I was never taught about them. I was never introduced to some of these things in the least. Others I had a meager introduction to, but they were glossed over and prettied up.
Today on the news reporters were talking about it being the anniversary of the massacre and destruction that occurred in Tulsa back in 1921. It was just a few years back that I first heard about this and went to research and read about it. An area of the city known as Black Wall Street, an area where Black people lived, worked, owned businesses, and thrived, was attacked. People were killed and had their lives ruined. The entire section of the city was burned to the ground. There were 300 Blacks killed and more than 9,000 left homeless. Over 1,200 homes and 150 businesses were destroyed. The total desolation of the area included hospitals, schools, and churches. This was not a race riot but an all out assault, attack, invasion, offensive on an American neighborhood by a group of whites bent on destruction because of hatred and jealousy. Why didn’t I know about this for most of my life?
Last week I was with a group of very educated, well-read people having dinner. Someone mentioned having off work for Junteenth as a state employee. No one at the table seemed to have ever heard of Junteenth nor could they tell what the holiday celebrates. In case you don’t know, it commemorates the end of slavery in our country. That date seems as least as important as many that I was forced to memorize for some history class way back when and more important than many!
I was humbled by the realization of how little I knew as I was reading this book. There is enough documentation that any sceptic can certainly verify all of what is reported. I’ve gone on to look up some of the events to learn more. I already said this is one of the best books I have read in a long time. However, I can’t say I “enjoyed” it because much of it is very disturbing. I was sickened as I read about the atrocities that humans have committed against other humans in Nazi Germany, in India, and here in our own country that we love and hold in esteem. And knowing that this merely skims the history of man’s inhumanity to man isn’t a “pleasure” to read. But as someone who believes history is important, I am also someone who doesn’t want to see any history covered up, who doesn’t believe in putting lipstick on it to make it look pretty. Read this book because you will be better educated. You will have a better understanding of how we got to where we are. You will not regret the time spent!