Book bans, classroom censorship laws, policies to silence historically marginalized communities, political misinformation campaigns to erase progress for communities long harmed by systemic racism and oppression—these are all attempts to maintain our nation’s dominant narrative that excludes diverse perspectives. And we recognize that narrative is built upon ideals of white supremacy and heteronormative values. This country, however, is also built upon the preservation of diverse narratives and ongoing struggles to end oppression. Book bans and censorship harken back to history and remind us of the oftentimes life-threatening risks multitudes of Black people took to become literate. And in Black communities schools were one of the first infrastructures built. People have long resisted domination by seeking out learning, and that tradition fuels our current defiance against narrow views of U.S. national identity and commitment to elevating the country’s vibrant diversity through inclusive learning.
Learning for Justice book reviews, a few of which are presented here—including the most recent—have always celebrated inclusivity and encouraged reading. We resist the pressures of book bans and participate in advancing an expansive narrative that bolsters our dynamic, diverse democracy.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson, award-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns
Radical Empathy. That’s the primary remedy for the realization of a just society that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson identifies in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. This 2020 publication is fundamental reading for any person with a genuine interest in understanding what’s at stake in efforts toward social justice and for understanding the swift and astoundingly complex backlash—including the recent fervor for book bans in K-12 education—against gains made by people of the global majority, LGBTQ+ people and anyone else who finds themselves relegated to societal margins. Any mystery pertaining to deadly social hierarchies fades as Wilkerson deftly demystifies the notion of caste in a user-friendly fashion within the pages of this extraordinary work of nonfiction.
The author connects with readers through an engaging narrative style that incorporates extensive and rich historical fact as she makes connections between social structures in the United States, India and Nazi Germany. Wilkerson also provides multiple examples of both the consequences of stepping outside of those structures established to benefit those at the top of artificial human hierarchies and the nuanced articulation of social status that is clearly discernible to the informed but is nearly unascertainable for the unenlightened who—more often than not—choose to look no further than their own realities and then make the mental adjustments necessary to remain ensconced in privileged spaces. And that, as Wilkerson details, is where radical empathy—a real concern for others that the author describes as a “kindred connection”—comes into play.
Illuminating eight pillars of caste—the framing Wilkerson uses to identify these aspects of human behavior that actively allow for the engagement in inhuman behavior—helps ground anyone who is sincerely working toward the creation of a better world by celebrating and revering the value of all human life. These pillars, the misguided beliefs and the extreme mechanisms used to hold them in place, are what uphold the power imbalance and present as a commonality in some of the most oppressive societies on the planet. Stripped down to the studs of human dynamics, Caste enables us to deconstruct this enduring infrastructure that undergirds the need to elevate some at the expense of so many others.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a powerful place to start or to revisit in one’s singular journey and in the process of our communal participation in current movements toward social justice, where, as Wilkerson writes, “the least that a person … can do is not make the pain any worse” for those whose subjugation serves the desires of those who benefit from structures created with an intention that becomes increasingly obvious as the reader moves through each of the book’s seven sections.
Caste is unquestionably a work to engage with individually, or—as we did here at SPLC in the first season of the organization-wide JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) Reading Group—collectively, with the goal of getting us all on the same page in this ongoing fight, in all of its manifestations, for social justice.
These additional recommended readings from the Spring 2022 issue of Learning for Justice magazine can work to encourage us all to engage in learning for liberation and to share the value of that with our young people.
We Are Not Broken (for teen readers and above)
George M. Johnson, an award-winning Black nonbinary writer who identified as a boy in childhood, focuses on joy, adventure, misadventure, loyalty, betrayal, abuse, loss, healing, restoration and love in their memoir, We Are Not Broken. A tribute to their beloved grandmother who creates an expansive space for her four young grandsons to be free despite a world that insists upon telling them otherwise, Johnson also offers a range of possibilities for positive change that would enable Black boys—and the Black women who love and protect them—to live lives that are even more enriched and free. Note: This book contains the n-word, homophobic language and describes instances of sexual abuse.
Missing Daddy (for growing readers)
In Missing Daddy, activist, organizer and educator Mariame Kaba addresses the youngest victims of the prison industrial system—children with loved ones who are incarcerated. Alongside beautiful illustrations by bria royal, Kaba renders in detail the experience of children who may not fully understand their loved ones’ extended absence. The story’s description of ridicule at school, domestic stress when caretakers manage households alone and enforced separation from a beloved father may help young readers feel less alone as they manage the impact of long-term and long-distance incarceration on their families and themselves.
Additional Recommended Resources
For additional book reviews from LFJ, see the following What We’re Reading sections from previous issues of Learning for Justice magazine.