10 years ago, Isabel Wilkerson came to Pittsburgh to discuss her book The Warmth of Other Suns. I was not there. My mother was recovering from an illness, and I was between jobs. It was a hectic time in my life. I was single with 3 children. I was stressed. I was figuring it out. Michele Norris was also here that day. Her book The Grace of Silence made the two of them perfect partners for a conversation. 2012 seems like a lifetime ago now. And yet not so very unfamiliar at all. 2012 was a year of supercharged racial political attacks. The housing market hit an intense abyss and took economic stability with it. Or I should say mortgage lenders hit an all-time high boon of income and their bubble finally burst. 2012 was the year of the tragic Sandy Hook mass shooting. And it was the year George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin.
A friend of mine – an older white man who has been like a father to me since 1999 asked me to go to the Wilkerson and Norris lecture that year. We decided that my then 13-year-old daughter would go instead. She still has her signed copies of the books. She still smiles sunshine when I ask her what it felt like to ask a question at the event and be affirmed by these two forces of nature. This was special for many reasons. One of them struck me last night.
The 2022 event began with a long but quite well moving line to check vaccination cards and do security screening. I did not remember this from lectures I attended years ago but it’s possible we went through metal detectors in 2012 events as well. As my husband and I stood in line, we oscillated looking around for other Black folks in the crowd. The masked faces were mostly white or white presenting. And most folks seemed to be doing ok for themselves. The hallway was full of department store slacks and jackets, silver and white hair (old age is a privilege here), $900 phones feeling gentle swipes or capturing moments, and countless diamond rings swiveling around fingers holding driving licenses and passports. The people who went to see Isabel Wilkerson last night were probably not outcasts and shall we say generally unaffected by caste the way many others in our city are.
My husband bounced around the lobby with me enjoying my stops at tables of vendors and helpers. The tables were being staffed by some of my favorite folks from a local indie bookstore, the university library, and our daughters’ high school library. Book people. Breakers of caste. We headed into the auditorium and an usher said with a little more surprise than is common “oh you have good seats.” We were escorted to said good seats and as I moved into our spot a woman to my left informed me that I was about to sit in one of her seats. I looked and immediately understood that the woman to my right, a woman we had moved past to get to our seats, had taken the wrong one and needed to move down a spot. Not a big deal, right? Wrong. My husband was on her side and for some reason a disagreement ensued. She could not be convinced that she was in the wrong seat. He pointed to the numbers at each one and explained the simple structure. Upon realizing that she was wrong about the numbering system, she insisted that all she had to do was be in the G row and the numbers didn’t really matter. (Psst. Are you someone who knows me and therefore now very worried about how I reacted to this utter bullsh*t? Don’t be alarmed. I was too busy wondering if our 16-year-old nephew who hasn’t been home in almost two weeks was ok. The fire I normally would have lit was operating at very low capacity.) Benjamin (that’s my man’s name) called an usher over to assist the two of them with this disagreement. The usher politely told the woman that she needed to move down one and the woman then told Benjamin that it was “very smart” of him to think to ask the usher to help. He cleared his throat and took a sip of his water. This white woman having trouble accepting that she was sitting in the seat of a Black man was not on my BINGO list but hey, it’s one way to start an evening of thinking about caste systems in the U.S.
Introductions, applause and stage waves from white women were next. We learned that Wilkerson had spent some time with students from a few Pittsburgh public high schools. A list of the very top academic performing schools rolled off the announcer’s tongue “Obama, Allderdice, CAPA, Sci-Tech”…great schools…great students. Benjamin and I slowly turned to each other. No words. Instead, we shared a thought bubble that would have read “What about Perry, Westinghouse, Langley, Brashear” it could have been a very big bubble with more high schools on our minds. Maybe they attended as well? Maybe the announcer just forgot to mention them? Maybe it wasn’t a caste moment. Maybe students at schools constantly discounted and underestimated had not actually been left out of the discussion and if they were, there for sure must have been good reasons, right? I thought again of my nephew who has not come home yet. Had he, a Perry student, missed an opportunity to meet and talk with Isabel Wilkerson? Somehow I thought that opportunity only existed in my hopes.
Wilkerson walks out in her signature red and pearls. I notice her green shoes below a black skirt and think of her as a walking celebration of our ancestors, a testament to all the potential she herself reminds us was squelched by law and statute for no less than 346 years on these shores. She is purposeful and clear. Her words are exact and trenchant. She is still a force of nature. I have read Caste and taught with it. I know the stories she calls forward on stage with her. I know the theoretical ground. What I don’t know is that she is about to rocket my mind to the moon and make me orbit Earth for the next portions of her talk. Wilkerson made so many powerful points it would be impossible for me to list them all here. Two were absolutely unforgettable. One – she spoke about the January 6th insurrection. She reminded us of the horror of that day and the perpetrators’ ability to simply walk out and head home. And then she led us to this incredible truth: on January 6, 2021 the confederate flag was carried into the capitol building – further than Robert E. Lee had ever gotten it during the Civil War. And two – when this was over a cleaning crew of people of African descent swept the glass and picked up the trash.
She gave us what we needed to think about our roles in dismantling the caste system here. Or at least to stop its reification. She pointed out the issue of being surprised or saying one doesn’t recognize our country with a metaphor of heart disease saying that if we knew someone with a pre-existing heart condition, a heart attack might be sad and alarming but not surprising. Caste is a pre-existing condition. Wilkerson pivots often to her other salient metaphor of the old house. In the U.S. we have inherited this old house with wonky wiring and faulty structure. It isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility. I have read this and discussed it with students so many times. My question is always what does our responsibility look like? This was the same question I had last night. The people in that auditorium last night are no longer unaware of the long history of caste here. They are no longer unaware of the house and its disrepair. What will happen when the silver hair, diamond rings, and tattooed passports go about their days today? What will they do to fix the house?
As Benjamin and I walked to the car, something about those questions occurred to me. What do people in the dominant castes usually do when their real homes (old or otherwise) need extensive repair? They call someone else. And those someones often look a lot like the cleaning crew at the capitol. And that was when I found the fire. I started talking on the way to the car and I couldn’t contain my feeling that I am sick and tired of feeling like Black, brown, poor oppressed people have to fix the house. Sick and tired of it but remembering that didn’t stop Fannie Lou Hamer and better not stop me either. I put my indignation aside for a bit and started thinking about what I could do to do to work on the house. I also searched my mind for the glimmer of hope that told me dominant caste people will go home and do something, too. And ten years rushed back to me.
Ten years ago, a white man made a decision to share a ticket to hear Isabel Wilkerson and Michele Norris with a Black family of women and girls. He offered my daughter a seat in an auditorium where someone must have thought she did not belong. He encouraged her to accept some discursive power and ask a question. He moved her front and center. She is 23 now and beginning a career in education. My friend’s push back against caste was likely a no brainer to him. He is that kind of person. And as a laborer who at 72 years old still pulls himself up by his bootstraps and paints for a living each day, he could be content with writing poetry in his spare time and making delicious meals. He isn’t. He is still working on the house. My ancestors may not have had those same bootstraps. They certainly did not have the ability to prosper in peace. But they worked and hoped and survived. So, when I think about working on this house, I will think of them and play as many roles as they could have dreamt. Casting beyond the old script and sitting in new seats.