Author, journalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson brought her moral clarity and willingness to speak hard truths to the opening plenary session of the 2023 Annual Conference of the Council for Opportunity in Education. Wilkerson wrote The New York Times bestselling book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” which was published in 2010. Her 2020 book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Both texts were the subject of her keynote speech.
Wilkerson opened her remarks by discussing recent extraordinary events, such as one county in Texas banning her book “Caste,” last year’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the work of insurrectionists as they dared to break into the “citadel of democracy itself,” the U.S. Capitol.
Wilkerson said she often hears people say, “This is not my country,” or “This is not what America stands for.” However, she counters this notion, stating, “If we knew our country’s true history, we would know that our country is like a patient with a preexisting condition. Like heart disease. And if a patient with heart disease had a heart attack, you might be alarmed… but you would not be surprised.”
“My mission,” she said, “has been to use the power of language and narrative to change the way we see ourselves and our country.” She said she spent 15 years writing her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” documenting stories about the 20th-century migration of 6 million Black Americans away from the Jim Crow South.
“Migration isn’t about migration,” Wilkerson explained. “It isn’t even about geography. It is about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it. The Great Migration was the only time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as citizens of the country to which they had been born… The Great Migration was, in effect, a defection. They were defecting from a caste system.”
Offering examples of why one would defect, Wilkerson shared just a few of the segregation laws that separated races in the American South.“You could go to jail if you played checkers with someone of a different race,” she said. The caste system in the Jim Crow South was so extreme, she stated, that there was a Black bible in each courtroom and an altogether separate White bible to swear to tell the truth in court. “That means that the very word of God was segregated in the Jim Crow South,” Wilkerson said.
Our caste system was very similar to what happened in India to the Untouchables or Dalits, the lowest caste, Wilkerson said. In India, and America, there had to be a division of those at the top and those at the bottom to forbid interaction. This is the foundation of many of our country’s challenges and divisions, she added.
“Caste is with us whether we recognize it or not; caste is working in our society whether we name it or not, so we might as well understand the infrastructure of what we have inherited as a people,” Wilkerson said.
“If you think of our country as an old house, whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of an action. It will be there waiting for you until you finally gather the courage to face it,” she said to thunderous applause.
In response to those who say they had nothing to do with the enslavement of Africans or the genocide of Native Americans, Wilkerson reminded the audience that “not one of us was here when this house was built…. “But here we are, the owners of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls. We are the heirs to whatever is wrong. We did not install the frayed wiring and corroded pipes. They are ours to deal with now. But any further deterioration – any further deterioration – is on us,” she emphasized.
Wilkerson concluded by saying, “This is a very old house that we have inherited. It is not the responsibility of those who have been targeted by this caste system to solve it. We are in this old house together, and it is time we started to act like it.”