Little Rock Sometimes the little things remind us that we’re fighting the same war, but on different battlefronts.
I’ve read both of Isabel Wilkerson’s books, first, The Warmth of Other Suns, the award-winning book on the Great Migration, and, more recently, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. Seeing that she was giving a lecture at the Clinton Center, and I happened to be in town, I signed up, initially in-person, and then virtually. Former President Clinton introduced her, starting slowly, and then warming to the task. He recommended Other Suns, saying that if it had not been for the Arkansas diaspora, he could not have won the presidency. He then claimed that Caste had changed the way he thought about our history and present. His case on caste was that we were all genetically 99.5% the same and tragically divided over the half-percent of difference. His best line was remarking to Hillary that his genome had him at 4% Neanderthal. She replied that she was “not surprised,” but when he pointed out that she was also 4% Neanderthal, she said “she didn’t believe it.” The crowd roared.
Wilkerson told one of the core stories from the book of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and his trip to India, where he was originally uncomfortable being introduced as “another untouchable” just he was addressing a meeting of Dalits. Later on the trip, thinking more about caste, he agreed, and embraced the commonality that stigmatized Blacks in the US, just as a different and more complex set of caste markers ordered society for centuries in India. Wilkerson’s main case on caste, particularly for what seemed on the YouTube to be an almost all-white crowd, was essentially any rationale that this was not a current collective problem that everyone needed to address because it was “before our time”, was wrong because this is what we have all inherited as part of the history of the country and it is our time and the right time for us all to move to finally solve it.
Wilkerson was also fixated, appropriately, on the January 6th attack on the Capitol, coming back to it repeatedly as evidence for her argument on how important it was to deal with these caste issues. Her best line remarked that the insurrectionists were waving a Confederate flag in the halls of Congress, now more than 150 years later, accomplishing something that General Robert E. Lee, leading the Confederates, never got close to achieving.
Despite a late start, front-to-back, starting at 6PM, Wilkerson shut down her iPad at 7PM, so away from home without any chores, I hit the button to watch and listen to a town hall being sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders on worker insurgency that had quite a lineup that attracted me, including national presidents of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien; Flight Attendants, Sara Nelson; Postal Workers, Mark Dimondstein; Amazon Labor Union, Chris Smalls; and Starbucks Workers United organizer Jaz Brisac. It was interesting and gave me a better sense of all of them. O’Brien read his remarks earnestly and energetically, promising a 365-day battle for a better contract at UPS and reminding listeners twice that the Teamsters had fought hard for over a hundred years and would fight for another one-hundred. Sara Nelson has gotten a lot of attention as a new and upcoming labor leader. She never looked away from the camera, and with a beaming smile managed to be both warm and engaging, and fiercely militant, highlighting their campaign on Delta. Chris Smalls, still in the afterglow of the Amazon Labor Union’s victory at Amazon was interesting. He wore a baseball cap that said “Smalls”, spoke extemporaneously and with incessantly good humor. He cracked Sanders up at one point telling a great story about Jeff Bezos saying he tried to have two or three deep thoughts daily, and how proud and excited he was to know that the richest man in the world at the time had one of his thoughts about him making $35,000 a year in one of his warehouses.
It had been a long, long day on the road and in the heat, and I was fading, but I didn’t want to miss the APWU’s Dimondstein, who I had been hearing so much about in recent months. He was effective trying to shed credit on others and bring them together. He was also brief and to the point, closing with a great Joe Hill verse. On a shelf on the wall behind him were several books, but the only title that stood out clearly was Wilkerson’s Caste. He understands it’s the same war and a common battleground, and that’s invaluable leadership in this moment.