On Monday, October 5th, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) hosted a virtual panel event discussing Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” hosted by Earl Lewis, Director, Center for Social Solutions, Professor, History and Afroamerican and African Studies, and President Emeritus of, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Five panelists affiliated with DAAS were invited to share their thoughts on the book, which featured Wilkerson in conversation with Director Ken Burns on Oct. 2 as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series at the University.
The bestseller author uses both storytelling and analysis to dive deeper into the layers of American hierarchical structures that include, but are not limited to, race, class and gender. It received critical acclaim from Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many more. Wilkerson, who also wrote “The Warmth of Other Suns,” was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2016 “for championing the stories of an unsung history.”
The event began with each panelist providing commentary on the book and answering questions provided by Lewis, the former Director of the then-Center of Afroamerican and African Studies, then transitioned to a discussion-style amongst the participants. The scholars discussed Wilkerson’s successful depiction of the lives of people who live in the bottom of caste systems, as well as possible solutions to eliminate these inequities.
Renée A. Pitter, a DAAS alum and Research Program Manager at the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities at the University of Michigan, expressed her thoughts on contributing to the panel as an alum.
“It was a pleasure and a joy to have the opportunity to discuss a book that I was reading for leisure with a panel of experts on the subject,” Pitter said in an email. “They really challenged the ways in which I perceived the book and left me with a lot of food for thought. It enriched the ways I am able to discuss the book with people outside of academic circles. I hope going forward we can have more events like this that include lots of perspectives including faculty, staff, alum and students.”
Karyn Lacy, associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University, commented on the visceral nature of the stories that Wilkerson wrote about.
“I had to put the book down and step away sometimes, because some of the stories were so incredibly painful,” Professor Lacy stated during the event.
Damani Partridge, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University, noted the novel’s ability to analyze the depths of classification in our society.
“Even if you think you’ve escaped your racial classification, you can’t escape; I think “caste” helps us to see that,” Partridge said.
The event came to a conclusion with panelists’ final thoughts, each expressing the relevance of Wilkerson’s studies today. The novel and panelists’ insights are particularly of interest for DAAS studies and re-emphasizes the importance of research from DAAS students, faculty and staff.