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As we go about our daily lives cast as the wordless usher in a darkened theater flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance, the hierarchy of tasks is not about feeling or morality. It's about power. Which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources which Casta seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect. Authority.
And assumptions of competence. Who is accorded these? And who is not? Hey, I'm Ramtane AWG, I'm Rand Abdelfattah, and on this episode of Throughline from NPR, The Origins of our Discontent. It's sacred work to be able to record the experiences of people who have been part of history but not been included in the history.
This is Isabel Wilkerson. I am author of The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the outpouring of six million African-Americans from the South to the rest of the country seeking refuge from the caste system known as Jim Crow that lasted from the end of reconstruction until essentially into the 1960s.
Isabelle spent a decade gathering research and conducting interviews for her book. It's both a sweeping story of a major event in American history, the Great Migration, and an intimate portrait of what it was like for those who lived through it. The book was heralded for challenging historical narratives, searching for the deeper story and connecting the bigger picture to real people. That approach to history is what we try to do.
Each week on this show, we've received dozens and dozens of messages from teachers across the country telling us that's the exact reason they've used throughline in their classrooms to reframe and recontextualize history, which got us thinking with the start of the school year right around the corner, why not put together a through line curriculum?
So that's exactly what we did during the month of August. We're going to bring you teacher curated, student approved through line episodes that challenge the past you thought you knew or maybe never learned at all. And to kick off the series, we sat down with Isabel Wilkerson to discuss her new book, Cast The Origins of Our Discontents, which makes the bold argument that cast, rather than race, gives us a better framework to understand American history. I think the cast actually gives us a new language, a new way of looking at what has always been there, but that we have not necessarily been able to see in the same way that we can't see the joys and the pillars and the beams in the buildings that we might work in or live in.
They are hidden behind what is in front and center, which is what I would call race. That conversation after the break. This is Leslie Moose calling from Sutton, Alaska. You're listening to Throughline from NPR. Support for this podcast and the following message come from in deep up, a new podcast from American Public Media is the water main. It's easy to turn on the tap and assume we've got water figured out. What's harder is imagining that the underground labyrinth that brings us drinking water and takes away our sewage is in real trouble.
Each week, in deep will plumb the depths of the complex mysteries behind the clean water in our lives with host Jed Kim. Listen.
And in Deep Dawg, or wherever you find your podcasts, we're only months away from Election Day and every week or even every few hours, there's a new twist that could affect who will win the White House. To keep up with the latest, tune into the NPR Politics podcast every day to find out what happened and what it means for the election. Part one cast is structure. When Isabel Wilkerson was working on her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, she noticed a strange pattern emerging in her research that would become the basis of her next book.
A lot of the anthropologists and sociologists who were writing about the Jim Crow South in the 1930s were using a word she wasn't used to seeing in an American context.
I was immersed in that world. I was focused in on what it was like to live in that world. And as a result of that, I became aware of how others who had studied that world while it was actually in progress, they were referring to that structure that existed in the American South. They described it as a caste system. As I was talking to the people who were survivors of that caste system, who had defected from that world, I recognized to that caste was the most appropriate, comprehensive and accurate way to describe what they had experienced.
I didn't come to it immediately, of course, know I, like everyone else, considered cast to be a word that would be applied to India, feudal Europe, it was not a word that I was aware of or would have thinking about. But that's how I came to the awareness of the use of the word caste in applying it to the United States. And also, I should say that a lot of people who have read the warmth of his sons will often talk about it as a book that speaks about racism or whether they were fleeing racism.
But the word racism does not appear in that book. Caste is the word that I used. It was through that recognition of what the Jim Crow South was actually like, that I came to the recognition that cast was the appropriate word. How would you define cast? And how does cast differ from race in the American context? Well, cast is millennia old and it's thousands and thousands of years old. In India, for example, it's been many, many thousands of years old.
So as a concept, caste predates the idea, the concept of race, which is a fairly new concept in human history. Caste is essentially an artificial, arbitrary, in many respects, construction of hierarchy, ranking the people within a culture or a society based upon their connection to whatever is the dominant caste. And when you look at any caste system, there is going to be a group that's on the top and there's a group that's on the bottom and those in the middle who are often struggling to navigate between these two poles and often are seeking to identify with and gain the favor of those who are at the very top of the hierarchy.
And in the United States, it's very clear historically from the beginning of colonial times, there were the people who were dominant and they were the English and those who might have come closest to them and then at the very, very bottom were transported to the new world, people who would be enslaved. And the recognition immediately visible recognition based upon what they looked like, made them sadly, tragically more vulnerable to being identified as very, very different from those who were the dominant group.
And so Africans became the subordinated group. And then there were people outside of that caste system, the people who had been ruthlessly, brutally driven from their own land, the indigenous people who were pushed outside and maybe made exiles in the emerging caste system.
Mm hmm. I mean, it sounds like the caste system really boils down to a power structure that keeps people in kind of distinct I don't want to say classes, but indistinct power dynamics with one another. And I guess I'm wondering, in contrast with race, which can also reinforce like power dynamics, how does caste capture that more than race does as a term and as an idea? Racism has, as a word, is not very there's not an agreement on what it means, it's often connected to the emotions of hate, hostility, disliking prejudice.
These are very emotionally fraught perspectives on how we relate to one another.
But cast takes us away from the emotion. Caste is about structure, it's about the infrastructure that we have inherited. It is not about feelings. It is really about power and how those other groups manage and navigate and seek to survive in a society that's created with this rank hierarchy that's been made invisible to us because it's so much a part of how things work in the country. And I think of cast as the bones and race as the skin. And then class is the accent, the diction, the clothing, the education, the things that we can change about ourselves but that are not the same as class, because if you can act your way out of it, then it's class.
If you cannot act your way out of it, then it's cast cast being something that is a rigid and fixed hierarchy that you can't see but that hold the structure in place. And then race becomes a tool of the framework in which we all live. It is the signal for where an individual has been assigned and their pre-existing established framework that we live in. So, you know, while reading the book, perhaps because I'm a millennial and I'm self centered, I kept thinking about where my family fits in the caste system.
But wealth tonight are from immigrant families, from the Middle East and from Iran, her families from Palestine. And I keep thinking sort of as the system stands, how does an American kassis incorporate new people that, you know, don't fit in kind of traditional categories of race of white and black in America? And how does caste work in kind of an ever evolving, increasingly diverse and increasingly brown society?
That is such a great question. Unlike the original caste system in India, which had four main banas under which there were thousands of sub castes, the United States was created as a project and democracy, and it was founded as sort of a bipolar hierarchy. And what that meant was that anyone coming into this pre-existing hierarchy who did not fit one of those two polls then had to figure out where do they fit and how do they manage to survive in a world where was intended originally to be bipolar, as I've described.
And so the dominant cast has changed over time as the as the needs economics, demographics have changed over time in the country. What's fascinating then is that many people that we today would, without question, consider to be white by every measure, would not have been considered white and say 18, 17 or 18, 19. There was a tremendous, tremendous tensions over who could be permitted into what would be called the dominant caste. You know, we often will say, you know, race is social construct, people say that all the time.
Well, this is how it was constructed. When people who arrive to this country from parts of Europe that were outside of Western Europe, from Southern and Eastern Europe, question was where where would they want to fit in? At a certain point, they were not wanted at all. Then they were folded in and labeled as or designated as white, not because that was their own identification before arriving, people did not arrive here with an idea of being white or for people who had been enslaved of being black.
They did not become that until arriving here. I mean, this shows you the arbitrary, artificial nature of trying to divide people up on the basis of the man made arbitrary ranking of people. When we come back, how Isabelle's book casts the origins of our discontents challenges us to think about American history in a new way and why that conversation is needed right now. Hi, this is Pam Pam Kappelhoff calling you from the far reaches of Manhattan, Kansas, and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show about the voices of the Depression.
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Part two, X-ray vision. When you were constructing sort of this idea for a book in framing the US context and U.S. history that maybe is familiar to us on the surface, but in these sort of foreign terms, that creates a new vantage point through which to see it. Right. And I wonder how how much you were thinking about that when you were working on this book.
Oh, absolutely. Thank you for putting it that way. I mean, it's like looking at ourselves from a different vantage point that we never would have thought of before, because it allows us to see it from a different prism, a different lens. And I think of it as sort of an infrared light. I describe it as looking at the X-ray of one's country. When we use the same language long enough, we stop even hearing ourselves. It doesn't ask us to think beyond what we already know.
Using language that we're not accustomed to, but that still accurately portrays what our circumstances may be, helps us to see things differently and perhaps and hopefully awaken from what we might not have been aware of before. Using cast as a way to frame American history, a look at American history, how can that change the way we approach the problems we're facing today that we continue to face, whether it's could have income inequality, racial oppression, the kind of the list goes on of the problems the country is dealing with, having a kind of caste frame of American history.
How can that kind of change the way we approach problems today? Cast is I find it to be a liberating concept in an odd kind of way because it takes the personal out of it. It removes the the heaviness of preconceived notions about how we would view ourselves. It's fresh and new and a different kind of way. I believe, in an era in which we live. We need new language to work our way through what it is that we're experiencing.
The same language that was applied to the era of cross burning Klansmen of the early 20th century might not be the most effective way to deal with the divisions and tensions that we are facing today.
Many of those overt forms of what would be called racism don't manifest in the same ways. And so the question is, how is it that these things are still occurring?
How is it that we live in a country where on a regular basis there's a video that is that emerges that shows someone from what I would call the dominant cast, a white American, a white person is policing, surveilling, pointing to someone of what I would call the subordinate cast. African-Americans calling the police literally on them for waiting for a friend at a Starbucks, for having a barbecue at a park in Oakland or attempting to get into one's own condo building in St.
Louis. Why is it that we are seeing these efforts to to restrict control and set boundaries as to where an individual should or should not be? That is essentially the hallmark of caste. If you think about caste as a word, caste as what you would put on your arm in order to hold bones together after a fracture, a caste is literally they to hold things in place. If you think about the cast in a play, everyone in the cast has a set and specific role to play.
Everyone knows what their role is. They know their lines. And they go about the production with an understanding of who will be where. And when you think about cast as a caste system, that is what we're seeing as well. This is a really long standing, enduring concept that seems to have survived all of the various civil rights legislation to deal with the various efforts to redress past injustices and current ones. It seems to be a through line for how things have continued to be as we live today.
It is a continuum. And so that's the reason why I think the cast actually gives us a new framework, new language, a new way of looking at what has always been there, but that we have not necessarily been able to see. So this idea of Outkast was first sort of introduced by some anthropologists in the early 20th century in the US, right. And it didn't really take hold then. Right. So I guess I'm wondering why you feel that this conversation around PCAST is useful right now and might take hold right now?
Well, I think that we are at a moment in our country's history of rupture and discord and division that does not seem to be improving, but in fact, in some respects appears to be worsening. And that means that there needs to be a different way of looking at what is happening. The old ways of looking at our society may not be as useful today as they might have been before, and that is why I am suggesting that. Let's look at what is underneath what we think we see.
Let's look underneath what we have been told. Let's look underneath what we have come to believe as far as the way things work and to see how this is operating on affecting us and has been so enduring that we can see the manifestation of it. Even now, there are so much to be learned from looking more closely and seeing what we can learn from other cultures as well. Isabel Wilkerson breaks down her approach to telling historical stories and how she finds the balance between narrative and facts.
When we come back. Hi, this is Sophie from Portland, Oregon, and you're listening to Throughline from NPR. Support for NPR comes from Newman's Own Foundation, working to nourish the common good by donating all profits from Newman's Own food products to charitable organizations that seek to make the world a better place. More information is available at Newman's Own Foundation. Doug. Part three, a house inherited. I consider myself a writer of narrative nonfiction, and I consider myself a historian at this point because I spend so much time with the history.
First and foremost, this work requires listening and an open heart to hearing how other people have experienced something after the warmth of the sun came out.
One of the things that I would hear time and time again, over and over and over, no matter what the background of the person was, was, I had no idea.
I had no idea. And when someone says that, you know, these are people who live during that era there, these are people who live in the south at that time, but they had not seen or recognized, I should say, the experiences of people who were on the face of it, unlike themselves, or had they had been told run like themselves and didn't understand, didn't see. Didn't know. And this is sacred work of hearing from people who have not been heard before, it's sacred work to be able to record the experiences of people who have been part of history but not been included in the history.
And that's how I view myself. I love your work, I love warmth of other suns and also in this particular book, use of chapters from history or points from history to really illuminate points about the world we live in today. Our show takes a particular approach. Many people do it. How do you think about how history is going to help you tell the story? In the case of cast, when you began thinking about how to tell the story, what was your approach?
Well, I started completely from a perspective of I understand and know and have studied the American caste system as it existed and the Jim Crow south of that. I knew what I did not know was how it manifested in other places. What were the origins of what I saw as a as an underlying phenomenon that we still have to deal with but are not even aware that we are dealing with it? So the first goal was to understand India, to understand and study and research, how does it work there?
What are the parallels that could be gleaned from it? And I was stunned to discover the parallels that I did. And one of the things that that comes to mind for me is that we often ask, why do these people do this thing or do that thing? And I have come to believe that the only question really is what do human beings do when they are in the circumstances that they're in? And so I ended up finding so many parallels in the ways that human beings respond based upon where they happen to be.
The importance of maintaining the purity of the dominant caste in both societies was paramount in formulating their caste systems and of course, the one in India, thousands upon thousands of years old and yet far, far away in a completely different millennium. You know, the early Americans began to create boundaries around the dominant caste that persisted into well into certainly well into the 20th century. A lot of it having to do with water and the sanctity of water. It turned out that, for example, in India, the people who were then called untouchables and adults were not permitted to drink from the same well.
There are many, many, many restrictions around them having to do with water. And in the United States into the 1960s, there were cases where when desegregation of the pools and of other facilities were to be enacted. There were many places, not just in the South, I should say, all over the country that refused to to integrate, refused to allow African-Americans into these pools and actually poured concrete into the pool so that no one could use the pool rather than to allow African-Americans into the water with white Americans.
So these were the kinds of things that I was open to and thought might be there, but I found so much more than I ever could have imagined. Well, and that's the thing, right?
Like whenever we're tackling something, we're also I mean, there's there's so much usually that we have to sort of wade through to to find the story and what we're going to keep in and what we're going to go and all of that. And so I wonder when, like when you were working on cars and also warmth of other suns, how much interrogating that kind of central narrative that you were presenting, like how much of that was happening in the process of putting it together?
Because I think that's something we're always cognizant about, worried about that we're not maybe seeing the whole story because maybe we're focused on one story or that maybe we aren't considering all the potential criticisms or counter points or whatever it is. So how did how do you sort of reckon with that?
Well, I mean, I, I focus in on getting as much as I can from wherever I can get it. So I for this book, I was ordering books from all over the world. I mean, there are books coming in from India, books coming in from that I ordered from the U.K. reading as much as I could to get the understand the history, particularly the works of the era. The goal was to get the books that have been written in the thirties, books that have been written in the 18 nineties out of the U.K., if I could get my hands on them.
So there was that whole effort of just doing the research. And then there was the meeting with and hearing the stories, hearing the testimony, the bearing witness of the people who had experienced some aspect of caste that I was attempting to convey somehow. I mean, listening very deeply to the testimony of people that I might have been seeking out or might have come across in the process of working on this hour, even before I began actively working on it.
And then the effort to with reluctance to think about what were the examples that might be helpful to readers from my own experience to show in some ways the irony that even as you're working on something, you yourself are experiencing the phenomenon yourself.
And so those were the many things that I was managing and and juggling as I was putting this together. But the main goal is to to to amass and to pull together as much as I possibly can. I try not to worry so much about making the decisions in the moment of massive amassing the information. And then I start to to get into the writing. And when you can get into the flow, you recognize what is necessary. I mean, one of the things about it is I really wanted it to be very concise, but the more that I got into it, the more I was discovering.
And it grew much bigger than I had anticipated. But it became necessary in order to create a comprehensive framework for understanding this phenomenon and how it manifests throughout whatever caste system one might be looking at. Know there's been a lot of criticism of historical storytelling that seems to feed like basically using history to feed a particular perspective or narrative the author is trying to tell and that kind of what some people call cherry picking of history can be dangerous because it doesn't give a kind of a fuller, broader perspective.
As you know, this has been one of the critiques of the 60 19 project. What do you think of that critique? Do you think there is real legitimacy in the danger of perhaps cherry picking a story and in such a way that just tries to make an ideological point?
Well, I think that so much of the history that we have received as Americans has been from a singular perspective. And we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who had been in the shadows, not seen, not heard. And that means that we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country. And I think that we are beginning only beginning to be able to hear from the voices of people who have not been heard before.
I can only obviously speak for the work that I'm doing. And I would say that the goal is to feel the warmth of the sense, for example, was the chance finally for people who had survived the Jim Crow caste system to be able to speak for themselves about their experience. There are many, many things that have been written about that era by others, and this was a chance to be able to hear from the people who had lived it before it was too late.
And many of the people who in the process of even doing that book, they actually, you know, they passed away in the process. So this was a you know, the clock was ticking every day and every week that was working on it. So this was this is an effort to allow people's voices to be heard. And I think that we can only benefit from hearing multiple experiences from people who haven't been heard before.
You know, I know where we're at the very end of our time, so we don't want to hold you any longer. We've really enjoyed talking to you. The only question we always like to ask is whether you have anything that you'd like to add before before I part ways. I guess I would just want to say that this is the house that we have. Inherited. And I have come in like an inspector of an old building and have worked to create, you know, a report on the structure of the building, it's an x ray of our of our house.
And then it's up to each of us in our own way, wherever we can to find ways to come together, to understand it, confront it. Deal with it. And to work together, to heal ourselves from all that's happened before. This has been amazing. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for writing this book. Thank you. Take care. That's it for this week's show I'm running Abdelfattah, I'm Romdhane AWB, and you've been listening to Throughline from NPR.
This episode was produced by me and me and Jamie York on SWU Lane, Kalpen Levinsohn, Julie Kane here, myocarditis.
Natalie Barton, fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Vocal. Thanks also to Camille Smiley and on Your Grundmann and this special massive thank you to the one and only Nigerian for inspiring the idea for this episode and guiding the show from the very beginning. As our executive producer, she recently left NPR for an incredible new opportunity elsewhere. And we miss her so much already, especially that amazing laugh. I mean, we even got a tweet from a listener telling us how much they loved hearing her say her name in our credits.
Smiling, somber majorie in Niger in throughline would not be what it is today without you. It's true, Nyree. You are the absolute best. We'll never forget that moment like three weeks into your time at NPR when throughline was just this dream we had and you told us without any doubt or hesitation it would happen, you believed in us and that made us believe in ourselves. We really, really miss you. And we're grateful for everything you did for this show.
Our music was composed by Ramtane and his band Electric, which includes Navid Marvy show Fujiwara, Onya Masani.
And just a reminder, this is part of a series for the next few weeks where teachers have curated throughline episodes that they've used with students. We hope you'll listen. And if you use Dooly in this way or any way, let us know. We love hearing from you as always. If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at Throughline Unpeg or hit us up on Twitter at Throughline NPR.
Thanks for listening.