Listening to the Stories by Susan Panttaja

This week, I went to the theater to see Origin, the new movie directed by Ava duVernay, based on the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. The film follows Wilkerson as she develops her theory of the parallels between racism in the U.S., the subjugation of the Dalits at the bottom of India’s caste system, and the systematic persecution and extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. Like the book, the film is enlightening, devastating, and beautiful. Some of the visuals are difficult to watch, which is appropriate for a film that investigates the ways groups of people are deliberately dehumanized in order to maintain power structures. Yet the film is also a study of love and grief, and a glimpse into the writing process. If you haven’t read the book yet, the movie is a fine introduction to the material.

February is Black History Month. It is a good time (though by no means the only time) to pay attention to Black voices, like Wilkerson’s. These voices are everywhere, if we look for them.

A lot of my anti-racist reading is nonfiction, but I try to give myself time to enjoy fiction written by Black authors, too. A good novel allows me to get inside the characters’ lives and develop empathy with people whose life experiences are sometimes far different than mine. This week, I immersed myself in the engrossing and fast-paced novel Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson, about two enslaved children who escape the plantation and find freedom with a community in the Great Dismal Swamp. This book, aimed at middle-school readers, imagines what life might have been like for former slaves who formed a “maroon community” in this seemingly uninhabitable land. Next, I’m looking forward to some future fiction – perhaps some N.K. Jemison or more Octavia Butler?

On the nonfiction side, I heard a presentation by Donald Tamaki, one of the members of the California Reparations Task Force, about the reasons why reparations for African Americans are warranted and what those reparations might look like. Stay tuned for a Racial Justice Allies dialog on this topic this spring!

All that I am learning now reminds me of a question I heard recently: What could I have known, if I had wanted to? Today I want to learn. I am ready to be transformed.
I know that the amount of work needed to dismantle the deeply-rooted structure of racism in this country can feel overwhelming. To do it, every one of us must push back, every day, on the system we are entrenched in and our own assumptions. Yet it is essential that we remain dedicated to the cause. As Wilkerson writes, “A world without caste would set everyone free.” I have faith that a caste-free world – a world of justice, respect, dignity, and plenty for all – is achievable, if we keep on working for it together.

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