My grandfather loved to tell me that he was as tall as Abraham Lincoln and wore the same shoe size as George Washington. When I would come to visit, he would turn off the news, and sitting in his favorite armchair in front of the TV, he’d tell me again the story of when he left home to make his way in the world, and his dad simply said, “Be honest.”
He would tell me that when he was promoted from stock boy to cashier, he once rode his bike a mile and a half to return a dime to a customer he had overcharged. Or he might pull down a maroon leather book from the shelves and read me the poem, ‘I Am Old Glory’:
“So long as men love liberty more than life itself, so long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, I shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America,” of the finest country in the world.
Year after year of those sessions, of me sitting there on the living room couch, the one whose arms were always covered with plastic sleeves, while we waited for my grandmother to call “lunch,” I began to wrap that pride around my young body like a flag of bulletproof gems.
As I got older, it was easy to find appeal in sayings I heard in high school like “Russia sucks,” because enemies were anyone or anything that threatened the superpower status which gave us — me — an inflated sense of self-worth, that lifted me above and away from the dread inside, the fear that I was nothing.
Before my grandfather died, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren and one of the things he said was, “Our freedom and all the good things we enjoy must be defended constantly, every day of our lives. Always remember that a nation can be destroyed from forces within.”
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“If we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!”
The kids and I yelled these chants until our voices were hoarse down the streets of Georgetown during a Black Lives Matter march this June. “What are we shutting down?” asked Mark, 12, as we walked by stone houses that looked like Southern mansions, a few with white people standing in front waving.
“The system,” I tell him, but even I can’t picture it — the police, the government, the everything? I don’t know how one shuts it down or what would happen if we did.
George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer finally shook us into reckoning that something is terribly wrong with our system — it’s rotting from within. What is festering inside our country is a caste system. This I was stunned to read in The New York Times magazine from July 5 that I had folded and saved on top of my stack of half-finished books.
The formal structure that originally defined caste was abolished with laws and civil rights acts, but the race-based hierarchy still lives on, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her profound and elegant article, America’s Enduring Caste System.
“A caste system is … a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” Wilkerson writes, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it.”
Having caste as our society’s hidden structure puts us, the world’s greatest democracy, the shining beacon of freedom, in company with India and its ancient intractable system and Nazi Germany. Invisibility, says Wilkerson, is what gives caste its power and endurance.
Wilkerson likens a caste system to the hidden structure of a house. “America is an old house,” she says, and it was built 400 years ago on a flawed foundation, a two-tiered hierarchy with those identifying as white at the top and Blacks at the bottom, while immigrants from non-European countries find a place somewhere the middle, and Native Americans are exiled completely.
As anyone who has lived in an old house knows, problems like sagging joists or water leaking into the basement don’t just go away. Sometimes we learn to live with the smell of mold and the slanted floors, and then “the awkward becomes acceptable,” says Wilkerson, “and the unacceptable become merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.”
A house built on a crooked foundation cannot be fixed with patches and paint. When we focus on racism as the problem, it shape-shifts, it mutates, but the invisible lines remain because, Wilkerson says, the hidden structure has not been exposed and dismantled.
I walk barefoot whenever I can these days. When the soles of my feet make contact with dirt, with bricks, with grass or even cement, I feel solid, right, part of it all.
My daughter Virginia tells me that walking barefoot on the earth is called grounding. There is something about being in touch with the ground that is healing. They say the earth’s subtle electrical charge neutralizes free radicals, acting like one giant antioxidant, and regulates our autonomic nervous system. Keeps our circadian rhythms.
Houses separate us from nature, from each other. Houses are meant to shelter us, but when some people are relegated to the basement, it may look like a dwelling from the outside but from the inside, it’s a prison to some. When the people who are kept down try to escape the place of no light, low ceilings, and toxic fumes, they are spotted immediately by their appearance. In a caste based on physical features, no amount of education, resumé heft, or hard work will set you free, because you can’t change the color of your skin.
By the laws of nature, or the universe, or what you might call God, no species is better than another. It’s one big amalgam, one mysterious overflowing swirl of life. In the animal and plant and mineral world, there are no levels of greater or lesser rainbows, adequate or inadequate sunflowers, worthy or unworthy elephants. As a native of India once told anti-slavery leader Charles Sumner, “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.”
When my grandfather said all those wonderful things about America, I felt that I was being conferred a new sparkly costume, simply for the random involuntary act of being born on a certain patch of land. A glowing coat of beauty and power.
I must have been old enough by then to have lost that feeling I had as a child, the sense of unfettered connection with everything and everyone. I had already begun to separate myself out — good or bad, weak or strong, smart or not — judging myself with the standards and expectations that make some people into idols, others into nobodies.
I felt ashamed for my grandfather to know that I wasn’t the American that he admired and always strived to be — magnanimous, noble, fair, and true. So I took that spangled cloak and pretended I was.
I don’t know how we can take down piece by piece a structure that contains all of us. I don’t know when we will have the courage to step down, to live without shelter, to join the wild unknown of nature, to get rid of our shoes, our buildings, our foundations.
But it helps to shine an infra-red light onto the structure we live in and ask, How much longer can we stay here before the whole thing falls down?