Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
We are in the midst of a golden age of Black intellectual abundance at the precise moment we most need these voices, and it stresses me out to even attempt to name the many whom I admire. I would include Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Adam Serwer, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Saeed Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Brent Staples, Karen Attiah and Yamiche Alcindor. And I must add the historians: Ibram X. Kendi, Daina Ramey Berry, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Blair L. M. Kelley, Carol Anderson and Stephanie Jones-Rogers.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I wish we could see more books about the inner lives of everyday people from marginalized groups in our country — not the extremes of either celebrity or pathology, but just regular working folks who make up, for instance, the great bulk of African-Americans. People just going about their days and getting through the challenges of ordinary life do not get anywhere near the attention they deserve in the popular imagination. And their invisibility leads to distortions in how an entire group is seen, gives the impression that people from across the racial divide are more fundamentally different than we actually are. Two of the most gorgeous examples that come to mind for me are Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” and Rita Dove’s “Thomas and Beulah,” both of which elevate the ordinary to the sublime.
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about America’s caste system?
W. E. B. DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction” is vital to understanding the reinvigoration of caste after the end of the Civil War, as is Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction.” The late anthropologist Ashley Montagu, in his 1942 book, “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth,” was among the earliest to make the case that race was a social construct and that caste was an underlying driver of our disparities. For understanding how caste operates in specific segments of our society, I would recommend the following: “Medical Apartheid,” by Harriet A. Washington, for stunning insights into how caste has played out in the history of health care in our country. “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, and “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson, for overwhelming evidence of caste in our criminal justice system. “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein for an analysis of how caste has undergirded our country’s housing policies. And for the effect of caste in economics, the work of William A. Darity, specifically, “Persistent Disparity” and “From Here to Equality.” Decades ago, in the seminal work “The Annihilation of Caste,” the late Bhimrao Ambedkar, the revered leader of the Dalit liberation movement, wrote of the divisive nature of caste in India, but close observers of racial dynamics in the United States will recognize parallels with our own country in his impassioned treatise. Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” remains perhaps the most comprehensive single work on what Myrdal himself came to see as a caste system in America. And finally, “The Negro in Chicago,” the 1922 report from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, which convened in the aftermath of the 1919 race riots, is as chillingly prophetic and relevant to us today as it was when it was written nearly a century ago.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which genres do you avoid?
I find myself drawn to classic, often underappreciated, novels of the 1930s and 1940s, to works like “The Street,” by Ann Petry, who is deservedly experiencing a renaissance, “If He Hollers, Let Him Go,” by Chester Himes, who deserves his own renaissance, and “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler. The latter is a clever and biting satire in which Schuyler imagines the social disruption of an invention that can make Black people look like white people in a matter of days. Black people who swear they would never do it, line up to be converted, while paranoia spreads among white people who fear being infiltrated by Black people who only look white. Thousands of Black people disappear into the white world, but have trouble truly passing because they have neither the back story nor the dominant caste perspective to pull it off, and thus live in fear of being outed.