Favorite Books of 2020.

AuthorConniff, Ruth

Ruth Conniff

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson's epic account of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, was the deeply reported history of people who came north during the Jim Crow era. Her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Penguin Random House), is more of an extended personal essay where she weaves together personal anecdote and history to create a profound analysis of the fundamental injustice upon which our country is built.

Slavery, she writes, is not a stain that has been wiped away but a critical component of Americanness, creating uniquely dehumanizing and rigid categories of people that have lasted to this day.

Upending America's good-guy self-image, Wilkerson spends significant time on the Nazis' fascination with segregation, documenting the Germans' careful study of the way America kept the races separate. She quotes historian George M. Fredrickson's observation that, when German Jews were stripped of citizenship, "American laws were the main foreign precedents for such legislation."

"As cataclysmic as the Nuremberg Laws were," Wilkerson writes, they didn't go as far as the American commitment to racial purity. The "one-drop rule," by which members of the disfavored caste were denied the benefits of white citizenship if they had the tiniest amount of lower-caste ancestry, "was too harsh for the Nazis."

Wilkerson develops a kinship with members of the lowest caste in India, the Dalits, who endure a familiar, casual disrespect designed to keep people in their place. And she brings her insights about caste to the demonization of America's first Black President and the rise of Donald Trump.

Dismissing the familiar liberal lament that white, working-class voters who support Trump are "voting against their own interests," she diagnoses white people's attachment to an upper-caste status so precious to them that they are willing to endure personal hardship in the short term to sustain their long-term domination of others.

Despite the heaviness of the history Caste covers, and some truly enraging anecdotes, Wilkerson is optimistic about the expansive potential of the human heart.

Near the end of her book she describes a visit from a plumber in a MAGA hat who arrives at her house and treats her contemptuously. Wilkerson makes a connection with him over their shared losses, and the two develop an unlikely bond.

This sort of extraordinary generosity is clear-eyed, not sentimental. Wilkerson dismisses saccharine white fantasies about all-forgiving, noble Black people that merely reinforce caste roles. She approvingly quotes a nine-year-old boy who, after being wrongly accused of assault by a middle-aged white woman, is asked by local reporters if he forgives her. No, says the boy, he certainly does not, adding "That lady needs to get help."

So do all of us. Wilkerson is offering it.

Ruth Conniff is editor-at-large for The Progressive and editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner.

Mike Ervin

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century (Vintage) offers an eclectic and authentic view of disability culture. It's edited by Alice Wong, a wheelchair user and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, which, according to its website, is "an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture."

The Disability Visibility Project has helped 140 disabled people record oral histories for StoryCorps, which collects, preserves, and shares people's stories. It also hosts a podcast, Twitter chats, and more. The group, Wong writes in the book's introduction, "has always been a one-woman operation, but this doesn't mean I do everything alone. Collaborating and partnering with disabled people is something that brings me epic, Marie Kondo-level joy."

One standout essay is "For Ki'tay D. Davidson, Who Loves Us," a eulogy written by Talila A. Lewis for the Black, disabled trans man who, Lewis says, "is my life partner, my mentee, my mentor, my dearest friend, and the one who showed me precisely what the meaning of love is." There's also "If You Can't Fast, Give," by Maysoon Zayid, a comedian who has cerebral palsy. She writes, "One of my symptoms is that I shake all the time, just like Shakira's hips." This essay relates how difficult her disability makes it for her to fast during Ramadan.

There is also an essay by Sky Cubacub, creator of Rebirth Garments, a line of "gender non-conforming wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size, and ability." "Cultural norms don't encourage trans and disabled people to dress stylishly or loudly," Cubacub writes. "Society wants us to 'blend in' and not draw attention to ourselves. But what if we were to resist society's desire to render us invisible? What if, through a dress reform, we collectively refuse to assimilate?"

Disability Visibility includes a transcript of Wong's podcast interview with activist Lateef McLeod, about how disabled people can use communication technology such as apps to speak up for ourselves.

"These stories do not seek to explain the meaning of disability or to inspire or elicit empathy," Wong writes. "Rather, they show disabled people simply being in our own words, by our own accounts." Reading this book deepened my pride to be a part of the vibrant, dynamic, and wonderfully defiant disability community.

Mike Ervin is a columnist for The Progresssive.

Jules Gibbs

The most salient book I read this year was Claudia Rankines Just Us: An American Conversation (Graywolf Press), the third in a trilogy that follows her critically acclaimed volume of poems, Citizen: An American Lyric. Just Us (hear: "justice") is comprised of poems and essays that document, parse, and grapple with Rankine's racially charged encounters with white people, including everyone from close friends to teachers to her husband to strangers on an airplane.

I found these scenes gripping and familiar, as though I were eavesdropping on my own whiteness, but with the benefit of knowing what Rankine thinks of the way I construct and participate in white privilege, and how that does real harm to people of color. Just Us puts white liberal guilt and denial of racism into sharp focus. Even if you consider yourself "woke" to racial injustice, Rankine points to our persistent and often willful refusal to face certain truths.

As I read one riveting...

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