Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
None of us are ourselves.
Her name is Miss. It is only Miss. It is Miss for a reason. She was born in Texas in the 1970s to parents who came of age under Jim Crow, the authoritarian regime that laid the ground rules for the rest of a willing country. The overarching rule was that the lowest caste was to remain low in every way at all times, at any cost. Every reference was intended to reinforce their inferiority. In describing a train wreck, for instance, newspapers would report, “
two men and two women were killed, and four Negroes.” Black men were never to be addressed as ”Mister,” and black women were never to be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.,” but rather by their first name or “auntie” or “gal,” regardless of their age or marital status.
These rules were as basic as the change in the seasons, and a mayoral campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, turned almost entirely on a breach of a sacrosanct protocol. The supremacist police chief, Bull Connor, had a favorite in that 1961 race. He decided to secure the election of the man he wanted to win by framing the man he wanted to lose: he paid a black man to shake the opposing candidate's hand in public as a photographer lay in wait. The story took up a full page in a local newspaper, and the opponent lost the election as Bull Connor knew he would. For white southerners, it was a “
cardinal sin,” it was “harrowing,” wrote the historian Jason Sokol, “to call a black man âMister' or to shake hands with him.”
A young boy growing up ninety miles south, in Selma, watched white people, complete strangers, children even, call his mother and grandmother by their first names, have the nerve to call out “Pearlie!” to his mother instead of “Mrs. Hale,” despite their upright bearing and church gloves and finery. Harold Hale came to hate this presumption of overfamiliarity, their putting his high-minded Mama and Big Mama in their place, and, worse still, knowing that there was nothing he could do about it.
In early 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to town. It had been one hundred years since the end of the Civil War, and the subordinate caste was still not permitted to vote, despite the Fifteenth Amendment granting that right. Harold Hale signed up for the march Dr. King was planning from Selma to Montgomery.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge that they would have to cross to begin the journey was a few blocks from Hale's house. When he and the six hundred other marchers arrived at the foot of the bridge, a column of state troopers in helmets and on horseback blocked their path. The troopers stormed the protesters. They gassed, beat, and trampled them, “
charging horses, their hoofs flashing over the fallen,” in the words of the writer George B. Leonard, who watched in horror from his black-and-white television set. ABC News had cut into the middle of
Judgment at Nuremberg,
a movie about Nazi war crimes, to broadcast the grainy footage from Selma, one nightmare fusing into another.
Hale, a teenager far from the leaders up front, was unharmed physically. But he worried now about how long it might take for change to come. He decided then and there that if there was one thing he would do, he would make the dominant caste respect the next generation in his line. He decided he would stand up to the caste system by naming his firstborn daughter, whenever he might be so blessed, “Miss.” He would give no one in the dominant caste the option but to call her by the title they had denied his foremothers. Miss would be her name. When his firstborn daughter arrived, his wife, Linda, went along with the plan.
Miss was now seated across from me at her lace-covered dinner table one summer evening. The homemade lasagna and strawberry cake had been put away. The kids and her husband were otherwise occupied, and she was recounting her life, north and south, how her father's dreams have brushed up against caste as she moves about the world.
A white porcelain sugar bowl sat between us on the table. She swept her hand over the top of the bowl. “I find that white people are fine with me,” she said, “as long as I stay in my place. As long as I stay in âthe container we have built for you.'â”
She tapped the side of the sugar bowl, gentle, insistent taps.
“As soon as I get out of the container,” she said, lifting the lid from its bowl, “it's a problem.”
She held the lid up to the light and then closed it back in its place.
When she was a little girl, her family moved to a small town in East Texas. They were the only black family on their block. Her father took delight in keeping the front yard pristine and tended to it in his off hours. He would change out the annuals in the flower beds overnight so that people would awaken to the surprise of a practically new yard. One day, a white man who lived in the neighborhood saw her father out front mowing the lawn. The man told her father he was doing a mighty fine job and asked what he was charging for yard work.
“Oh, I don't charge anything,” Harold Hale said. “I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”
He smiled at the man. “I live here.”
Once word got out, people took baseball bats and knocked down the mailbox in front of the Hales' carefully tended garden. So Harold Hale set the next mailbox in concrete. One day, someone rolled by and tried to knock it down again from the car window, and when they did, the family heard a yell from outside. “The person had hurt their arm trying to hurl the bat at the new mailbox,” Miss said. “But it was in concrete, and the bat kicked back at them.” People left the mailbox alone after that.
The local high schools began permitting the two castes to go to school together in the early 1970s, before the family had arrived. When she was in tenth grade, she and her friends attracted unexpected attention for the walkie-talkies they used during their breaks between classes. This was before cellphones, and it allowed her to keep in touch with her friends, who'd gather at her locker at break time. The principal called her into his office one day, suspicious of the activity and wanting to know why these people were gathered around her locker. She showed him the device.
He asked her name.
“Miss Hale,” she said.
“What's your first name?”
“I said, what is your first name?”
“My name is Miss.”
“I don't have time for this foolishness. What's your real name?”
She repeated the name her father had given her. The principal was agitated now, and told an assistant to get her records. The records confirmed her name.
“Hale. Hale,” he repeated to himself, trying to figure out the origins of this breach in protocol. In small southern towns, the white people knew or expected to know all the black people, the majority of whom would be dependent on the dominant caste for their income or survival one way or the other. He was trying to figure out what black family had had the nerve to name their daughter Miss, knowing the fix it would put the white people in.
“Hale. I don't know any Hales,” he finally said. “You're not from around here. Where is your father from?”
“He's from Alabama.”
“Who does he work for?”
She told him the name of the company, which was based outside of Texas. She told him it was a Fortune 500 company. Her parents had taught her to say this in hopes of giving her some extra protection.
“I knew you weren't from around here,” he said. “Know how I know?”
She shook her head, waiting to be excused.
“You looked me in the eye when I was talking,” he said of this breach in caste. “Colored folks from around here know better than to do that.”
She was finally excused, and when she got home that day, she told her father what happened. He had waited twenty years for this moment.
“What did he say? And then what did you say? And what did he say after that?”
He could barely contain himself. The plan was working.
He told her over and over that she must live up to the name she was given. “They don't have the corner on humanity,” he told her. “They don't have the corner on femininity. They don't have the corner on everything it means to be a whole, admirable, noble, honorable female member of the species. They haven't cornered that.”
Years later, Miss had a chance to see life in another part of America. In college, she was invited to spend the summer with the family of a fellow student on Long Island in New York. The family welcomed her and got a kick out of her name and how her family had stuck it to those bigots down South.
She was attentive to the grandmother in the family, so the grandmother grew especially fond of her. Miss had a graceful, easygoing manner, and was respectful toward the elders in the long tradition of black southern life. When the summer came to a close, and it was time to return to school, the grandmother was despondent at her leaving, so attached had she grown to her.
“I wish you would stay,” the matriarch said, looking forlorn and hoping to convince her still.
Miss reminded her that she would need to be leaving.
“There was a time,” the matriarch said, in warning and regret, “when I could have made you stay.” She adjusted herself, her voice trailing off at her impotenceâ¦.
Each of us is in a container of some kind. The label signals to the world what is presumed to be inside and what is to be done with it. The label tells you which shelf your container supposedly belongs on. In a caste system, the label is frequently out of sync with the contents, mistakenly put on the wrong shelf and this hurts people and institutions in ways we may not always know.
Back before Amazon and iPhones, I was a national correspondent at
The New York Times,
based in Chicago. I had decided to do a lighthearted piece about Chicago's Magnificent Mile, a prime stretch of Michigan Avenue that had always been the city's showcase, but now some big names from New York and elsewhere were about to take up residence. I figured New York retailers would be delighted to talk. As I planned the story, I reached out to them for interviews. Everyone I called was thrilled to describe their foray into Chicago and to sit down with the
The interviews went as expected until the last one. I had arrived a few minutes early to make sure we could start on time, given the deadline I was facing.
The boutique was empty at this quiet hour of the late afternoon. The manager's assistant told me the manager would be arriving soon from another appointment. I told her I didn't mind the wait. I was happy to get another big name in the piece. She went to a back corner as I stood alone in a wide-open showroom. A man in a business suit and overcoat walked in, harried and breathless. From the far corner she nodded that this was him, so I went up to introduce myself and get started. He was out of breath, had been rushing, coat still on, checking his watch.
“Oh, I can't talk with you now,” he said, brushing past me. “I'm very, very busy. I'm running late for an appointment.”
I was confused at first. Might he have made another appointment for the exact same time? Why would he schedule two appointments at once? There was no one else in the boutique but the two of us and his assistant in back.
“I think I'm your appointment,” I said.
“No, this is a very important appointment with
New York Times,
” he said, pulling off his coat. “I can't talk with you now. I'll have to talk with you some other time.”
“But I am with
The New York Times,
” I told him, pen and notebook in hand. “I talked with you on the phone. I'm the one who made the appointment with you for four-thirty.”
“What's the name?”
“Isabel Wilkerson with
The New York Times
“How do I know that?” he shot back, growing impatient. “Look, I said I don't have time to talk with you right now. She'll be here any minute.”
He looked to the front entrance and again at his watch.
“But I am Isabel. We should be having the interview right now.”
He let out a sigh. “What kind of identification do you have? Do you have a business card?”
This was the last interview for the piece, and I had handed them all out by the time I got to him.
“I've been interviewing all day,” I told him. “I happen to be out of them now.”
“What about ID? You have a license on you?”
“I shouldn't have to show you my license, but here it is.”
He gave it a cursory look.
“You don't have anything that has
The New York Times
“Why would I be here if I weren't here to interview you? All of this time has passed. We've been standing here, and no one else has shown up.”
“She must be running late. I'm going to have to ask you to leave so I can get ready for my appointment.”
I left and walked back to the
bureau, dazed and incensed, trying to figure out what had just happened. This was the first time I had ever been accused of impersonating myself. His caste notions of who should be doing what in society had so blinded him that he dismissed the idea that the reporter he was anxiously awaiting, excited to talk to, was standing right in front him. It seemed not to occur to him that a
New York Times
national correspondent could come in a container such as mine, despite every indication that I was she.
The story ran that Sunday. Because I had not been able to interview him, he didn't get a mention. It would have amounted to a nice bit of publicity for him, but the other interviews made it unnecessary in the end. I sent him a clip of the piece along with the business card that he had asked for. To this day, I won't step inside that retailer. I will not mention the name, not because of censorship or a desire to protect any company's reputation, but because of our cultural tendency to believe that if we just identify the presumed-to-be-rare offending outlier, we will have rooted out the problem. The problem could have happened anyplace, because the problem is, in fact, at the root