The Arts

August 24, 2020

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: How a black slave introduced immunisation in America

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste

By Osa Amadi

The entire world was bemused recently, listening to the haunting voice of the narrator on MSNBC News as he reeled out a staggering secret that had been effectively hidden from the world since 1721, but now revealed in non-fiction, meticulously researched and historical book, still simmering from the printing press this August – “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson:

“Consider the fortune of the person who in effect invented and introduced vaccination to America in 1721. That has to be the biggest fortune in the history of medicine, right?

The pharmaceutical industry has produced many gigantic fortunes in this country, notably the fortune created by Robert Johnson and his brother in 1885 when they started the Johnson and Johnson company which has produced many products that have saved lives and led to the creation of the Robert Johnson Foundation which has done many good deeds, and that fortune has provided for generation upon generation of some members of the class that used to be known as idle rich.

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The person who introduced immunizations in America was born into a caste that was not allowed to profit from his wisdom, from his genius, or even from his labor, for he was a slave, owned by a minister in Boston – a slave who saved lives in Boston during the smallpox epidemic of 1721 when he described a procedure that he had undergone in Africa before his life was stolen from him on a slave ship.

Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson, tells this story in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”.

People in West Africa had discovered that they could fend off contagious diseases by inoculating themselves with a specimen of fluid from an infected person.

That is the knowledge that slave brought to Boston in 1721 when he saved dozens of lives because of one doctor who decided to try that method that the slave described. Thirty-eight years later, vaccination based on that method introduced by a slave became the standard practicing in Massachusetts and eventually the rest of the country.

There is no charitable foundation named for that slave. His descendants were not born into lives where work was optional. The life-saving gift he gave us did not even earn him his freedom.”

Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, is the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns”, the New York Times bestseller that tells the story of the Great Migration, described as a watershed in American history. “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”, published by Random House and due for release this August 2020, is her second book.

The author’s first book won her the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize. She was shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Information contained in her biography indicate that “The Warmth of Other Suns”  was named to more than 30 Best of the Year lists, including The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year, Amazon’s 5 Best Books of the Year and Best of the Year lists in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Examiner, Newsday, Salon, The Christian Science Monitor, O Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly and over a dozen others.

Significantly, the book was said to have made national news when President Obama chose it for summer reading in 2011. In 2012, The New York Times Magazine named the book to its list of the best nonfiction books of all time.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal for “championing the stories of an unsung history.”

She has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston universities and has lectured at more than 200 other colleges and universities across the U.S. and in Europe and Asia.

Before now, whenever the word, “Caste” was mentioned, people’s mind had always gone to India. Now, Wilkerson has proved that the Third Reich and systemic racism in the United States were also caste systems; that as a matter of fact, the Nazis caste system was adapted from the American race laws. As another reviewer noted, unlike the Indian caste system which had hundreds of separate castes, America basically has two: White and Black in which the poorest white is still above a black person.

Wilkerson’s book reminds us that from 1619 until 1865, the slaves were the lowest caste in the United States. To have an idea of how current Wilkerson’s current book is, it covers the Obama presidency, the Trump election and his first three years and the coronavirus pandemic!

The author situates racism as not just a hate emotion that afflicts an individual person, but a systemic evil deeply entrenched in the American society in which those in the upper caste live, feel insulated and do everything possible to preserve their bloody privileges.

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In social scientific research, Wikerson’s method would be somewhat identified as triangulation, given that it blends historical research, individual examples, and personal history to propound her theory.  As a reviewer observes, it must be quite unsettling for the world, especially Americans, to realize through Wilkerson’s new book that there is little or no difference at all between a Nazi labor camp and a southern plantation in the U.S., given that both used multiple means to dehumanize their victims. In essence, the author draws a parallel between the Nazi labor camp and the southern plantations of the United States. According to Wilkerson, and rightly so too, white brutality against blacks worsened after the American Civil War because the whites no longer had financial investments in the black population as slaves.

Taylor Branch’s question at the end of the book is thought-provoking: “So the real question would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” provides a window for the reader to see that the greatest shocker of all times for the down pressor white man was at the point where he realized that the quality of his brain was not different from that of the black man’s. For the good-hearted among them, it must have been good news at best and a sobering one at worst. But for the brutish, it must have exacerbated their cruelty against the blacks.

INDEED, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is such an uncomfortable book for many 2020 Americans who argue that racism is not a systemic problem in America, hence the angry reactions of some people toward it.