Great Books Conferees Discuss Caste, Race, and American Culture

Discrimination, immigration, and cultural relationships — three of the thorniest issues facing our country today — commanded the attention of the attendees at the February 5th Winter Conference of the Tampa Bay Great Books Council.

The Conference opened with Council co-founder and chief moderator Patrick DeMarco leading a spirited discussion of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.  The conferees were serious and intense as can be seen in the accompanying screenshots.

None of the participants disputed Wilkerson’s assertion that the statutory prohibition against slavery and the elimination of Jim Crow laws have not as yet resulted in true equality for blacks in the United States, although some felt that the author could have been more proactive in laying out steps which could lead to a caste-free society in the future.  Several members complemented Wilkerson’s anecdotes with stories of their own experiences as immigrants (or children of immigrants) trying to elevate their own “caste” status after arrival in this country. 

While the discussion may not have created an action plan, it did seem to foster general understanding that the U.S. is less than 25 years away from a significant inflection point — the point at which those currently classified as “minorities” will become the majority of the American population.

After an hour-long break (including, for many, a brisk walk in needle-like rainfall), the attendees reconvened for a look at modern African emigration to America through NoViolet Bulawayo’s award-winning novel, “We Need New Names.”

For some participants, the author was at her best when describing the protagonist (“Darling”) and her friends scavenging for food and playing “Find Bin Laden” in the impoverished streets of her Zimbabwe homeland.  One attendee commented: “It is difficult for an adult to write from a child’s point of view.  Bulawayo achieved this convincingly.”

Moderator Linda Feeney addressed the language issues raised in both the pre- and post-emigration portions of the book, with a taped excerpt in Xhosa, an African dialect which many Americans (of a certain age) marveled at in 1967 while listening to Miriam Makeba’s hit song, “Pata Pata.” 

One of the more interesting outcomes of the conference was the realization that several of our members have spent substantial time in sub-Saharan Africa, and have knowledge of the nuances of language, regional customs, and politics that can broaden our true understanding of both “The Cradle of Humankind” and “The Shining City Upon a Hill”.

Thanks to Patrick DeMarco, Linda Feeney, Anne Strozier, and Mark Simo for making this another successful Great Books Annual Conference!