When Sony Ton-Aime first read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, it was like a light bulb turned on in his head.
“Inequality in our society has been, as I am sure it has for most of us, something that I was pondering over,” said Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts at Chautauqua Institution. “I was able to see the roles that race and class played in it, but never thought of caste.”
This was because, like most people, Ton-Aime said he bought into the idea of the American dream, at least to some degree, and “(the idea) that one can move from one stratum to another, albeit for some it is almost impossible,” he said. “I felt a great sense of relief and freedom. Caste offers me a new way of seeing things.”
This week’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection is Wilkerson’s Caste, and while Wilkerson herself will not be coming to Chautauqua, Ton-Aime said CLSC members and Chautauquans should still consider reading it, not only for the book’s many merits, but because it still counts on CLSC and Guild of the Seven Seals reading lists.
And the merits are long: Caste was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was longlisted for both the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Wilkerson herself is the first woman of African-American heritage to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was similarly lauded, both as a CLSC selection and as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction, among others.
Selecting Caste for the CLSC happened as it usually does, Ton-Aime said, aside from the fact that the hype for Caste was big.
“During the summer of 2020, you could not go anywhere without hearing about Caste, and it was no different here,” he said. “CLSC members were sending me emails daily recommending it. I listened, read it, and talked it over with Vice President Ewalt, and together we reached out to Ms. Wilkerson’s agent.”
After Wilkerson’s confirmation, Ewalt and Ton-Aime got to work on an even larger initiative: the first Chautauqua County Book Read. Led by the YWCA of Jamestown and Chautauqua Institution, the book read was for county residents, businesses, nonprofits and organizations working toward a more just society. Virtual and in-person book discussions were held across the county in late May, and the initiative was to culminate with Wilkerson’s joint CLSC and Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation during Chautauqua County Day today in the Amphitheater. Even with a postponed presentation — historian Jon Meacham replaces Wilkerson for the Chautauqua Lecture Series today, and the Department of Education is working to line up a virtual talk for Wilkerson this fall — Ton-Aime said that community reading was still critical work, and the book itself still has much to offer readers.
“As a community in general and individuals with some influence on our different communities, we play important roles in the policies that our representatives enact,” he said. “In order for us to advocate for the right policies that will rid this caste system, we should know that it exists and how it functions. Caste provides us with the tools to do just that.”
For Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, the experience of reading Caste was “remarkable.”
“It has been at the center of the larger national conversation that we’re having,” Ewalt said. “It’s important for people to really deeply examine our own history, and for people to have those larger conversations on race and power in the United States and in other parts of the world, like (Wilkerson) does in her book.”
Ewalt said he hopes anyone who reads Caste will understand the role it plays at the center of many essential conversations.
“Hopefully, this book will bring us into deep, vulnerable conversations about the history of this country,” he said.