Pulitzer prize winning author whose book was banned, coming to St. Louis


Isabel Wilkerson

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

In 2022, the term “banned books” returned to the American lexicon, highlighted by the removal of such books as “Maus,” the Art Spiegelman epic cartoon memoir about the Holocaust, and a graphic novel adaption of Anne Frank’s diary from school libraries. In fact, according to a report by the nonprofit PEN America, from 2021 to 2022, more than 1,600 books were banned in school districts across the nation. The impact on children, the educational system and culture will reverberate for years to come.

One of the banned books was “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. The book explores America’s deeply rooted divisions and the parallels with historical hierarchies in both India and Nazi Germany. The book was atop the New York Times bestseller list and was also named the top nonfiction book of the year in 2020 by Time magazine.

Wilkerson is coming to St. Louis as the featured speaker at Thursday’s Annual Staenberg Lecture, presented by Maryville University in partnership with the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.

“We are unfortunately in an era where states are removing specific educational subjects and topics from their classrooms, as part of a political agenda,” said Dr. Mark Lombardi, Maryville’s President. “As an educator I am opposed to governmental censorship at all levels.  Here at Maryville, we believe in ‘Access and Opportunity for All;, and one of the pillars of that value system is access to ideas and perspectives sometimes in conflict with their own views which foster critical thinking and evaluation.”

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“Isabel Wilkerson’s voice is important right now. ‘Caste’ opens up an important conversation about structural racism, inequality, and prejudice and how their historical roots still impact our world today,” said Frances Levine, interim director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. “We hope the audience will come away with a perspective on how deeply systems of hierarchy and exclusion are felt in our society.”

“Caste” was among dozens of books banned by a Texas School district in 2022.

“I learned about it when The Washington Post ran a piece last spring about a library system in Texas that shut down all its libraries, and when the libraries reopened, ‘Caste’ had mysteriously vanished,” said Wilkerson in an interview with Oprah Daily earlier this month.

Ironically, these bans only affirm the forewarnings in Wilkerson’s book, she noted.

“We’re in a period of backlash and retrenchment, which the book attests to and foreshadows. The only thing I can do is to keep pressing forward in my work, knowing that we can’t run from history and that the truth will win out in the end,” she said in the interview.

“By removing books such as ‘Caste’ from library shelves, we risk limiting the free exchange of ideas and preventing us from engaging in meaningful discussions about the crucial issues Isabel Wilkerson writes about,” said Levine.

“Experiencing history through frameworks like what Isabel Wilkerson paints requires individuals to look within themselves and also consider the perspectives of others in society so they can understand and evaluate their own historical understanding,” said Lombardi. “There could not be a better time to listen, educate ourselves and continue having meaningful conversations about the diverse human condition here in the United States and around the world.  This is one of the ways that prejudice, racism and antisemitism can be combated and defeated.”

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not,” said Wilkerson.

Wilkerson gives the reader a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched and beautifully written narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more.

Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day.

She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their outcasting of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

The lecture is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 27 at The Factory in Chesterfield. Tickets are $12 and available through Ticketmaster