Origin (2023) | Transcript

Ava DuVernay turns Isabel Wilkerson's essay into fiction to reflect on the roots of racism in the United States: is a powerful message enough to make a great film?

Ava DuVernay turns Isabel Wilkerson’s essay into fiction to reflect on the roots of racism in the United States: is a powerful message enough to make a great film?

It’s hard to remain indifferent to the theses presented in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the essay by Isabel Wilkerson that describes racism in the United States as an evolution of the caste system, i.e., a social stratification founded on hierarchical and exclusive principles, aimed at preserving racial purity. Starting from one of the many homicides with African American victims, Wilkerson develops a thesis in which she compares the American system with those of India and Nazi Germany.

If there’s a merit in Origin, the film Ava DuVernay adapted from that book (which became a bestseller in the weeks between George Floyd’s murder and the American elections that elected Biden), presented in Competition in Venice (a first: never before had an African American woman competed for the Golden Lion), it is precisely its didactic nature. DuVernay (also the screenwriter) takes the viewer by the hand, making otherwise inaccessible academic concepts accessible and staging the historical moments to which Wilkerson refers.

And if there’s a demerit in this intellectually stimulating and civically unassailable film, it’s precisely its inability to find a fluidity between the planes, that of contemporary fiction which in fact falls into the biopic genre (Wilkerson’s life between a serious bereavement and the release of the essay; and it starts well, with domestic everyday life echoing the dramas of Charles Burnett) and that of the historical reconstruction with the Indian passages and the German fragments all equally artificial, as if they were inserts from an educational program.

The same can be said about the exhausted dialogue between the historical-social issue (the indispensable, albeit very explicit and redundant explanations) and the emotional one, with Wilkerson’s private life (in which she loses her dearest loved ones within a year) reduced to an accessory frame, albeit necessary to support the structure. Which is that of a film that identifies in the cultural figure of Wilkerson the crossroads of African American history: a dearly loved daughter of a mother convinced that one must not give whites a reason to be annoyed by the presence of blacks, a dearly loved wife of a white liberal who has challenged everyday racism, a highly esteemed intellectual by a community that recognizes her authority, competence, charisma (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who plays her, hits the right notes).

But Origin fails to find a real balance between all its dimensions, relying entirely on the power of its content and leaning too much on form, exceeding in rhetorical style (the lyrical-dreamlike moments, the “adoring” looks of the ladies of publishing), delegating context to episodes (the Trump-supporting plumber) and missing the historical mark (the mattress sequence is unforgettable for what it was and could have been, not for how DuVernay delivers it).

Everyone agrees that Origin has an extraordinary message, but that often isn’t enough to make memorable cinema.

* * *

[Tray] Ella, I know you wanna say it.

Go ahead.

[Ella] I’m not gonna say it.

But you wanna?

Yeah, I do.

I know. Go ahead.

I told you so.

See? Always with the

“I told you so.”

‘Cause I told you so

[Ella laughing]

You’s right this time.

What you mean, “this time”?

I’m always right.

[Tray] Aight, aight, I got you.

Calm down, calm down

[Ella] Aight, so get your little candy or whatever.

And call me back.

[Tray] Aight.

[man] Hey.

Three fifty.

[rain falling]

[Tray] Like, I don’t know, some… Oh, oh, oh…

You know, like, breakfast.

[Ella] Okay, breakfast.

[Tray] I like me some eggs…

You like grits, berries.

I got you.

You got me?

I don’t know if I want… You like berries?

What you be eating berries with pancakes?

Yeah, I eat berries

with pancakes.

Like blueberry pancakes. That’s so bomb.

[Tray] See, okay. We’ve gotta have fun.

We gotta do our own thing.

I feel like…

We gotta do our own thing.

It’s gonna be amazing.

I’m really excited…

[soft music]

[Ella continues indistinctly]


Hey, I think…

I think this car’s following me.

What? For real?

[Tray] It keeps looping

around the block.

Dang. Try goin’ another way.

Call me when you get home, okay?

All right.




Afternoon. Are you sleeping

or kinda?


Hey, Sleeping Beauty.


Hey. Hi. Hi. [grumbles]

Want to sit up? Sit up.

There you go. All right.

Come on, one more time.

That’s good. That’s good.


I’m okay.

How’s that?

Yeah. There we go.

Sweetie with you?

He’s bringing the trash around back.

Ah, yeah, garbage day.

Everything in its right place.

Of course you know how to do it

but you don’t have to do it, not while I’m here.

Don’t take my job from me, please.

There’s only so much joy left for me in this world,

you gotta let me have it now.


You ready?

Come here.


Go slow, okay? Come on.

I got you. Okay.

[Mama] Could you tell me how many apartments there are in…

[man] We have 200 units.

[Mama] Two hundred, okay.

[man] Two hundred units.

[Mama] And everything…

Kitchen, full kitchen…

Full kitchen and… Yeah, that’s…

Well, everyone looks really nice.

Yes. It’s a great group.

You know, Mr. Mayhew,

my husband was a Tuskegee Airman.

Fought for America in World War II.


Oh, this is a gym here, yeah?

Beautiful, open 24 hours.

Oh, thank you.

Thank you.

So… You’ve got really nice kitchen…


At least there’s good light.

Mmm. Yeah.

Look at that cloud.

I see a swimming pool with boys jumping in.


There. Look.

There’s the arms.

Oh, yeah, I see it. I see it. I see it.

They’re a Little League team, just won the big game,

celebrating and having a ball.

See the splashes?

[Isabel] Mama.

Little League team. Splashes.

It’s true.

You and your imagination.

You gonna be all right?


I’m gonna be all right, honey.

I’m going to be all right.


If anybody can maneuver, it’s your ma.

Okay? What’s she say all the time?

“My husband was a Tuskegee Airman.”

Listen, I know keeping elders at home

is supposed to be a noble thing and all,

but there’s something to be said

for keeping her as independent as she can be.

Where’d you find them?

Next to the lamp.

Under a scarf with the ringer off.

[Isabel] Ugh…

[Brett] You’ve got to use the hook.

That is what it is there for.

Is that Mr. Brett?


[Isabel] Ready to go out?

Is this Marion? How’s Teddy?

You know, working my nerves, but what else is new?

You need some paper towels?


Let’s not miss this flight, okay?

I love you. Please be safe, okay?


You got your boarding pass?

I knew you had that.

Yeah, you knew it, huh?

You got it.


Bye, baby.

[Isabel narrating] The shipyard workers at Blohm and Voss

gather for a ceremony celebrating the company’s new

295foot vessel.

[men shouting]

Adopted by the Nazis,

a “heil” salute was mandatory for German citizens.

[man speaking German]

But if you look closely,

you’ll find someone who defied this.

His name is believed to be August Landmesser.

He had joined the Nazi Party two years before this day,

but in that time,

August met and fell in love with a woman

unlike any he’d ever met.

Unlike any he was supposed to have met.

Irma Eckler.

A Jewish woman.

[both chuckling]

[speaking German]

Although a member of the dominant class,

August saw in Irma what others like him chose not to see.

Her humanity, her beauty,

her love.

On this day,

he folded his arms

rather than salute a regime that deemed that love illegal.

On this day, he was brave.

He couldn’t have been the only one who felt something tragic

was happening.

So why was he the only one among the men

to not go along that day?

Perhaps we can reflect on what it would mean

to be him today.

I’ll leave you with that.

Thank you.


Good luck.

Thank you.


Let me get this.

[woman speaking at the podium]

Thank you.

Thank you.


I’m fine. Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Isabel, Isabel. Hey!


I didn’t know you were speaking.

No, no, no, one of my reporters is.

Hey, can you guys give me a minute?


You were solid.

Nice work.

I am a better writer

than I am a speaker.

Yeah, well, you’re a better writer

than most people do anything.

So, listen, I was gonna reach out to you on something.

So I’mma take seeing you as a sign.

This… This Trayvon Martin case.

I know.

Have you heard the tapes?

No. Of what?

Not the murder?

911 calls. This killer called 911

before he did it.

And tapes of people that heard the boy screaming out

and called the police.

Is this public?


But it’s being released.


But we got him.

Are you interested in listening, to consider writing something

for us?

Amari, you have a stable of writers.

They don’t have Pulitzer Prizes.

Some of them do, actually.

Yeah, well, then they’re not as brilliant as you on things

like this.

You know what I do.

Yeah, and I know what you used

to do.

Some of the best reporting I’ve ever edited.

I write books now.

So, that one book you wrote took way too damn long.

It was a masterpiece and whatnot, but…

it took too long, Isabel, if you ask me. Writers write.

So write.

I don’t do assignments anymore. I…

I wanna be in the story.

Really inside the story.

And, yes, that takes time.


Maybe after you hear the tapes.

I’mma send them to you.


Okay. No pressure.

Sanford Police Department. Is there a report of shots?

[man] Hey, we’ve had some breakins in my neighborhood.

And there’s a real suspicious guy…

This guy looks like he is up to no good,

or he’s on drugs or something.

[officer] Okay, he’s just walking around the area…

[man] Looking at all the houses.

It’s raining and he’s just walking around,

looking about.

[officer] Okay.

[man] And he’s a Black male.

Now he’s just staring at me.

[officer] Did you see what he was wearing?

[man] Yeah, a dark hoodie, like, a gray hoodie,

and either jeans or sweatpants, and white tennis shoes.

Shit, he’s running.

[officer] He’s running? Which way is he running?

[man] Down towards the other entrance to the neighborhood.

These assholes, they always get away.

[officer] Are you following him?


Okay, we don’t need you

to do that.


All right, sir, what is your name?


He ran.

[officer] All right, George, what’s your last name?


[officer 2] 911. Do you need police, fire or medical?

[woman] Maybe both, I’m not sure. There’s just someone

screaming outside.


[officer 2] Okay, what’s the address that they’re near?

[woman] 1211 Twin Trees Lane.

[officer 2] And is it a male or female?

It sounds like a male.

And you don’t know why?

I don’t know why. I think they’re yelling “help,”

but I don’t know.


[officer 2] So you think he’s yelling “help”?

[woman] Yes.

I can’t see him. I don’t want to go out there,

I don’t know what’s going on, so…

Just… There’s gunshots.

You just heard gunshots?


How many?

Just one.

[officer 2] Is he right outside 1211 Twin Trees Lane?

[woman] Yeah, pretty much. Out the back, yes.

Good to see you.

Thank you. You too.



Looking gorgeous.

Oh, Brett. How are you?

Hi. Yes.

How are you?

Great to see you.

And you.

He’s wearing the tux very well.

Very well.

He can hear you.

[Brett] Well, he can.

But he’s grateful, thank you.



Amari Selvan asked me twice if you were coming.

He wants something for the paper.

He’s made that very clear.

You interested? We can time it with the audio book.

[indistinct talking]

Did you listen?

Yeah. Yeah.

It’s a lot.


It’s a lot.

It’s a lot there.

But longerform stuff, questions that I don’t have

the answer to.

So ask them in a piece.

I don’t write questions. I write answers.

Questions like what?

Like why does a Latino man deputize himself

to stalk a Black boy to protect an allwhite community?

What is that?

The racist bias I want you

to explore,

excavate for the readers.

We call everything “racism.” What does it even mean anymore?

It’s the default. When did that happen?

Hey, Brett.

How are you doing?

So, what? So you’re saying

that he isn’t a racist?

No, I’m not saying that he’s not a racist.

I’m questioning, why is everything racist?

This feels like a setup.

I’ve been there.

[Isabel] Okay.

Home ownership.

[Amari] Okay.

Covenants were written into land deeds

barring Black people from having wills.

No generational wealth allowed.

We could not pass on what we earned

to our kids for almost 500 years.

Every time, we’d have to start from zero.

So, if we are not allowed to pass on the fruits

of our labor to our family,

is that the same racism that took Trayvon’s life?

Systemic racism. Yes, same.

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

What does it mean?

Murders of Black people by the police,

we call that racism.

Everything’s the same.

I get it.

Being followed in a department store

and being lynched

shouldn’t be called the same thing, I get that.

Racism as the primary language to understand everything

is insufficient.

[Amari] See, this is good.

That’s all.

This is good.

Look, I need a piece delving into what the Martin case means.

Set the context with these questions,

it’s what you do best.

Make the hard stuff digestible. And this is a hard one.

“What does it all mean?”

These questions are the piece.

I’ll make it splashy, prime placement, Sunday.

Maybe even the cover.

You’re terrible.

You’re terrible, Amari.

I’m just saying. Your face on the cover?

There’s a lot there. There’s a lot there.

But I am on hiatus.

Isabel, come on. Come on.

I am. I am.

I… I have family responsibilities.


[Amari] Well, good for you for taking time.

We’ll talk again.

All right.

Hey, you two take care, all right?

Good to see you. All right.

[Isabel indistinct]



[man on TV] President Reagan taking an office…

[contestant] I don’t…

She’s wrong.

She just said it is the only movie she knows.

[TV continues]

She deserves to lose that money.

…speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot

of attention

over the course of the last week,

the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling.

I gave a preliminary statement…

That poor child’s mother.

…right after the ruling on Sunday.

I wish he’d answered the man right.

What was that, Mama?

I wish he had answered the man

when he asked him why he was there

in the neighborhood.

Maybe he’d still be with us.

Are you saying it’s the boy’s fault?

No, of course not, don’t be silly.

I’m saying you got to act in a way to keep you safe.

He was…

He was too young to know it.

He shouldn’t have had to answer to anyone.

“Should have” and real life are two different things,

darling, you know that.

You can’t be walking around at night on a white street

and not expect trouble.

That’s intimidating to most whites.

True or not?


Yeah. Unfortunately, I think it is true.

But I also think that you can’t live your life

based on what’s intimidating to people.

Sure you can, sweetie.

[Brett] So you’re going on hiatus, huh,

is what you’re doing?


You told Amari you were going on hiatus,

you told me that you were gonna be traveling less

for work.

So I’m just trying to figure out what exactly it is

that you’re gonna do.


I said I wanted to focus on her.


People are asking you to write because of your voice,

because they… the way you think.

I just… I don’t know what you’re doing.


She doesn’t belong in that place.

Oh, right.

She should be at home.

She moved because she was lonely.

I should’ve spent more time with her.

Daddy would want me to fix this.


I think your father was pretty clear

that what he wanted was for you to be happy,

people to be happy.

Sacrificing your work, well, that’s gonna accomplish exactly

the opposite, so…

Your mother was very clear about what she wanted.

It’s not that, so…

[man] I don’t see it, Betty.

Maybe it’s checked out.

[Isabel narrating] In 1933,

two AfricanAmerican anthropologists

were studying in Berlin.

There are no books here at all by him.

At the premier library in the city.

The country.

Beautiful library, though.

I could get lost in all these books forever.

All these ideas.

[speaking German]

They witnessed events that would change the world.



[no audible dialogue]

[priest] By trade, Brett Hamilton was a mathematician,

a financial analyst.

By heart, he was a passionate champion

for those he loved deeply.

He played classical guitar,

was an enthusiastic cook,

and volunteered his time and efforts

to those less fortunate.

In college, he joined Phi Kappa Tau,

Delta Chapter,

and, with his friends, enjoyed caving trips,

watching thunderstorms,

and debating the big stuff.

Recently, he traveled extensively in Europe,

accompanying his beloved in her professional activities

in the cause of social justice.

I’m Mrs. Copeland from across the street.

How is Isabel?

She’s resting right now.

I can’t believe it.

[Marion] Thank you so much for coming by.

[Mrs. Copeland] Give her my love, please.

Isabel Wilkerson’s office.

[woman] Hello, hi.

This is Kate. I’m Isabel’s editor.

Yeah, I know who you are. Hi, Kate.

This is her cousin Marion.

Marion. Marion, hi.

My condolences for your family’s losses.

I don’t have the words.

It’s unfathomable, it’s unthinkable.

I just, I can’t…

Two of the closest people to you in a year,

who can withstand it?

How is she?

Hold me. Don’t leave me.

I am right here.

I am right here.

Stay. Stay.

I am right here.

Stay. Stay. Stay.

[Marion] Hey.

You made it in okay?

Yeah, I’m here.

How are you?

Tell me how you’re feeling.

How does it feel to be back there

with all of her things?

I’m here, Marion. That’s all I am.

You know what? I gotta go.


I’ve gotta get this house packed.

I could come down this weekend and help you.

We could take it slow.

I’ve gotta get these things packed up so I can start

back work.

Wait, you’re starting back to work?

Of course.

What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to live?


What is the work you have to do and when do you need to start?

Marion, I have to go. I’m already behind.

I’ll talk to you later, okay? Bye.


The HVAC guy got the sump pump working

and got most of the water out.

This has never happened before.

I’m never down here. My husband was always the one

down here,

changing the filter in the furnace

or checking the fuse box.

But he died last year, so…

[man] Uhhuh.

There’s where the water’s coming in.


The sink.

The sink doesn’t overflow.

I mean, is it a pipe that’s clogged, or…

Probably the pump needs clearing out.

I’ll write an estimate.

My mother died a few months ago.

What about you?

Is your mother still alive?

No. No, she’s not.

Died in 1991, 52 years old.


That’s not old… at all.

It sure ain’t.

Your father?

He’s 78.

You’re lucky to have him.

He’s mean as they come.


I guess, in the end, we miss them

no matter what they were like.

No, not him.

You know what?

You see something?

Well, maybe.

[Isabel] I have an idea.

You do?

Thought that might be why you came.

Tell us. Is it…

Well, I…

didn’t explore the Trayvon Martin case.

I know it’s been a while, but I think there’s a lot

to unpack.

I’ve been thinking about my mother

and how she insisted

we be polite and buttonedup around white people.

And there’s all this Nazi symbolism

all over the place.

You heard about what happened in…

in Charlottesville.

Yes. NeoNazis.


Drove his car through a crowd at a protest for Black Lives.

Killed a white woman.

Heather Heyer.

All these idiots walking around with tiki torches,

invoking imagery from the KKK and Nazi Germany to stoke fear.

There’s this terrific Indian scholar.

I’ve been wanting to read his work, but I haven’t.

He’s a Dalit professor, and he won a…

Sorry, a “Dalit” professor?

He’s a Dalit

and a professor.

The Dalits are untouchables in India,

beneath the lowest caste.

Have you ever heard of them?


Have you ever heard of them?


No. Me either. Why?

There’s connective tissue here.

There’s connective tissue there.

There is connective tissue here.

I… I could… I could… I could…

I could build a thesis that shows how all of this,

all of it,

is linked.


Well, that’s the writer’s journey,


Sorting all of that out.

There’s a lot going on in that big brain of yours.

I love that.

I love it.

But I gotta be honest with you, I don’t understand

how the woman that they killed, by the neoNazis…

Heather Heyer.

…how that connects to the Dalit professor,

connects to Trayvon Martin,

connects to your mom.

I don’t see it.

Yet. I don’t see that yet.

But if you can make people see it,

then that is an incredible book.

I love you. Please be safe, okay?


[no audible dialogue]

Hello, excuse me.


This is the book you ordered.

Oh, yes, yes. Please sit down.

And the list we talked about.

This is a list from 1935, October,

a little bit later than the first list.


And here, Remarque, Erich Maria.

That means everything he wrote is “to destroyed.” Blown.

“To be destroyed.”


[man] Excuse me.

I heard you inquire about Remarque.

But I couldn’t hear the librarian’s answer.

I’m Kästner.

I’m from here.

How long have you been in Berlin?

About five weeks.

You’ve no idea what’s happening.

Pardon me?

I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.

You have no idea what’s happening here.

Everything is being torn apart.


[speaking German]

[woman] In Germany, there’s memorials to nearly everyone

victimized by the Nazis.

And there’s no entry sign, no gate.

It’s just open both day and night.

Yes, yes.

[woman] Just standing to bear witness.

20,000 books that were lost that night.

[crowd shouting]

Books filled with imagination and ideas,

and history.

[Kästner] Leave here, my friends.

Leave Germany.

Go to your home as soon as you can,

you’ll be safer there.

[shouting continues]

[speaking German]

Sigmund Freud,

Heinrich Mann,

Ernst Gläser,

Erich Maria Remarque,

Karl Renner,

Erich Kästner.

[woman] “Where you burn books, you end up burning men.”

It’s a quote by Heinrich Heine.

He was a poet. German and Jewish.

[speaking German]

[speaking German]

No. You are not changing the subject anymore.

Oh, yeah.


Guns, Christmas.


And then?

[indistinct] Sweetheart?

No, I still have

a couple sips left.

You’re basically in danger when you’re visiting

your family.



It’s the American way.

I mean, we know. We know. It’s ridiculous.

That is what I’m looking at with the article.

You have 900 shootings a week, it seems, in America,

and you keep giving people guns.

I don’t understand at all.

We don’t even understand it ourselves.

We don’t understand.

You know,

I heard, here, that displaying the swastika

is a crime.


Three years in prison?

Yes, yes, that’s true.

I mean, it’s not tolerated.

Well, in America…

the Confederate flag, which is like your swastika,

the flag of murderers and traitors,

it is a part of the official flag

of one of our states,



Men who wanted to wage war for the right to own

other human beings.

Statues of them sprinkled all over the country

right now.


You know, it’s not perfect,

but Germany has no monuments that celebrate Nazis.

I mean, everything Hitler’s gone,

paved right over it all, and built new things.

I mean, you can literally walk right over Nazi places

and never know they were even there.

[man] And the bunker.

Yes, the bunker.

It’s long gone.

It like nothing.


I mean, it was 30 feet


and was protected with reinforced concrete.

And now it has, like, a Volkswagen

or something parked on top of it

at any given time of the day.

It is very different than the States.

A very different approach.

Well, there are so many differences between here

and there.

We are talking about the systematic murder

of six million Jews,

that’s the official number.

So it’s just very different than monuments to soldiers

and whatnot.

0And what? What are you saying is different?

All of it. We’re talking about deliberate extermination

over many years.

Yeah, but wasn’t slavery for, like, hundreds of years?

Right, Isabel?

Slavery lasted 246 years.

That’s 13 generations of people.

Plus another 100 years of Jim Crow,

segregation, violence and murder.

It is, of course, horrific. I am not downplaying any of it.

There were so many millions of African Americans

who were murdered.

From the Middle Passage until the end

of legal segregation,

that it goes beyond the realm of an official number.

There is no number.

[man] I didn’t know that.

No. It’s stunning.

[woman] It is.

And I understand you’re trying to make sense

of American racism.

It is noble.

But your thesis linking caste in Germany

with the United States is flawed.

Maybe it’s not exactly the same,

but the thesis of structural similarity

certainly gives context for a framework.

Right, but a framework is not a book, my friends.

She is trying to connect the United States to Germany,

but it doesn’t fit.

It’s as if you’re trying to “fit a square

inside the circle,” as they say.

I would just like you to note for yourself

that American slavery is rooted in subjugation,

dominating Blacks for the purposes of capitalism,

using bodies and labor for profit.

But for the Jews during the Holocaust,

the end call was not subjugation,

it was extermination.

“Kill them all.

Wipe them off the face of the Earth.

There’s no need for them here.”

It’s different.

I say, leave Jewish folks alone.

They’re fine. They don’t need you.

Write about us, Isabel.

I am writing about us.

I just…

I couldn’t fully explain

what was in my head.

You better than me.

Because I would have had words.

She was rude.

I had words.

I had a ton of words.

Wow. And none of them were,

“I’m the right one on the wrong day, baby”?

Yeah, well, I’m still my mother’s child,

and that wouldn’t have happened.

I know.

You never could bag back, even when we were kids.

Always thinking about your comeback

the next day.

“I know what I should have said was…”

What if Brett had been there last night?

Poor lady.

Probably would still be there,


[Marion laughing]


Hi, afternoon.

Some unwanted visitors, huh?

Looks like they even built a guesthouse.

I’m putting these out in the backyard

to empty out.

Just have your gardener pick ’em up in a day or two.


Sir, I don’t want that.

I’d rather not have those nests in my yard.

I have dogs,

and that spray can’t be good for them.

It’s fine, won’t hurt ’em.


Can I help?

Can I just…

Yes, go ahead.

Excuse me.

She doesn’t want it back there.

Did you not hear what she said?

Yeah, but I can’t take it with me today.

My bins are full.

Okay. Well, I guess we’re just gonna have

to figure something out then, right?

I mean, you didn’t…

you didn’t remove that for free, did you?

No. Right?

No, I didn’t.

So, look, if this is your tree, you go ahead

and you leave that wherever you’d like.

But if you do want to get paid for your work,

you’re gonna have to finish the job.

Appreciate the cooperation.

Did I just mansplain?

Well, you asked for permission, so…

And if you hadn’t…

I’d be in a white savior mode, right?

What do you know about that?

Well, break bad habits, never gonna get broke, right?

Well, you asked for permission, so we’ll just call it

being neighborly.

Okay. Let’s… Let’s do that.

I haven’t seen your mom and dad on their walks for a while.

How are they doing?

You know,

they’re slowing down. Thank you.

But they’re having the conversation about moving

to Florida.

But they’re hanging in, you know.

My mom, too.

I get it.

My mom made me promise I’d come by today. It’s…

It’s my birthday, so…


Today is your birthday?


Today is your birthday?

It is.

Yes, she…

She made me a cake. Like I was a little kid.

‘Cause she still thinks you’re her baby.

I think it’s sweet.

Happy birthday…

It’s Brett.

I’m Isabel.

Yeah, I know.

And I think birthdays are a big deal.

Do you? Wow.

Yes, I do.

Not me, honestly, but…

They should be.




Will you come over?

Come have a slice of cake with us,

you know, that would make my mom so happy.

And… And, you know, it would make the birthday

a big deal,

because I don’t have any idea how to do that.

Well, I haven’t seen your mom and dad for a while.

There you go.

I’ll come in and say hi.




[chuckles] Okay.

Oh, God.


Nothing, what?

Come on, let’s go eat some cake.

She makes a mean cake, too.


Oh, yeah, she’s got

the layers going.

What kind are we talking about?

We’re talking about, I mean…

Hopefully, there’s not gonna be, like, a fire engine on it

like when I was seven,

you never know with my mom.

These are the minutes from the meeting in 1934.

Fifteen months after the meeting,

they become law.

Jim Crow laws.


American race laws.


[Isabel] It’s mindblowing.

[speaking German]

[man in English] “Our problem is different.

Their problem is…

Negroes with nothing to build upon.

A problem that plays no part for us here in Germany.

Our problem is the Jews, who must be kept

enduringly apart.”

What is this?

That is a transcript

of a meeting that I saw a picture of,

where Nazi lawyers were studying American law

and customs

to figure out how to pull off the Holocaust.

[in English] Our problem is the Jews who must be kept

enduringly apart,

since there’s no doubt that they represent

a foreign body in the Volk.

And segregation will never achieve the goal

as long as the Jews have economic power

in the German fatherland as they do have now.

As long as they have the most beautiful automobiles,

the most beautiful motorboats.

As long as they play a prominent role

in the pleasure spots and resorts

and everywhere that costs money.

This can only be achieved through measures

that forbids sexual mixing of a Jew and a German,

and imposes criminal punishment.

We must answer the question today

as to whether laws that the Reich will institute

should declare only the separation of races,

or if it should declare the superiority of one

and the inferiority of others.

[Isabel narrating] In the fall of 1933,

Allison Davis and his wife,


cut short their advanced studies

at the University of Berlin,

and fled Germany when Hitler took power.

Well, we finally got proof

that one landowner named Bailey has been whipping sharecroppers.

Bailey’s wife told me

that’s the way to manage them when they get too “uppity”?

We heard about a tenant farmer, one county over,

who was beaten so badly by a store merchant,

he can’t bring in a crop.

We’re headin’ over there tomorrow.

Do you know what sparked that?

The Negro man asked for a receipt.

Beat him right there in the store.

It inspired him to study the process of injustice.

This gave Dr. Davis new insight into the nature of hate.

The other half of their team was a white couple

named Burleigh and Mary Gardner,

also Harvard anthropologists.

The mission was quietly revolutionary.

Together, all four would embed themselves

in an isolated Southern town from both sides

of the caste divide.

One breach of a social order could cost them

all their lives.

And this was exactly what they were doing

in Natchez, Mississippi,

breaching the social order to study the social hierarchy

of the South.

A mission that would render them

undercover investigators

in order to fit into the community.

This would be one of the first studies

of its kind.

Neither couple fully knew what they were

getting themselves into.

Out in public,

they had to remain in character at all times.

With the Davises required to show deference

to the Gardners

and never give the appearance

that they were, in fact, colleagues in the trenches,

they had to keep to their own caste performance.

Everyone had to play the part expected of them.

[man] They don’t need to be out on these streets.

[Burleigh] Seen ’em around before?

Oh, yeah.

Monkey’s getting too big for his britches.

Might’ve to train him.

Come on.

[Mary] I don’t see how we stay much longer.

Our neighbor practically invited us

to a lynching yesterday.

[Burleigh] Allison, there’ve been some…

some unkind things said about you.

I can’t be sure these folks don’t get in mind

and do something.

We’re seeing similar suspicion,

we should consider.

Not yet.


You’re getting into the wide

inner circle

of this town…

It’s not worth our safety.

…and that is what we need to observe.

We’re close.

The two couples kept on the move,

constantly changing clandestine locations

for safety.

They couldn’t go to each other’s homes.

Mixing of races was not allowed publicly

in any form except subservience.

“A most striking tenet of their embrace of supremacy

is deference.”

That should be the core of the chapter, don’t you think?

Behavior, right?

Deference goes beyond mere observance

of certain formalities.

We call them “sir” and they call us “boy”

and “gal.”


Never contradicting whites.

Always agreeing with them.



Y’all eat?

Been out here readin’ and writin’ for hours.

Greens with fatback gonna get cold.

Hey, now, ain’t gotta tell me twice.

No. Yes, ma’am. Can’t wait to try them greens.

We’ll be there.

All right.


[both] Hi!

[man] The American material gives us a path to an answer.


America has succeeded here.

Their legislation does not base itself

on the mere idea of racial difference.

But to the extent this legislation is aimed

at Negroes,

it bases itself absolutely on the idea of inferiority.


Germans are already convinced that the Jews

are an inferior race.

German laws should reflect that.

[man] Precisely.

I am of the opinion that we can proceed

with the same primitivity as the American states.

Such a procedure would be…

crude legally, but it would suffice.

[Isabel] The Nazi blueprint,

for the extermination of millions of people,

was directly patterned after America’s enslavement

and segregation of Black people.

America taught the Nazis?

Caste in America.

In Germany, it functions the same.

The outcomes might be different,

like Sabine said.

But it is the same.

I think that the caste system in India,

I think that there is a connection there too,

but… the interconnectedness.

That is my point.

That is what I’m saying.

Come here.

We proudly bestow this Ambedkar Award

to Dr. Suraj Yengde,

postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

[indistinct conversations]

[men shouting]

Come on, win it! Come on, win it!

[indistinct conversations]

Nathaniel, I know it’s gonna be worth the wait.

Give it to me.

[Marion] Carol, can you come and uncover this one?

I got it, baby.

This chicken looks good.


Respectfully, we and everybody are just wondering about an ETA.

The ETA is when I say it’s ready,


Yes, ma’am.

Hi, Isabel.


How you been?

I’ve been all right.

Yeah, how are you holding up?

All is well.

How are you two?

We’re good.



I wanted to ask if you knew one of my professors,

Dr. Montgomery?

I think he studies the same things you do.

No. But I’m not keeping up like I used to, so…

Of course. Well, he is a smart man,

a nice older gentleman.

I thought you might like to meet him.

He is handsome for his age, Black.

Why don’t the two of you take this over to the Uno table?

And tell them we startin’.




They mean well.

You know, Brett always looked forward to these.

You and Mama were the only ones that let him in.

Folks weren’t mean.

I know, but there was always… that.

“When is she gonna leave him and find herself

a good brother?”

Now, these containers, these containers we’re in.

We… Maybe the… Maybe the label says

“Black woman.”

Maybe the label says “white man, or Asian, or…”

Fix your face. You’re too young for all that.

You read the label and we think we know

what’s on the inside.

Y’all can eat now.

We trust the label.

We put the container on the shelf.

And that’s it.

That’s it.

Who need a kiss for good luck?

[man] Me.

‘Cause that hand is trash.

Come on, Mama, give me some sugar.

There you go. Thank you, baby.

Okay, so now go ahead, I’m listenin’.

I think that’s what my book is about.

Ohh. Okay.

I forgot, which one is yours, which one is mine?

This one is mine.

Okay. Oh, here you go.

So, your book is about interracial relationships.

No, no, it’s about… it’s about caste.

That’s the phenomenon of placing one group above another group.

In a hierarchy.

And the consequences to its victims

and presumed beneficiaries.

One more time in English?

A little Pulitzer Prizeless, if you can.

I can!

Okay, well, then do it. Make it plain.

Because the stuff you were saying about the Nazis

got me all twisted around.

How is that in the same book about Brett?

I don’t get it.

Do you think slavery was a system

of terrorism and torture

that the Europeans used to profit off the labor

of Black people

who they considered inferior?


Hell yes, it was.


Don’t shake your head, it was!

No, they made it all up.

Your girl Toni Morrison said:

“Why would you give your child to be nursed and raised

by people who you think aren’t human?

Who are animals.”

Yes, Toni.

Yes, Toni.

It was all lies. They knew we weren’t inferior,

but they magnified, they magnified the myths.

They codify them, set them in stone,

in systems,

in our laws, in our healthcare,

in where we live, how we learned,

the kind of work that we do, even our food.

Racism at its finest.

No, it’s caste.

Everything you just said was racist.

Okay. Well, if it’s racist,

then why is the same thing happening in India?

They’re all brown. They’re all Indian.

Marion, right now to this day,

there is a system in India

where generations of people are forced to clean sewers

with their hands,

their shit, with their hands.

They are beneath the lowest of the hierarchy.

They’re called Dalits.

At one point, they were forced to tie brooms

around their waists

because their shadows were supposedly polluted.


Their shadows.

They had to sweep behind themselves

when they walked.

How is it racist if they’re all the same race?

Okay, do you think that Jews are white?


The majority are.

But the same thing happened to Jews in Germany

during the Holocaust.

The Nazis wanted to create an allwhite republic,

but they hated, they hated the Jews.

So, they said, “How do we make the Jews

not white?”

So, they put them at the bottom of the hierarchy.

They said that they were greedy.

They said that they were dishonest.

They blamed them for Germany losing the First World War.

They blamed them for everything bad

that happened in Germany.

They were dogs.

“Kill them. Gas them, wipe them out.”

The Jews and the Nazis were the same color.

We have to consider oppression in a way

that does not centralize race.

We do it here in America, yes, because racism is all we know.

But these containers,

the Dalits in India, Jewish people in Germany,

Black folks in America,

all these containers have something in common.

Race is not one of them.

It’s caste.

Only took you 10 minutes

for that comeback.


Figure out how to say more of what you just said,

make it plain.

Talk to real people like you just did to me.

Real people.

Real things.

[man] You know, we met in college.

So, one time, she comes up and saying,

“Can I borrow a pen?”

You are… [indistinct] That is not true!

And he didn’t know the day of the final.

So he’s like, “I’ve seen you in my class…”

And I’m just going…

“Do you know exactly what the day of the…”

And… See.

I think you were trying to get to me.

Let me let you in on a secret.


I knew when the final was.

[laughing and clapping]

That’s my baby.


Night, night. Sweet dreams.


Come by more often, will ya?

We seem to only get the lasagna when you around here.

I’m hearing that she’s stingy with the lasagna.

I don’t know what it is.

Stop, you are lying too close to Sunday, come on.

Love you.

Good seeing you. Good night.

Good night.

Good to see you, too.

Make sure they bathe. With water, real water.

Yes, ma’am.

And a washcloth.

I’ll do my best, baby.

Shit, do I… What… Do I just…

Do I talk slow? What do I…

Okay, so I was in 10th grade, and we had just moved to Texas,

and my friend and I had this…

these walkietalkies.

Which, you know, we’d be usin’ between classes,

to talk or whatever.

And this was precell phone, of course.


Late ’80s.


And… the principal called me to his office,

he was all suspicious.

Because he wanted to know why all these people

were gathered around my locker.

So I showed him the walkietalkie.

And he asked my name.

And I said, “Miss Hale.”

And he said, “What is your first name?”

“It’s Miss.”

I said, “What is your first name?”

“My name’s Miss.”

He’s, “I don’t have time for all this foolishness, gal.

“What is your real name?”

I’ve… I’ve repeated my damn name four times.

That’s a direct defiance of caste.

The most personal I’ve heard yet.

Can you imagine that?

A young Black man plotting to force the respect

of white people.

Your father tore a loophole through the hierarchy.

It’s brilliant.

Brilliant. Go on, go on.

So the principal was furious.

So he tells his secretary to check my records,

and, of course, they confirm that my legal name

is Miss Hale.

So he says to me,

“Hale. I don’t know any Hales.

“You not from around here.

“Where’s your father from?”

And I said, “He’s from Alabama.”

And he said, “I knew you weren’t

from around here.

You know how I knew?”

And I said, “No.”

And he said, real cold…

“‘Cause you looking me in the eye.

Colored folk around here know better.”

I was…

I was scared.

You know, I was a kid.


I had never felt…


that cold glare.

You know, he was lookin’ me right in the eyes,

demanding that I not look him in the eyes.

You know, my…

You know, Daddy would…

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

Daddy tell me

again and again,

“Always live up to your name.”

He said, “Miss…

They don’t have the corner on humanity.

They don’t have the corner on femininity.

They don’t have the corner on what it means

to be a whole, noble, honorable person.”

Far from it.

Thank you.

You okay?

[Isabel] Most relationships end.

Friendships, romances.

Divorces. I mean, separations, people grow apart.

They break.

But we didn’t break.

We fought that night.

It was about something so silly, Miss.

I should have spent more time with her.

Daddy would want me to fix this.

For Christ’s sake, would you stop, Isabel?

Just stop.

It’s her idea, she made a choice,

she’s a grown woman, let her make it.

It’s like you hide behind this thing

with your mother.


I just don’t get it.

Hide? I’m not hiding.

Hiding. You’re hiding.

I’m not hiding.

So silly.

And then…

he offered me some pasta…

to apologize.

You want some of that pasta?

Save me some.


And then that was it.

But we didn’t break.

We did not break.

We were together.

Till the end.

He should be here, Miss.

He should be here.

[no audible dialogue]

And the one person…

that I could talk to about…

she’s gone, too.

What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Come, come, come.

You’re okay.

I just wanna scream,

I just wanna scream, I just wanna scream.

Then scream.

Then scream.



Fantastic light.

Will you update or sell as original?

I was thinking a fresh coat of paint.

Vintage it is.


There might be water damage there.

Yes, with everything going on, I just…

I just basically locked up the house,

I have to deal with it.

It’s a process.

Isn’t everything?

So what is the price difference

between fixing it up and selling it as is?

As is?


You’re basically giving this little jewel away.

The area’s hot right now with hipsters.

And these older homes, when they’re fixed up,

can sometimes double in value.

If you can put a few thousand towards getting it fixed,

you would have a competitive situation on your hands

with multiple bidders.

You write books, right?

A book.

I’m writing another one, but…

books don’t pay as much as people think.

I get it.

Sell as a fixer and don’t even worry about it.

Let someone else do the work.

So let’s discuss the contract.

Once the property is clear, we’ll go ahead

and do an open house,

that way, people can come in

and view the property and see what they’re willing

to offer.

Like I said, we’ll get multiple bidders…

[women laughing]

[Isabel] Who is that?

[Marion] What? They didn’t wanna get

in trouble.


She sucked her thumb and peed in the bed

’til she was 20 years old.

I’m not… I’m just… Stop.

So cute!

So cute.

Look at Mama.

So cute.

So fine.


How much is it?

All four estimates are over $10,000.



You can’t sell the roofless house.

Well, we’ll have to wait till I get back.

You leave when again?

Next month.

I have so much research to do here,

and I have to start a new draft soon.

Do you even know anybody in India?

Marion, here’s Uncle.

That’s the point of travelin’.

Meeting new people.

Traveling to places where you are warmly welcomed

by familiar faces

is underrated.

Well, I might have found an Indian professor

who can help me navigate.

[Marion coughing]


No, no “might.”

[foreign language over plane intercom]

Here you are.

No, no, no.

Thank you.

[man] Thank you, Madame

[phone dings]

Okay good.

Oh, good.

[street noises]

Isabel! Isabel!

[excited laughing] Suraj!

So good to see you.

Hello, hello.

Allow me to introduce my esteemed friend,


Professor Ram Kamli.

Pleasure is mine.

Thank you.

You know what we’re gonna do?

We’re gonna go straight.

We’re gonna walk right there.

That’s where we gotta go.

[Isabel] We’re doing that?

[Suraj] We’re gonna do that.

You are excited?

Yes, I am.

Welcome to India, Isabel. So good to have you.

[Isabel] I’m happy to be here.

[Suraj] There are signals on all the corners.

And this is one of the… This is not fourway.

This is fiveway.


And if you add a person like me,

I make my own way.

So, it’s like sixway.


Oh my…

It’s a beautiful market.

[indistinct talking]

[speaking in foreign language]

I like this one.

[Ram] You like this one?

[Ram and vendor speaking]

She would like this.

[Ram and vendor haggling in foreign language]

It’s for my cousin.

That look gorgeous.

Thank you.

Why is the statue caged?

Quite observant.

He’s Baba Saheb, the leader of Dalits.

Isabel, he’s Dr. Ambedkar.

This is the time when he had just completed

the task of drafting India’s constitution.

There, he’s holding it and standing tall.

You will find these statues all across the country.

From a busy street, square, parks, railway stations,

bus stations.

Even in people’s private properties.

Him standing is an affirmation of our existence.

To us, he is revered.

To others, they revile him.

Dr. Ambedkar statues are one of the most vandalized

in the country.

The cage is to keep the vandals away.

Dr. Ambedkar is more than a champion

and a hero to the Dalit people.

He’s the hope that lives within us.

He went to the heart of the problem of caste, and he thought

the purity was lying beneath the artifice of caste…


and where the human population was chopped

into what he called fixed and definite units.

In America, you have what you call

the Blacks, the browns, the Asian, the whites

and et cetera.

Similarly, we have in India,

where the Dalits are supposed to be at the bottom

and the Brahmins at the top.

And between, there are various units

of caste.

What maintains this unit into continuing of caste system

is unending violence in the form of rape,

mutilation and murder.

In India, a Dalit person is attacked every 15 minutes.

Every day, 10 Dalit women are raped,

and these are only the reported cases.

Rohith Vemula’s friends, family and the wider Dalit Movement

called it an institutional murder.

And they called it this because it was not simply a case

of suicide.

They said that this was an institution

that was systematically discriminating

against a young Dalit student.

And this was important because for a lot of us,

as young folks who were looking for a life of dignity

and respect,

and were looking to education and the university to give us

that life,

it showed that the specter of caste was still haunting us.

[Suraj] In a world where Dalit people are brutalized,

simply to keep us in our place,

Dr. Ambedkar remains our shining light.

Our guardian, our hero, our father.

The site of Dr. Ambedkar’s last home.

It’s a museum now.


Quite magnificent.

As you can see, it’s an openbook concept.

While he is a giant among Dalits,

the world has failed to acknowledge his genius.

Dr. Ambedkar was separated from the kids of high caste

so as not to pollute them.

[children cheering]

[Suraj] As a child, young Bhimrao Ambedkar

was not allowed to touch many of the things

his classmates would touch.

He was not even allowed to touch water at the school.

This is because he was considered

an “untouchable.”

That was the term used for Dalits at the time.

[teacher speaking foreign language]

Young Ambedkar was not allowed to touch or sit

at a desk during class.

[teacher speaking foreign language]

But he persevered.

He continued to study and break barriers.

Dr. Ambedkar earned two PhDs.

One at Columbia University,

and the other at the London School

of Economics.

After obtaining his PhDs and passing the bar,

Dr. Ambedkar returned to India as a heralded scholar.

We have been carrying on with untouchability

for the last 2,000 years.

Nobody has bothered about it. You see?

Yes, there are some… some disabilities.

We are very harmful.

Apparently, people can’t take water.

People can’t have land, you see,

to cultivate and earn their livelihood.

There is an insistence on conflating caste with race.

Oh, yeah.

If I brought you to the family reunion,

what would you say?

What would you say to them?

My cousin Marion. My mother.

What would you say to them that’s important for them

to know…

about you, about India,

about caste and our connection?

[Suraj] Our heroes found the connection.

And it is up to us to find it again,

and build upon it in sibling solidarity.

Bhimrao Ambedkar, a young Indian grad student,

he found himself in New York City.

Harlem, to be exact.

He saw kindred spirits among Black people in America.

Both in the oppression they faced and in their survival.

He immediately recognized the similarities

between how African Americans were treated

and the treatment of Dalits.

Asha, you’ve been doing some work on this right?

Yes, my thesis centered on Dr. King’s visit to India.

He saw many of these things first time,

while he and his wife toured the country.

I found the way in which he wrote about India

to be fascinating as someone afflicted by caste

in their own country.

I used his essay

in the magazine of United States as the core of my research.

Do you know Ebony magazine?


Yes, I know Ebony magazine.

Dr. King wrote about India in Ebony?

[Asha] Yes.

July, 1959.

It is quite extraordinary.

[Suraj] And so, there is a connection between us.

The African Americans, the Dalits,

the indigenous people around the world,

the Palestinian people, the Roma people, Buraku people.


The outcasts of Africa

are still fighting for their rights.

Be it Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal.

You go to Latin America, you find outcasts

within the Mexican society or Brazilian society.

And if we think about our histories

through the wonderful ability of love,

the symbols of hate and diets of violence

will be replaced by compassion, care and solidarity.

This is the world that we have to imagine

for ourselves and for others

who have not yet seen the beauty

that human beings have to offer.

[Dr. King] One afternoon, I went down to speak

in the southern part of India,

and I remember that afternoon that the principal got up

to introduce me.

He said, “I would like to present to you

a fellow untouchable

from the United States of America.”

And for the moment, I was peeved. I was shocked

that I would be introduced as an untouchable.

But pretty soon, my mind ran back across

to America.

And I had to say to myself, I am an untouchable.

And segregation is evil and sinful

because it stigmatizes

the segregated as an untouchable

in a caste system.

And this is why I’m convinced

that we have the moral edict, a moral mandate,

to work to get rid of this unjust and evil system.

[phone dings]

I’ll put the phone near her.

[Isabel] Okay.


You’re on speaker.


She hasn’t been responding to folks.

I understand.


It’s Isabel.

Hi, cousin.

I called to say goodbye.

I believe you can hear me.

You mean so much to me.

I remember everything you have ever said to me.

From the time that we were kids

until the last time I heard your voice.

I’ll never forget it.

I’ll never forget you.

You will walk with me.

You will live in me.

For as long as I’m here.

Watch over me.

Cover me, okay?

I won’t see you, but you’ll see me.

There’s more to life than what you can see.

You’re going to experience it all.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

I could stay around for a bit.

Don’t you dare. You go.

So you can come home and you can write your stories.

‘Cause folks need to know about this.

The pillars are working.

You know, it gives it shape.

Good, good.

Then how many of them will there be?

Six or seven.

Maybe eight.

And you are going to make this deadline?

I am going to make this deadline.

This selfimposed deadline.

Well, I don’t have anyone to push me anymore,

so I have to push myself.

[Isabel narrating] A caste system needs scaffolding

in order to maintain its hierarchies.

Dr. Ambedkar wrote,

“Caste is an artificial chopping up

of the population into fixed units.

Each unit is prevented from fusing into another

through the custom called endogamy.”

[speaking German]

In showing how endogamy is maintained,

we can prove the genesis and mechanism of caste.

Endogamy is defined as restricting marriage

to people within the same caste.

[speaking German]

[speaking German]

[Isabel] This is an ironclad foundation

of any caste system.

From ancient India, to the Nazi regime,

to the American colonizers.

Endogamy enforces caste boundaries

by forbidding marriage, sexual relations

or even the appearance of romantic interest

across caste lines.

It builds a firewall between certain people.

[men speaking, dogs barking]

[men shouting in German]

By closing off legal family connection,

endogamy purposely blocks sense of empathy

and shared destiny between people.

[shouting in German]


[indistinct shouting]


[shouting continues]

[Isabel] It was the caste system, through the practice

of endogamy,

which essentially regulated people’s romantic choices

over the course of centuries,

that created and reinforced the idea of races.

By permitting only those with similar physical traits

to legally mate.

Endogamy laws written and enforced by white men

designed the population of the United States.

If you were not a white man and you violated that…

An unknowable number of lives were lost due to endogamy…

the defining pillar of caste.

It triggered the most publicized cases

of lynchings in America.

A protocol strictly enforced against Black men

and white women.

Front row seat, darlin’.

[Isabel] One of the foremost scholars of caste

in America once wrote,

“Tied to what one looked like,

membership in either the upper or the lowest caste

is immutable.

Fixed from birth to death.


One may neither earn nor wed their way out.”

That scholar was Dr. Allison Davis.

The Davis and Gardner team emerged

with perhaps the most comprehensive study,

to this day, of the American caste system.

Their book, Deep South,

is a quietly revolutionary landmark experiment

in interracial scholarship.

The Davises and the Gardners remained lifelong friends.

Nazi Germany, the United States and India

all reduced Jews, African Americans and Dalits

to an undifferentiated mass of nameless,

faceless scapegoats.

Millennia ago, Dalits were called

the “untouchables” of India.

Enforced into the degrading work of manual scavenging,

the practice of cleaning excrement

from toilets and open drains by hand

in exchange for leftover food.

The only thing that they have to protect their bodies…

is oil,

each other…

and their prayers.

To refuse is to invite severe punishment or death.

This persists to this day.

The trade and sale of African people

demolished communities, obliterated families

and tore flesh from spirit.

Human beings were tortured to death,

and thrown overboard on slave ships

during the Middle Passage.


Upon their arrival at the concentration camps,

Jews were stripped of the clothing

of their former lives.

[people speaking German]

Their heads were shaved.

Distinguishing features like sideburns

or red hair were deleted from them.

They were no longer personalities to engage with.

They became a single mass,

purposely easier for SS officers

to distance themselves from.

Indian activists explained that the manual scavenger

is not a form of employment, but an injustice

akin to slavery.

It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination

against Dalits,

and it is central to the violation

of their human rights,

to their dehumanization.

Through violent storms at sea, starvation, mutilation

and rape,

Black people were stacked and squeezed into the hulls

of ships

to be sold into further unfathomable terror.

Their bodies did not belong to them…

but to the dominating caste to do with however it wished.

No longer daughter of a fisherman,

or a nephew of the midwife,

loving mothers,

headstrong nephews, dedicated bakers

and watchmakers,

all merged into a single mass of undifferentiated bodies.

No longer seen as humans deserving empathy…

but as objects over whom control could be exerted.

They were no longer people.

They were numbers.


Now a soulless animal.

Not human.

[chains jingling]

It is harder to dehumanize a single person standing

in front of you,

harder to dehumanize an individual

you’ve gotten the chance to know.

Which is why people and groups who seek power and division

don’t bother with dehumanizing an individual.

Better to attach a stigma, a taint of pollution,

to an entire group.

Dehumanize the group

and you’ve successfully dehumanized

every individual person within it.

Racism is not the same as caste.

Because race does not matter in order for the system

to work.

[no audible dialogue]

“Little League team wins championship.”


“Little League team… splashes.”

It’s true.

[man] Go, go, go!

[crowd cheering]

[man] It was a hot day like today.

[cheering in unison]

We were pretty excited

because we had just won the city championship

when the coach told us he was bringing us to this park.

And we’re gonna get to eat and go swimming.

We were quite excited, as you can imagine.

And then the park ranger came over and pointed out Al.

[park ranger] Hey, boy!

Yes, sir?

You can’t be in here right now.

And you know better.

Who you with?

[coach] Everything okay here?

This boy with your team?

He’s one of my players.

You know how long it’d take for our maintenance crew

to clean this up?

Disinfect it?

Disinfect what…

This is a whitesonly pool.

[man] We didn’t know. Being young kids,

we didn’t understand what was going on.


And yet we wanted

to go in the pool

because it was so hot that day, too.

And then the park ranger, he said,

“If he goes in, nobody goes in.”

So, they took Al outside to a blanket out there.

But, you know, we kept looking back at Al,

and seeing, why was he over there.

So, a few of my friends and I went over to talk to him

and to make sure he was okay.

[Isabel] So it felt strange when that happened,

that he was over there

and you guys were here.

Yeah, it felt separate.

He was on our team.

Yeah. Right, right.

And he was a big part of our team, and then,

they wouldn’t let him in.

Some of the parents brought him over some food to eat.

He sat there by himself? Ugh.

By himself.

And then, the coach talked to the park ranger again

and said,

“Hey, you’ve gotta let this kid in, at least

for a little swim.”

Yes, yes.

So he talked to the coach

and he said, “There’s only one way

I’m going to let this happen.”


Everybody out. Come on, now.

Come on. Come on.

Come on out now. Come on.

You cannot touch that water, boy.

You hear me?

Keep your balance.

Do not touch that water.

Real still.

Real still.

Don’t touch the water.

[man] It really affected us and we didn’t know what to do.


And it still bothers me today.

As a kid, we just want to play baseball and swim.

We didn’t know what to do.

And I wish I could do it over again.

Because I don’t think I did enough.

How old were you?

I was nine.

Nine years old.

[Isabel] Al Bright went on to become an artist

and educator.

He was the first fulltime Black faculty member

at his alma mater, Youngstown State University.

I missed talking to him for the book

by a matter of months.

He passed away at age 82.

But a part of him died that afternoon in 1951.

You’re going to be fine.

You’re going to be just fine.

The tragedy of caste

is that we are judged on the very things

that we cannot change.

Signposts on our bodies of gender and ancestry,

superficial differences that have nothing to do

with who we are on the inside.

The goal of this work has not been to resolve issues

of a millenniaold phenomenon,

but to bear witness to its presence

in our everyday lives,

to shine a light on its history despite those

who would deny it,

despite those who would withhold it from us even,

who try to convince us that we don’t need to know.

We need to know.

You don’t escape trauma by ignoring it.

You escape trauma by confronting it.

When you live in an old house,

you may not want to go in the basement after a storm

to see what the rains have brought.

But choose not to look at your own peril.

We’re all like homeowners who’ve inherited a house

on a piece of land that’s beautiful

on the outside.

But the soil is unstable.

People say I had nothing to do with how this all started.

I never owned slaves.

I didn’t mistreat untouchables.

I didn’t gas Jews.

And, yes, not one of us was around

when this house was built.

But here we are.

The current occupants of a property

with stress cracks built into the foundation,

and a roof that must be replaced.

We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it.

We didn’t erect the uneven pillars,

but they are ours to deal with now.

The cracks won’t fix themselves.

Any more deterioration is on our watch.

Caste is not simply hatred.

It is the worn grooves of routine and expectation.

Patterns of a social order that have been in place so long, it looks natural… when it isn’t.

Caste is everywhere, yet invisible.

No one avoids exposure to its message, and the message is simple.

One kind of person is more deserving of freedom than another kind.

Freedom to love whoever you want to love.

Freedom to go wherever you want to go.

Freedom to express yourself however you want to express yourself.

Freedom to resist and fight for your human right to do so.

[Stan Walker singing “I AM”]

♪ We are the colour ♪

♪ Found in spring ♪

♪ You are the wind ♪

♪ Breathe into me ♪

♪ You inherit me ♪

♪ I inherit you ♪

♪ I am the language ♪

♪ You speak to me ♪

♪ As far as the eye can see ♪

♪ Everything has changed ♪

♪ Tell me how can we stand by ♪

♪ I don’t wanna be the same ♪

♪ He toiora ahau nu ♪

♪ Te toi n Kurawaka ♪

♪ Taku rongomaiwhiti e ♪

♪ Tkiri ko te haeata ♪

♪ Anga atu ki te r ♪

♪ Whiti, whiti ki te ora e ♪

♪ We are the waters ♪

♪ The rivers and streams ♪

♪ Flow through the armour ♪

♪ Of a dying breed ♪

♪ I am with you and you are with me ♪

♪ Baptised in fire ♪

♪ We’re lions in the ring ♪

♪ As far as the eye can see ♪

♪ Everything has changed ♪

♪ Tell me how can we stand by ♪

♪ I don’t wanna be the same ♪

♪ He toiora ahau nu ♪

♪ Te toi n Kurawaka ♪

♪ Taku rongomaiwhiti e ♪

♪ Tkiri ko te haeata ♪

♪ Anga atu ki te r ♪

♪ Whiti, whiti ki te ora e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T rongo e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T karere ♪

♪ Mau tonu e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T rongo e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T karere ♪

♪ Mau tonu e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T rongo e ♪

♪ Hou mai r ♪

♪ T karere ♪

♪ Mau tonu e ♪

♪ Mau tonu e ♪

♪ Tturu whakamaua kia tina ♪

♪ TINA ♪

♪ Haumi e ♪

♪ Hui e ♪

♪ Tiki e ♪

[Fink singing “Falling into place”]

♪ All of us ♪

♪ Waiting just to fall into focus ♪

♪ Every teardrop ♪

♪ I swear is the last drop ♪

♪ I shed ♪

♪ Side by side ♪

♪ All I see as I look behind us ♪

♪ That the shadows that we cast ♪

♪ Are the shadows in our past ♪

♪ Everything ♪

♪ That brought us here ♪

♪ Is falling in ♪

♪ To place ♪

♪ Let yourself go ♪

♪ And trust me you’ll feel better in the morning ♪

♪ Secrets to know ♪

♪ No one knows nothing ♪

♪ Nothing at all ♪

♪ Side by side ♪

♪ All I see is I look behind us ♪

♪ Are the shadows that we cast ♪

♪ Are the shadows in our past ♪

♪ Everything ♪

♪ That brought us here ♪

♪ Is falling in ♪

♪ To place ♪

♪ Everything ♪

♪ That brought us here ♪

♪ Is falling in ♪

♪ To place ♪


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