Dr. Jessica Johnson: ‘Origin’ raises deep questions about racism

Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film “Origin” has been digitally released, which should hopefully attract more viewers to examine its intricate themes connecting American racism to global caste systems.

Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” “Origin” takes its audience on a riveting and heartrending historical journey that explores Wilkerson’s complex thesis tying systemic Jim Crow discrimination against African Americans to the German Nuremburg Laws and the inhumane caste system in India.

The fundamental question that Wilkerson asks before pursuing her research is “why is everything racist?” She presents this question to her former newspaper editor, who requested that she write an article on the racial profiling that resulted in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, which was dominating the news in 2012.

As she declines the assignment, Wilkerson asks another probing question regarding racism as “the primary language to understand everything.” For example, could Trayvon’s murder and the hundreds of years rooted in covenant land agreements and not allowing Blacks to pass down their assets to their children be categorized as the same type of racism?

This is the question that pushes Wilkerson to go on a global quest for answers, and while diligently seeking historical documents and other primary sources, she personally grieves the devastating losses of her mother Rubye, husband Brett and close cousin Marion.

Those familiar with Wilkerson’s books and articles know that she is a skilled and passionate writer who moves people to think beyond the veneer of our cultural and societal realities. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor personifies this fervidness as Wilkerson in “Origin.”

In a scene with Wilkerson, Rubye (Emily Yancy) and Brett (Jon Bernthal) while they are watching a news report on Trayvon’s killing, Rubye laments that Trayvon did not “act in a way to keep (himself) safe” because he was too young to understand the dangers of walking in a White neighborhood at night.

This encourages Wilkerson to reflect more on the racial hierarchies that still divide us in America and dictate confrontational interactions. Thus, while we are no longer separated by the callous de jure segregation of the Jim Crow era, Wilkerson further examines how racial hierarchies still disconnect us in socio-economic status, educational attainment, housing and other sectors.

In her exploration of southern racism, she cites from the preliminary work of Black anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis, scholars in the 1930s and ’40s who tag-teamed with their White colleagues, Burleigh and Mary Gardner, in playing a “caste performance” to study racial hierarchy in Natchez, Mississippi.

Wilkerson notes that the Davises and Gardners conducted their studies at great risk to their personal safety but were able to successfully navigate these dangers and publish their 1941 book “Deep South.” As I learned more about their groundbreaking Natchez observations, I thought about my family there and how on a visit back in 2015 life still appeared somewhat segregated except in places where people had to go, such as the grocery store and post office. I pretty much ignored the Confederate flags I saw on my drive down to Nachez from Georgia, but being there kind of felt like stepping back in time into a William Faulkner novel.

“Origin” concludes with a fitting reference to a 1959 radio address that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave contemplating his travels in India where he called out the moral injustice of the country’s caste system. King mentions that he was at first offended in being introduced as an “untouchable” but then made the connection to how African Americans were still being treated in the US.

King said, “Segregation is evil and sinful because it stigmatizes the segregated as untouchable in a caste system.” This quote provided more support for Wilkerson’s thesis, but I also view King’s remarks from a spiritual perspective in presenting an answer for the effects of racism firmly entrenched in castes.

King preached that racism is sinful at its core, and when placing racism in the context of caste, both are grounded in hatred due to how those in power treat people deemed inferior in the structural hierarchies they design. Scripture calls this hateful treatment “blindness,” and Romans 2:11 makes it clear that God “shows no partiality (no arbitrary favoritism; with Him one person is not more important than another)” (AMP).

“Origin” thoroughly illustrates how “arbitrary favoritism” has propped up caste systems for centuries.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.