Somehow, heading to Rehoboth Beach, DE eight days ago felt like a reprieve from an ultra-minimum security prison in which the only crime you committed was becoming old and a bit decrepit.
You miss a neighborhood where the residents’ age range is diverse.
When you get a chance to flee to the ocean to a home, which though a rental, feels like your own after 40 years of family use, you rapidly relax and set upon creating new memories. With a slower gait and willingness to accept help, you quickly realize that suddenly you are the titular head of the family clan—without exhibiting any special qualifications.
I have written before about the delight of spending time in Rehoboth. My grandchildren are now the fourth generation to enjoy a house built in 1929 by a Wilmington, Del. lumber dealer. His granddaughter, a University of Delaware professor, manages the property.
About a mile away as the crow flies is President Joe Biden’s beach house. It matters not to me. Mr. Biden and his wife Jill share our judgment that Rehoboth is wonderful place to unwind and eat Grotto pizza and Thrasher’s fries.
Reading a good book is a typical part of vacation, occupying time and mind. Many prefer fiction, generally captivating but not too mentally challenging. I chose a different direction, painfully completing the much-acclaimed “Caste,” The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson.
Well-written and researched, it requires all white readers to confront their bias,either outright or unconscious, toward African-Americans. It compels readers to understand and accept the continued ravages of slavery in a country undergirded by blatant as well as subtle bigotry.
It does something else: it explains how the German masterminds behind the Holocaust studied the American tenets behind the destructive and dehumanizing institution of slavery to design their 12-year regime of inexcusable human destruction.
It is disturbing. It is distressing.
My vacation reading was anything but soothing. However, it was satisfying in a revelatory way.
Every time I turned a page, I faced a figurative mirror that forced me to confront my actions and inactions during nearly 76 years of life in a country controlled by rigid rules, many unspoken, that benefited those on the top rung or dominant caste—and inhumanely and unequally treated those born with black skin and automatic exclusion from privilege accorded those with white skin.
Personal character and talent were meaningless and disregarded. Your life and lifestyle were dictated by your lowest caste; your life span was perilous if you deliberately or inadvertently broke rules that irritated and maybe threatened the dominant caste.
If you spoke up or acted like any normal human being exposed to constant abuse and ridicule, you could die at the hands of cruel, merciless people. Your only transgression was your black skin and assumed inferiority.
I read this book with alarm and anger. I cringed at the repeated comparisons to the Nazi treatment of Jews. I wondered, as noted, if I have ever acted in a bigoted, dehumanizing way to African Americans. I hope not.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book offered me no escape from my introspection. I either could stop reading an emotionally difficult book, or face the demons of prejudice and the corrosive behavior of so many White Americans programmed to hate and exclude.
My vacation was exceedingly pleasant. It also was disturbingly revealing.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.