As India’s movement for independence was gaining momentum, American sociologist, W. E. B. Du Bois, sought inspiration from our anti-colonial struggle. In his editorial, As the Crow Flies, Du Bois asked his readership to see that ‘American Negroes are the bound colony of the United States just as India is of England’. The juxtaposition recognises a never-ending search by Black Americans and Indians for an escape from the dehumanising experiences of colonialism.
But the affinity towards Indians was not limited to establishing an anti-colonial coalition. Du Bois imagined a kinship that would survive borders, politics, and time. While Indians are no longer bound to England, the same cannot be said of Black Americans in United States, and maybe it is time we uphold our part of the historical relationship.
Black is a racial identification. However, Black is neither about origin nor skin colour.
In England of the 1970s, Black was an identity shared by Asian, African, and Caribbean descent and immigrants in self-defence against police harassment and skinheads. At that time, and even today, peoples from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean share the experience of colonialism, exploitation, and structural disadvantages in the global economy.
In United States of 1960s, the Black Panthers formed with inspiration from the Chinese Communists. The segregated neighbourhoods meant that people of colour lived together, and gravitated towards the Black Panther Party. Black did not become a collective identity in United States, but the common experience of racism formed the multicoloured Left. There was a sense of shared blackness between formerly colonised peoples who saw themselves as Black in opposition to white.
These relationships were not limited to the diasporas. Shortly after gaining independence, the then Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru devoted economic and political resources to support anti-colonial movements across the African continent. Nehru also frequently spoke at historically Black colleges in United States.
Just as Du Bois connected Black Americans and Indians, Nehru spoke of parallels in the struggles of India’s anti-colonial nationalism and United States’ Black Left. An example of such parallels is the formation of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra. The way India and various diasporas formed coalitions to resist and survive indicates our affinity towards other colonised peoples, something we will never share with the colonisers and those who inherited their legacies.
Our relationship with blackness might seem like an unread chapter in history, but there is still a shared element. A contemporary example is India’s underground hip-hop scene. Separate from the hip-hop produced with commercial record labels, there is an underground movement that maintains a relationship with Black America. DIVINE and Naezy, two immensely popular artists, have remarked on multiple occasions that they relate to the realities of Black American artists.
The genre that emerged from Black America is oftentimes appropriated by people on the margins of society as a language to critique corruption, hopelessness, and power. It is fitting that ‘hustle’ made popular by Black Americans through hip-hop is so easily translated by Indians as jugaad. As we appropriate hip-hop, groove to the beat, and rap about resistance, we adopt blackness that signifies cool, drip, and swag. However, we want nothing to do with blackness that struggles to breathe.
It is our choice how we address our relationship with blackness. We can bookmark it. We can highlight sections that are convenient. We can add an addendum for a new millennium.
The ongoing protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are inviting the world to look at the conditions of Black Americans. Yet Taylor and Floyd are only two names from a long list of victims of cold-blooded murder. As we look on, our contemporary and historical relationship with Black America is at a critical moment.
Indeed, we are separated by continents, but our support does not have to be physical. In 1930, Du Bois wrote – ‘The black folk of America should look upon the present birth-pains of the Indian nation with reverence, hope and applause’. Just as Du Bois acknowledged injustice and resistance in another continent, we can do the same.
One way to support #BlackLivesMatter is to develop a race consciousness that is historical and inclusive. India’s anti-Black attitude in terms of colourism and xenophobia is widely discussed. Such an attitude is invariably linked to ‘our colonial mindset, and not our tradition’. However, the persistence of racism indicates the extent to which colonialism infected our mind and soul, which is worse than physical colonisation. Where tradition is concerned, our language is our own, and we constantly invent words that are race-based slurs.
A historical consciousness of race identifies historical moments of our misgivings – this is not to place blame upon, but to correct and rewrite. An inclusive race consciousness works with people who have been broken by the same system of colonialism to search for a collective humanity. A race conscious identity embraces blackness. It recognises the humanness in blackness. It realises its own blackness.
Almost two decades before Du Bois connected Black Americans and Indians, he worryingly wrote on the distance between the two communities. In 1929, he wrote:
Peculiar circumstances have kept Indians and American Negroes far apart. The Indians naturally recoiled from being mistaken for Negroes and having to share their disabilities. The Negroes thought of Indians as people ashamed of their race and color [sic.] so that the two seldom meet.
During the 1920s, Du Bois exchanged letters with Tagore who informed his view on India, and Du Bois completed the above quote writing that, ‘My meeting with Tagore helped to change this attitude and today Negroes and Indians realize [sic.] that both are fighting the same great battle against the assumption of superiority made so often by the white race.’
The great battle against colonialism may have ended for us Indians, but it hasn’t for all. However, we are on the losing end in the war against our own blackness. Du Bois changed how he thought about Indians’ relationship with blackness. And he may have been prophetic about it.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.