Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Philadelphia Writers Resist

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the contributions Temple University Press authors made to the recent Writers Resist event held in Philadelphia.

writers-resist

Photo by Lena Popkin

Nathaniel Popkin, co-organizer of the program, and forthcoming Temple University Press author, said this about the event:

We had dual goals for Philadelphia Writers Resist—the first is the need to stand up to protect First Amendment rights. Writers in every society have particular responsibility, and historically are the observers, documenters, dreamers…But there is a second reason for writers to stand up today: we are being directly threatened by the President-elect. (You can read some of these ideas in the op-ed we wrote for the Inquirer). The second reason for doing the event was to unite the various cells of the Philly literary community with a common purpose. My sense of Philly is that we have an incredibly rich literary community but it doesn’t really cohere. With this event, I felt that we joined voices around texts—we inhabited words together.

The event exactly hit my expectations: tone, tenor, energy, goodwill, and the words and voices that brought them to life seemed to carry extra poignance, extra meaning, when arranged next to each other. My sense in reading comments on Facebook and from what people told me after: people were struck by the humility and humanity of writers reading other people’s work. They were both inspired and frustrated that we’ve fighting these fights as long as we have, and they were reminded, with the extraordinary beauty and grace of the texts, that writers matter, that writing matters, that it gives shape to our greatest hopes as human beings.


One of the poems read at the event was “Learning to love America” by Shirley Geok-lim Lin, co-editor of Reading the Literatures of Asian America and Transnational Asian American Literature


Beth Kephart, author of Flowand Loveread the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Further On (Up the Road),” from his album, The Rising. She said she chose this song because, “it was a simple text, an invitation, a sliver of hope, a reminder, a refrain that we are not stuck in present time, not contained by present conditions, not condemned to paralysis. We are on a journey, and at this moment it is dark and miles are marked in blood and gold, but: there is a further on up the road, there is a path, a brighter path, to be forged.”


Daniel Biddle, co-author of Tasting Freedomread the Address of the Colored State Convention to the People of Pennsylvania, 10 February 1865. Octavius V. Catto et al.

biddlepodiumThey were barbers, teachers, carpenters, soldiers. Octavius Catto and 80 other Pennsylvanians of color braved a blizzard to get to Harrisburg in February 1865.  There they met for three days and nights in a church, and emerged with a message to the white world.

Black soldiers’ service and sacrifice were helping the Union win the war, Catto and his allies wrote. Let there be no further debate or delay in granting “our political enfranchisement, now and forever.”

The petition was a good fit for Writers Resist. Its authors, like their heirs in the modern Civil Rights Movement, challenged the racist order with a mix of courage and calculation; and they wrote well. Their final sentence made the same argument sculptor Branly Cadet has depicted in his statue of Catto, soon to be erected by City Hall: that the people’s power, wielded at the ballot box, can make injustice “disappear as the dews of morning melt before the morning sun.”

Tasting Freedom comp

“….We have never yet been secure in our persons, houses, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and seizures, as warranted to all persons under the State Constitution. When tried by accusation before our State Courts, it has been almost impossible to secure an impartial jury…and in no case can it be claimed that we are tried, and judgment rendered by our peers. All these disadvantages have contributed to rivet the shackles of prejudice and political slavery upon us, and throw us upon the mercy of those who know no mercy even up to this very hour of national calamity and moral revolution…

Slavery is now dead…  dead throughout the land — black men declared to be citizens of the United States, and marching by tens of thousands on field and flood against this monstrous rebellion… fighting, bleeding, dying in defense of our Constitution and the maintenance of our law.

Can it be possible that Pennsylvania will still suffer herself to be dishonored by refusing to acknowledge or to guarantee citizenship to those who have suffered so much, and still been foremost among her own sons in defending their country… against treason and rebellion?

Is it not our duty to ask
In the name of justice,
In the name of humanity,  

In the name of those whose bones whiten the battlefields of the South, that every bar to our political enfranchisement be now and forever removed?

Do this, and all other evils and outrages will disappear as the dews of morning melt before the morning sun.

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