Years before Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence or ahimsa shaped the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, Swami Vivekananda, during his 1893 visit to the US, made several critical observations about racial injustice in the country. A few decades later, author-filmmaker KA Abbas expressed support for the African Americans’ struggle for equality at a New York conference in 1938, and went on to explore racial injustice in some of his writings.
These and other instances of solidarity between African Americans and South Asians have largely been lost to history. In an attempt to bring the linkages back to public attention, Berkeley resident Anirvan Chatterjee started a project titledThe Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity in February 2015, to coincide with Black History Month. Chatterjee, a technologist and activist, is the curator of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, a two-mile journey through the Californian city that highlights instances of social justice activism by South Asian Americans.
In an interview to Scroll.in, Chatterjee spoke about why he wanted to bring Black-desi ties to light and how the civil rights movement laid the groundwork for America’s vibrant South Asian migrant community. He explained how the ties have been taken forward by Dalit activists, who have found common ground with Black communities in their fight against social injustice and inequality. This commonality was also highlighted by BR Ambedkar in the early 20th century, and taken forward by contemporary movements such as the Dalit Panthers, which drew its name from Black Panther Party that fought against racial discrimination in West from 1966 to 1982. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about The Secret History of South Asians and African American Solidarity project. What was your aim when you began this website in 2015?
There’s been a significant amount written on [the] connections between South Asian and African American communities. This includes the work of Vijay Prashad [Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting; The Karma of Brown Folk], Nico Slate [Colored Cosmopolitanism], Gerald Horne [The End of Empires: African Americans and India] and Sudarshan Kapur [Raising Up A Prophet: The African-American Encounter With Gandhi].
The Secret History of South Asians and African American Solidarity builds on this work, and helps make it accessible to a much larger audience. For me, and for many South Asians, these are secret histories that we were never taught. We know that we don’t bear the brunt of American racism, but we don’t always know why. We know that our communities express anti-Black racism, but we don’t always know what it looks like to stand together in solidarity.
The site is a starting point for a conversation, and I’m excited to see [the many] ways [in which] it continues to draw community members into the topic. Just [a few days ago], I heard from a college student using the website as part of a course curriculum.
What do you think explains this close collaboration between South Asians and African Americans? Is it a common experience of oppression and colonisation?
From about the 1920s to 1947, there was an emerging consensus in South Asia and African America that there were connections to be made between European colonisation in India, and a kind of internal colonisation of African Americans. On both sides, there were activists and writers finding strength in making those connections.
But Black and Dalit activists have gone much further with this, seeing both as a kind of internally colonised people in their own lands. From Ambedkar and King to Cornel West and Dalit Women Fight, generations of activists have seen explicit connections between race in the US and caste in India, even while acknowledging that the two systems operate differently.
Has the lack of awareness of this shared history impacted ties between South Asians and African Americans in contemporary US? You spoke about this in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, but some of the articles you reference on your website, including much of Vijay Prashad’s work, rue the fact that South Asian solidarity with anti-racism activism is not nearly enough...
As a community that’s still substantially of the immigrant generation, it’s not surprising that many South Asians were never taught about the history of race in the United States, and how we fit into it. Here’s the truth: for generations, when we were strangers to this country, Black communities took us in, stood with us, and created the conditions under which our community could grow and thrive. It’s time to repay some of the debt. And this is doubly important at a moment like this, when our communities, Black and brown, face a resurgent White nationalism. Standing together is both a moral imperative, and a necessary step for our safety and that of our children.
You mention on your website that “South Asian America was built on the backs of Black bodies during the civil rights movement”. Can you elaborate on that?
We are in the United States today because African American activists organised, bled and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. US laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had made their way to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration [the nativist legislation kept out people from the “Barred Zone”, which included most of Asia]. The 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions, but allowed in only 100 Indian immigrants per year.
Everything changed in 1965. Passed in part as a response to African American activism against racist American laws, the 1965 Immigration Act ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today. Without the civil rights movement, South Asian America as we know it might not exist.
A lot of your work seems to be about finding linkages and ties of South Asian history and culture in contemporary American, including the Berkeley Walking Tour and this project. Would this be a correct observation?
We have rich and fascinating histories. But as South Asians in the US, we’re constantly told that our history means either stories of the homeland, or White histories in the US. As a South Asian American activist, I think we need to understand our own community’s story, in all its complexity.
I come to this work as a progressive activist, because I believe if we knew our own history, including the history of generations of South Asian American activism and solidarity, we would be less likely to be bystanders. Whether we’re taking on America’s domestic racism through our brown lens, or taking on American climate destruction as people with roots in a deeply climate-impacted part of the world, we make better choices when we know our own story.