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Archive for August, 2017

The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III

Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC.  I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out.   But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”?  Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.”  Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.

I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s.  The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal.  Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.

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Dick Gregory at Ohio University, Feb 1968.

It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts.  Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing.  This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say:  “There seemed few causes he would not embrace.  He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”

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Dick Gregory with Muhammad Ali.

Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so.  There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.

Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance.  Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing.  But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon.  One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.

Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting.  His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition.  One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.

Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family.  The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene.  This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed.  But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive.  On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this:  “Segregation is not all bad.  Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”  Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer.  Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked:  “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months.  When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

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Dick and Lillian Gregory; they married in 1959.  She survives him.

So rich a life, so much to write about.  He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories.  One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them.  And yet Gregory was magnificently funny.  One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’.  A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this.  “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?”  Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’.  One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”  But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown:  “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”

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For something like two minutes, the town of Madras, Oregon, which fell on what scientists call “the path of totality”, descended into complete darkness on the morning of August 21 before being blanketed by the sun’s rays.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

This composite image shows the progression of a total solar eclipse over Madras, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.  The total eclipse started at 10:19 AM and lasted 2 minutes 2 seconds.  Source of image:  NASA.

It was surreal enough watching a solar eclipse unfold on one’s television screen; those who were present, whether in Madras or at places on “the path of totality”, have described themselves on social media sites as feeling thrilled, awe-struck, and privileged.  The usual words and phrases—“historic” or “once in a lifetime’s opportunity”—have been trumpeted by hundreds of thousands, but it will take some more reflection and the imagination of a poet to describe just what it is that generated such elation.  Meanwhile, there were some comic moments:  on one of the main American network channels, where viewers were constantly being reminded that looking at the eclipse with one’s naked eyes could lead to blindness, one anchor, speaking in great earnestness, assured his television viewers that watching the phenomenon on the screen was perfectly safe.  We need not run for the fire extinguisher in our home next time we see a blazing fire on the television screen.

It is said that those brief all too brief moments when the sun is completely blanked out before daylight again resumes throw animals into confusion.  “Giraffes and zebras at the Nashville Zoo were freaked out by Monday’s solar eclipse”, according to an article in the New York Post, “and went running wildly around their enclosures after the sky went dark.”  Shrieking crowds may have contributed to the animals’ erratic behavior, the article acknowledges, but during previous eclipses stories have been reported about spiders dismantling their webs and birds falling silent.

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Flamingoes During the Eclipse, at the Nashville Zoo.  Source:  https://en.mogaznews.com/World-News/634491

What came to my mind, however, on watching the solar eclipse was one of the most engaging if morally troubling stories from the Mahabharata, a story that remarkably invokes a false sunset and tells of another sort of confusion in the minds of men.  On the thirteenth day of the war, the young Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, is commanded by Yudhisthira to break the lotus formation into which the army of the composing camp, led by Duryodhana, has been formed.  Abhimanyu complies, if hesitatingly:  though ably instructed by his father on how to enter the formation, he has not been taught adequately about how to exit the maze.  And it is in this maze that the young warrior, more splendrous than the sun itself, meets his death.  Jayadratha—the ruler of Sindhu, son-in-law of Dhritarashtra, and a close ally of Duryodhana—moves his forces and seals the breaches, preventing reinforcements from helping Abhimanyu.  There are no pure victors or losers in the epic, as its readers know, and the Pandavas are scarcely without their blemishes; nevertheless, the greater cowardice is on the side of Duryodhana and his friends.  Thus their greatest and most seasoned warriors—Drona, Kripa, Aswathama, Karna, and others—all pounce on the young Abhimanyu and partake in his death.

Returning to camp that evening, Arjuna is apprised of the circumstances under which his son was killed. He at once takes a vow (and I quote here from R. K. Narayana’s Mahabharata, Chapter 15), “I swear that I shall kill Jayadratha, who trapped him [Abhimanyu], before the sun sets tomorrow.”  The following day, Jayadratha does what any man in his position would do:  knowing that he is no match for Arjuna, and considering too—what cannot be discussed at this juncture—the imperative to abide by one’s vow, Jayadratha wisely absents himself from the battlefield and “shelters behind a fortress of chariots, elephants, horsemen, and soldiers until late evening.”  What transpires next is best relayed in the simple if elegant rendering of the story by Narayana:

Arjuna battled his way through and reached Jayadratha, who was anxiously watching the western sky for the sun to set. The sky darkened and Jayadratha, feeling certain that he had passed Arjuna’s time limit, emerged from his shelter, whereupon Arjuna felled him with a single arrow.  Now the skies brightened again. It was still daylight; a false sunset had been created by Krishna, holding up his discus against the sun. He had adopted this strategy as it seemed to him the only way to bring Jayadratha out of hiding, and end that terrible day’s events.

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Krishna holds up his discus agains the sun; a false sunset lures Jayadratha from hiding and leads to his death.

We know, of course, that the Hindu nationalist brigade, led by the Prime Minister himself, will immediately summon the story as an insurmountable piece of evidence in support of the argument that every modern scientific advance is already anticipated in the Vedas and the capacious corpus of Sanskrit scientific knowledge.  Aryabhatta certainly knew a thing or two about eclipses and his computations of lunar eclipses were not far off the mark.

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The mathematician-astronomer, Aryabhatta (475-550 CE).

But, leaving aside such excursions into “Vedic science”, the story of the false sunset that killed Jayadratha attracts for many more compelling reasons.  Krishna’s machinations have long been the subject of discussions in Indian homes, among scholars and students of the Mahabharata, and in Indian folklore. Jayadratha, Karna, Duryodhana: Krishna plays a questionable role in advancing the death of each of these Kaurava heroes.  The story of Jayadratha suggests amply why the Mahabharata remains the supreme vehicle for discussing the contours and slippery nature of dharma.  Was Jayadratha simply deceived into death?  Was his life to be undone so that others could live? Might dharma require an ignoble deed if only to seed something nobler?  Why do we frequently mistake something for what it is not?

At least a few commentators have commented on the appositeness of the United States being witness to a complete solar eclipse after several decades at a moment in the country’s history when moral values that are alleged to have guided the country thus far seem to have greatly eroded.  Many people are thinking of the “darkness” that has enveloped the country.  But perhaps this metaphor is too easily available and should be resisted.  Perhaps those who are all too certain that what is presently transpiring in the US does not reflect the “real America” know too little about the history of their country.  I think that we would be better served, when reflecting upon the solar eclipse, in asking why it is that stories about the confusion in the minds of animals proliferate when it is the confusion in the minds of men that is far more striking.  Is the solar eclipse, the false sunset, yet another allegory about the twisted play of the real and the apparent in human lives?

 

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On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.

 

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