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

“The problem of the twentieth century, wrote the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line.” Nearly every book on race relations in the United States that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation.  Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to lay claim to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.”  That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, and social engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery”, “ridicule and systematic humiliation”, indeed “the disdain for everything black.” (See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903], Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications. 1994), v, 6, 9, 111).

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W. E. B. DuBois, 1868-1963.  Source:  The Poetry Foundation.

However emboldened black people in the slave-owning slaves may have felt at the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction, a period that some unrepentant whites characterized as one marked by ‘Negro swagger’, their liberty, such as it was, did not last very long.  Black America had to be brought to its knees, a project that still continues however disguised the forms in which such oppression takes place, however loud the voices clamoring for diversity, multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance.  Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to what he unequivocally termed “a second slavery”, he deployed a striking metaphor to characterize what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (p. 7).  Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil”. This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain”, but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further.  The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.”  And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”:  in what is the book’s most arresting insight, albeit one where the language is anticipated by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; the Negro can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world”, through the eyes of the other.  DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (pp. 3, 28, 7).  Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”:  though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonized, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

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Kenza Drider, wearing a niqab, was detained Monday by undercover police officers at a demonstration in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, 11 April 2011.  Source:  New York Times; see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/world/europe/12france.html

DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the United States and Europe has swiveled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman.  The ban on veiling, or more precisely on covering one’s face, in public has been in effect in France since April 2011.  Muslim women are not necessarily the only ones who are affected by this ban, nor are Muslim women mentioned explicitly; indeed, besides the burqa and niqab, the ban also covers masks, scarves, and helmets.  But, of course, the ban is targeted mainly at the practice of “Islamic veiling”.  Offenders are fined 150 Euros, or about US $165-180 depending on the rate of exchange.  Remarkably, one man, Rachid Nekkaz, had by April 2016 paid the fine on behalf of 1300 women charged with illegally veiling themselves in public, thus incurring a personal expense of 235,000 Euros.  This is in itself an extraordinary story, one that compels us to think anew about notions of tolerance and charity, and the ethos of hospitality:  but a story for another occasion.

The United States has no such ban on “Islamic veiling” or, more broadly, on covering one’s face in public.  Yet, it is white America that shrouds itself in a veil, unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth.  To unveil America’s unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events that transpired not too long ago in a picture-postcard town in the state of Virginia, which housed the principal capital of the Confederacy.

 

What Happened at Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.  Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the United States, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda.  In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a ‘university town’, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.

In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America.  In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities—traffic gridlock, pollution, social anomie—of a big city.  The scenic Blue Ridge mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements.  (This is surely one of the many ways in which the US has changed over the last few decades:  not only are tofu and yogurt widely available, and these were virtually ‘foreign’ foods in late 1976 when I first arrived in the US, but there is the cult of the chef and much hullabaloo over ingenuous culinary creations.  Universities lure students and faculty with the promise of gastronomic delights—one of many recruitment tools.)

Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: Charlottesville, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents.  Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance.  A similar strategy was pursued by other cities and school districts in many of the southern states.

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Downtown Charlottesville, VA. (Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr)

If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise.  The black share of the population has fallen from 22 percent in 2000 to 19 percent at present [Eligon 2017]. Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.

It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted recently as it does every now and then.  The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end:  for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”  On the night of August 11th, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil”, “White Lives Matter”, and “You will not replace us”.

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White supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia, 11 August 2017.  Photograph by Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty

The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville.  The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from the Union.  These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people.  Clashes ensued; the police stood by:  much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathizer had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.

 

(To be continued)

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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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(Second of two parts)

 

The story of the anti-apartheid struggle is not only one, or even mainly, of ‘great figures’.  Kally’s probing and incisive camera is sensitive to the transgressive moments that periodically signified that the enclosures that apartheid sought would be broken by those animated by the quest for equality and social justice or otherwise willing to take risks.  One of Kally’s most stunning photographs, which he has described as a “scoop at the time”, shows a dazzling Rose Bloom hand-in-hand with Syrub Singh as they leave the court after a bail hearing.  I am tempted to say that true love is almost always “forbidden”, but in South Africa the anti-miscegenation laws were particularly severe; moreover, the idea that a white woman, the holiest of the holies, might desire to marry a coloured man was absolute anathema to white society.  Ms. Bloom’s offense is compounded:  she wears a sari and has thus gone native or rather ‘Indian’.  Mr. Singh looks pleased as punch, though some might say that he is clearly smitten.

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Syrub Singh and Rose Bloom emerging from the magistrate’s court after a bail hearing.  Photograph and Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

 

Others, of greater fame, too committed the sins of sexual transgression.  Those who know something of Miriam Makeba remember her marriages to trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the African-American activist Stokey Carmichael.  But the first of Miriam Makeba’s several marriages was to the balladeer Sonny Pillay—and Kally was there to capture those short-lived moments of tenderness even as the Indian community fumed. In his flat, where he had asked them over one evening, Kally recorded their “wonderful chemistry”:  Sonny looks over Miriam’s shoulder at a magazine or LP record sleeve, and the two are a picture of youthful love and exuberant joy.  Kally evidently spent many an evening at The Himalaya Hotel in Durban’s Casbah area, one of the few places in Natal where segregation was not rigidly enforced and blacks, whites, and coloured people mingled.  But Kally’s roving eye camera found the transgressive in other milieus, often far more dangerous. One of the resistance movement’s most iconic images must surely be the photograph that Kally took of Florence Mkhize, later to be known as “Mama Flo”, as she burnt her passbook during the Defiance Campaign.  Acts of resistance to the prescribed social and political order rarely led to anything but an unhappy ending.

 

What is remarkable about Kally is that he remained attuned to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the political over the course of several decades culminating in the end of apartheid.  What is just as striking in his large and still largely unknown body of work is his attentiveness to the quotidian or the everyday life of Indians in and around Durban.  But let it first be said that he was not alone in documenting their lives, as Riason Naidoo’s 2008 book, The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s, unequivocally demonstrates.  Close to half a decade after the end of the indentured system, the greater majority of Indians still lived below the bread line.  The Drum photographer and Kally’s estimable contemporary, G. R. Naidoo, spent one afternoon in 1952 at the one-room shack of the Pillay family in Clairwood South to bring home some bare facts of life at the margins.  Pillay had many mouths to feed, apart from himself:  his wife, his mother, and his five daughters shared a grim existence where the next meal was remote from certainty.  In one photograph, Mr. Pillay is seen emerging from a storefront where a large sign reads, “No Vacancies.” The caption below the photograph states, “In spite of the sign outside Mr. Pillay tried for work.  They told him:  ‘Go away. Can’t you read?’”  The hard-working persistence of the Indian under-class would, in India, South Africa, and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora ironically earn them the epithet, “The Lazy Native”.

 

The question, then, is whether Kally’s lucid camera gaze inflects the quotidian with a different sensibility.  In one photograph, an Indian woman scrubs dishes outside a group of shacks; a very young girl, clutching a toddler, stands by her side.  In another picture, a woman and two young women scrub clothes in an open field.  These are pictures of poverty and they may be construed as ethnographic studies.  There is sometimes despair in his representations of Indian life yet it seldom overwhelms the viewer.  His 1957 photograph, “Children gotta work”, is illustrative of not only Kally’s approach to the grittiness of Indian life in Natal but of the self-reflexivity in much of his work.  Four Indian children, some unmistakably teenagers, are on their way to work in the fields.  Shovels are flung across their shoulders; two of them firmly grasp lunch boxes in their hands.  They walk barefooted in the morning light.  The photograph seems familiar, and why not?  It resonates with pictures of the Indian partition, where the columns of refugees were monstrously large, but there are also shades of the historic march of Indian miners from Natal to the Transvaal in 1913.  Workers on the move, the daily walk, the look of determination:  all this is part of the ensemble.

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An Indian woman scrubbing dishes, in a village on the outskirts of Durban.  Photograph copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

 

I didn’t know Kally well enough to aver that he was a man of sunny optimism, but his photographs nevertheless suggest an eye for the whimsical and a zest for life.  The whimsical touch is nowhere better captured than in his photograph of a boy with a large tortoise on his head.  The wide grin on the boy’s face reveals the unmistakable fun he is having in ferrying his slow-moving companion. I wonder if Kally–and the boy–knew that in Indian mythology, the tortoise carries the weight of the world on its back.  Tortoises can live well past 200 years: in a piece I wrote some years earlier, I looked back, whimsically, on the death 250 years later of the pet tortoise of Robert Clive, the conqueror of India.  Long after the sun set had set on the British empire, Adwaitya the tortoise was still there to help us reflect on the transience of what are touted as the great achievements of history.

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Boy with a Tortoise.  Copyright and Photograph:  Ranjith Kally.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, the emergence of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1950s was becoming a subject of much discussion.  Kally’s snapshot of “Miss Durban 1960”, which is very much done in the vein of the pin-up girl poster that was the mainstay of the soldier’s barracks or the bachelor’s pad, points to the total ease with which Rita Lazarus embraced a bathing suit and her comfort with her own body.  The photograph is inviting without being salacious.  But perhaps the boldest expression of this element of joie de vivre, conjoined with the whimsical, in Kally’s work is his photograph, from the late 1950s, which he called “The Big Bump”.  ‘Pumpy’ Naidoo, owner of Durban’s Goodwill Lounge, bounced into Springbok Radio announcer McKay one evening at the Durban City Hall:  the two men, both amply endowed at the waist, rubbed against each other.  Each seems to be saying, ‘My tummy is larger than yours, and all the better for it.’  Ranjith Kally, I am certain, would have wanted to be remembered as much for this photograph as for any other in his capacious body of work.

 

(Concluded)

 

[This second part was originally published in a slightly different version as “Kally’s captured works” on 19 June 2017 in The Mercury South Africa (p. 7).]

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(First of two parts)

 

With the passing of Ranjith Kally in Johannesburg on June 6, apartheid-era photography has lost one of its stalwarts. From his appointment in 1956 as a photographer to Drum, a magazine which Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey launched in 1951 as a vehicle for the expression of black urban life, until his retirement in the mid-1980s, Ranjith Kally worked assiduously and yet creatively to furnish a record that is nearly without equal of the racial element in South African life and, just as importantly, of both the heroic and everyday transgressions of the insidious racial boundaries that make South Africa’s struggle against apartheid one of the most arresting chapters in the modern history of the triumph over oppressive adversity.  His sprawling oeuvre is a veritable library of what are now recognized as iconic snapshots of the principal political and artistic figures who brought the struggle in South Africa to the world’s attention.  But Kally was equally a chronicler of Indian life in and around Durban, working-class culture, the politics of the street, and the quotidian element in the social lives of South Africa’s black, colored, and Indian communities.  His camera was to become an object lesson in how one might begin to understand the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

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Ranjith Kally

Kally was born in 1925 in Isipingo, which lies just south of Durban and had been a ‘whites only’ area before it was reclassified as Indian.  His grandfather had been among those who had worked on the sugar plantations; his father, Kallicharan, was similarly born into this work, leaving for the fields at 3:30 am where he executed his duties as an overseer.  One of Kally’s earliest and most moving photographs is of his father poring over a Sanskrit text:  reproduced in Kally’s Memory Against Forgetting (2014), it conveys an impression of his father as a learned man rather than as a farm worker.  His father is foregrounded against a black sheet, which accentuates the early morning light; as Kally was to write, “I had wanted to use an old book which he would read often and this is the pose by which I’ve come to remember him.”

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Ranjith Kally’s father, Kallicharan, poring over a Sanskrit text.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Kally walked the three kilometres along a dirt road to school every day.  Schooling among Indian and black school-children seldom extended beyond adolescence in his days, and Kally took a position in a shoe factory after finishing standard six.  Meanwhile, a Kodak Postcard camera, which Kally had picked up at a jumble sale, had spurred his interest in photography, and after a part-time stint at the Durban-based newspaper The Leader, Kally assumed a paid position with Drum and the Golden City Post.  Sometime, perhaps in the early 1950s, a photograph by Kally was selected in a competition sponsored by the Japanese firm Pentax for third prize among 150,000 entries.  (However, in an interview that Kally gave to my friend, the historian Goolam Vahed, on 9 February 2016, he placed this event in 1957; however, in the introduction to Memory against Forgetting, as well as in The Indian in Drum, by Riason Naidoo, the competition is described as having taken place in 1964.)

 

Kally’s first photographs of anti-apartheid figures would be taken in the late 1950s.  At a break during the Treason Trial in Pretoria in 1958, the young photojournalist saw his opportunity.  Among those on trial were Monty Naicker, a doctor who turned to trade union activism before assuming leadership of the Natal Indian Congress and offering the NIC’s cooperation in the Defiance Campaign.  Monty played a key role in making possible the close cooperation between Africans and Indians that would signal the solidarity that would mark the distinctiveness of the anti-apartheid movement.  In his photograph, Monty commands the center; a young Nelson Mandela and the communist leader Yusuf Dadoo are in the background.

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Monty Naicker at the Treason Trial, Pretoria, 1958; in the background, Nelson Nandela and Yusuf Dadoo.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Monty remained among Kally’s favorite subjects, and he was one of the Indian political leaders who was featured regularly in Drum; but Kally’s proximity to the Indian community, and his own awareness of the political moment, led him to other Indians who were staunch advocates of racial solidarity.  A photograph from the 1970s shows the attorney Phyllis Naidoo who engineered the escape of many prominent anti-apartheid activists:  taken at her offices in Maseru after she had herself gone into exile, a pensive Naidoo reflects on her narrow escape from an assassination attempt.

Kally would capture, in a series of striking photographs, the travails of the Meer family.  In the early 1960s, Ismail Meer, then in detention, sought a portrait of his wife, Fatima, and their three young children to keep him company in his prison cell.  In Durban’s Botanical Gardens, Kally seated Shamin, Shehnaaz, and Rashid around their buoyant-looking mother.  There is no hint here of anxiety, fear, or the oppressiveness of racial terror.  Less than twenty years later, Kally would snap a photograph of Fatima Meer, a gigantic figure in the struggle in her own right, emerging from a courtroom with steely determination flanked by three lawyers who represented her as she sought to fight the repressive apparatus of the state.  Taken together, the two photographs do not only point to the passage of time:  writ large there is the tale, inter alia, of women assuming a place in the public sphere, the many guises of the political, and the little-discussed role of Indian Muslims in shaping secular narratives of freedom.

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However, for reasons that likely tell us something about Kally’s own political disposition, it is above all the figure of Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, to which he was likely most drawn.  Kally was despatched to Groutville in 1961 when the news of the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Luthuli, who was under a banning order, was made public.  Kally photographed Luthuli against a rustic window frame, looking out at what is perhaps an uncertain future.  He is dressed in a workman’s overalls—rather apt, if we consider that he was a man of the people.  The frame tells its own story, of a man who had been framed by the state.  We may say that the framing device surfaces elsewhere in a different register, as in Kally’s photograph of a peace rally where a handful of men are holding aloft a huge photograph of Luthuli—a photograph also taken by Kally.  It is perhaps fitting that Kally concludes Memory Against Forgetting with a facial portrait of a smiling Luthuli who never stooped to the level of his opponent while reminding his readers that “as we celebrate freedom, we would do well to equally remember the legacy of the other great man of peace, Inkosi Albert John Luthuli.  While Madiba taught us how to forgive, Chief Luthuli first taught us how to love.”

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Chief Albert Luthuli:  photograph taken of him in Groutville after he had been informed of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally was 91 years old when he passed away.

 

Note:  I met Ranjith Kally thrice on my second trip to South African in November 2015.  I was keen on doing an exhibition of some of his works and arranging for him to visit UCLA.  But, alas, I was too slow in moving things along. Kally was kind enough to share with me high resolution images of some of his work; the photographs here are all under copyright with him and his heirs.  This part first of my tribute was published in The Mercury South Africa as “Photographer’s oeuvre a vision of urban black life” (14 June 2017, p. 7).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century:  The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.”  Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title.  A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable.  He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural:  in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such.  It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities.  In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation.  This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much.  To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications.   As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.

That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic.  Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine.  The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971?  Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves.  Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.

Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”.  Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example.  56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them.  To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted:  the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site.  It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice.  Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’.  The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars.  Every American life counts, as indeed it should.  Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.

Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives.  Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead.  But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit.  What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount?  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)  There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead:  if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered?  Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?

The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering.  But of this I shall speak some other time.  For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed.  But what exactly is to be remembered?  Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror?  Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others?  If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering?  Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view?  Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.

 

 

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Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword.  Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.

  • Nelson Mandela, Foreword to the Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada

 

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Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu

One afternoon around 12-13 years ago, I received a call from the office of the Dean of International Studies at UCLA inquiring if I had any interest in meeting Ahmed Kathrada.  I jumped at this rare opportunity. I don’t now recall what had brought Kathrada to Los Angeles, but he was in town on a short visit and the Dean’s office was desperately trying to find someone who could meet with him.  There seemed to be little awareness of Kathrada’s stature or the extraordinary place that he occupied in history.  But someone in the Dean’s office knew of my interest in the Indian diaspora and its variegated histories; perhaps some also knew of my long-standing interest in anti-colonial movements.  And so the privilege of taking Ahmed Kathrada to lunch was all mine.

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Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. Copyright: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

The man whom I met was of gentle disposition, modest, and extremely well-spoken.  Many times after that meeting with him, I wish I had taken a tape recorder and sought his permission to record our conversation; but, then, at other times I have thought to myself that I did the right thing in just treasuring that moment.  How often Kathrada must have been recorded and surely many times he must have wished that he could speak without the slightest let or hindrance?  Ahmed Kathrada was ‘Kathy’ to his friends—and what friends they were:  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, and many others who were among those convicted in the great Rivonia Trial and still others who had the privilege of being at the helm of leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).  Kathy, or “Uncle Kathy” as he came to be known later in life to his countrymen and women who adored him, was Witness Number 3 at the Rivonia Trial, following Witness Number 1 Nelson Mandela and Witness Number 2 Walter Sisulu.  Convicted like the others of organizing a “revolution” and “of the crime of conspiracy”, which Judge de Wet described as being “in essence one of high treason”, Kathrada was similarly sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with hard labor.  He would spend over 26 years behind bars, nearly 18 of them in the company of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.

Born in 1929 on August 21 of Gujarati Muslim parents in Schweizer-Renke, a small town in northern South Africa, Kathrada moved to Johannesburg as a small child with his parents and entered political life in his late teens.  A fellow Gujarati by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had already left his mark on South African politics; but Gandhi, though he spent some twenty odd years in South Africa, eventually made his way back to India.  Kathrada was first and always a South African, deeply committed to the fundamental idea expressed in the Freedom Charter, namely that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.  Kathrada served out his first prison sentence when he got picked up for his participation in the “Passive Campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress in 1946 and for his opposition to legislation that restricted Asian land ownership.  In the early 1960s, after some in the ANC including Mandela had renounced their allegiance to nonviolence, Kathrada went underground and became part of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, or “MK”).  It is at Lilliesleaf, a ‘safe home’ in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, that Kathrada along with several others would be apprehended and indicated on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

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The State Funeral of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on 29 March 2017. Copyright: BBC.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  These are the famous words with which Nelson Mandela commenced his ‘speech from the dock’ at the Rivonia Trial, which opened in April 1964.  They could easily have been said by Kathrada.  Much in that historic trial has been eclipsed by Mandela’s justly famous address; but Kathrada’s exchange with Dr. Percy Yutar, the lead prosecutor for the state, is no less compelling, not just as an illustration of court theatricals but also as a statement of the astuteness and moral courage of an auto-didact.  Time and again, Yutar sought to drive a wedge between Kathrada, an “Indian”, and his black comrades; but Kathrada dealt with him summarily, with an admirable firmness and probity of purpose.  Here is one exchange:

Yutar:  Were there any traitors among your own people, the Indian people?

AMK:   I suppose there are. There are traitors among all people, Indians, Jews, South Africans, Afrikaners, the lot.

Yutar:  And what are you going to do with the traitors, let’s deal just with your people, the Indian people?

AMK:  My Lord, when it comes to traitors, they are traitors.  Whatever colour they are, they are traitors.  I hope they will all be dealt with similarly.

And, on another occasion, when asked if he knew George Naicker and if he was a “co-religionist”, Kathrada replied:  “Co-religionist? He’s a Hindu and I’m a Moslem.”  And so followed this exchange:  “Oh yes, but an Indian?” “Yes. Two different religions.” “Billy Nair?” “I know Mr Billy Nair.” “Also an Indian?” “Also an Indian.” “Yes, and?” “And a human being.” “If you’re trying to be smart with me, I’m prepared to take it.” “I don’t know why you keep on saying co-religionist and Indian.”

Kathrada was far more than what Yutar, for all his legal expertise, could handle.  He was intent on establishing, with “evidence, documents and otherwise”, that Kathrada was “nothing else but a communist agitator”.  To this, Kathrada issued a scathing and yet matter-of-fact riposte:

AMK:  That’s your opinion.  I don’t know what you mean by a communist agitator.

Yutar:   That you are a member of the Communist Party and that your job is to agitate people to make them believe that they are oppressed and trying to incite them!

AMK:   My Lord, I thought we had solved this problem already.  We don’t have to make any non-Europeans believe that they are oppressed.  They know they are oppressed.

Much has been said in the obituaries that have been written of Kathrada of the last twenty-five years of his life that he spent as a free man in the continued service of South Africa.  He served as Counselor to President Nelson Mandela and took charge of the Robben Island Trust, escorting world leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as much as school children to this prison that its famous inhabitants lovingly characterized as a University.  Shakespeare, as Ashwin Desai has shown in his remarkable book, flourished on Robben Island.  What, however, struck me most when I met Kathrada was the complete lack of rancor, the absence of the slightest note of bitterness at having been robbed of the best years of his life.   I suspect that this graciousness and magnanimous attitude derived from a set of circumstances, among them his long years of friendship and fellowship with the likes of Mandela and Sisulu, the example of Gandhi, and his adherence to Islam.  Kathrada remained resolutely secular to the end; but, though is something that secularists have a hard time comprehending, he derived his very secularism from his faith as a Muslim.

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Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela with the Clintons.

It is very likely, too, that in years to come Kathrada’s name will resonate as a striking example of what Indians and Africans working together in a spirit of fellowship can achieve.  Even as this is being written, I am ashamed to say, African students in India’s capital have been set upon by unruly groups of young men.  The conduct of most urban Indians towards Africans can only be described as execrable.  In Africa itself, the legacy of the Indian presence has been mixed at best; but all this is the subject for other commentaries.  In South Africa, at least, it cannot be doubted that Indians partook of the freedom struggle in equal measure as black people, even as the apartheid regime insistently and insidiously attempted to divide the population.  Kathrada unfailingly resisted these attempts and remained to the very end a resolute advocate of the idea of a multi-racial South Africa.  For this alone, he should be remembered as a colossus of both the struggle against apartheid and the effort to achieve a truly democratic South Africa.

 

 

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Politics, Culture I (A New Series)

Los Angeles, 4 April 2017

A masterful orator, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – as he is invariably described in the black community – was perhaps at his prophetic best when, fifty years ago on this day, he handed down a searing indictment of America’s war in and on Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York.  Four years earlier, on the steps of Washington’s Mall, King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; and it is doubtless the optimism of that speech, and its palpable demonstration of his still enduring faith, despite the massive provocations to which he had been subjected by white racists, in the promise of America that has ensured its status both as a landmark document of political spirituality and as a signal achievement in American political rhetoric.

The “dream” of which Dr. King spoke in 1963 would soon sour.  By the mid-1960s, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam had considerably escalated.  Opposition to the war had been growing; even some who opposed the advance of communism in Vietnam had qualms about the manner in which the US had taken over the role of the former colonial power, France.  Thus far Dr. King had spoken comparatively little against the war, though his unflinching advocacy of nonviolent resistance to segregation and the virulent racism of American society did not leave in doubt his own views about the illegitimacy of war in general and, certainly, the absolute immorality of a war launched upon a people thousands of miles away who, as Ho Chi Minh had declared, “have never done any harm to the United States” and would not capitulate, or even agree to so-called peace talks, “under the threat of bombs”.

By 1966-67, the Vietnam War had become the defining, one might say transcendent, issue in American public life.  Some in the movement may have been tempted into thinking that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the legal framework for redressing the extreme liabilities from which black people suffered had been put into place and thus the problems of African Americans were on their way to being resolved.  Dr. King and his associates, and black people throughout the US, of course knew better.  By this time, Dr. King had come around to the view that the two great movements of the mid-sixties, the Civil Rights agitation and the resistance to the war, had to be linked together.  There was another pressing consideration: in war abroad, as at home in the US, to the extent that the black person could call a country where he or she had been enslaved, killed, tortured, maimed, lynched, raped and ridiculed a “home”, the black person had borne the brunt of the toll.  A disproportionate number of young black men had been drafted to fight an imperialist war and lay down their lives for a country which otherwise had no use for them.

It is against this backdrop that on 4 April 1967 Dr. King stepped foot inside that “magnificent house of worship” called Riverside Church to deliver what remains to this day one of the most extraordinary indictments not just of the American war machine but of American society.  The particular risk that Dr. King took that day is hard to divine today, fifty years later, when it is assumed that opposition to the war was rather common; in any case, Dr. King’s singular achievement may not be transparent to those who have hear of Muhammad Ali’s fearless resistance or have grown up on the idea that Malcolm had by far a sharper and livelier tongue.  Dr. King’s many biographers have noted that he had been advised that he should not address the question of the Vietnam War:  the good faith that he had earned among many white people might well be squandered, and even his fellow black leaders were rather adamant that, as a “civil rights” leader, Dr. King should continue only to hammer away at the injustices facing black people.  Dr. King’s own father was among those who would help to weaken a resolution that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had put forward in opposition to the war.  Yet, as Dr. King told his audience, the time had come to recognize that, in relation to Vietnam, silence is betrayal.  Speaking from the “the burnings” of his own heart, he perforce had to question the path which was leading to the destruction of Vietnam, even if many questioned him about the “wisdom” of his intervention:  “At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud:  ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?  Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’  ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say.  ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.”

What would follow that evening would be a meticulous and mesmerizing dissection of the structural roots of American racism and the inextricable link between militarism and injustice.  Dr. King himself would outline “seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the fold of [his] moral vision”, but his oration can be distilled into a few major points.  First, Dr. King ponders over the cruel irony of young black men “crippled by our society” being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asian which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”.  In “brutal solidarity”, Dr. King writes of young black and white American soldiers, they burned “the huts of a poor village” or mowed down the enemy, “but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.”  Secondly, Dr. King describes, not so much in chilling detail as in lacerating language, the destruction wrought in Vietnam by air and on land.  The “women and children and the aged” are sent on the move by bombs, herded off “into concentration camps”:  “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.  They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. . . .  They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

A country that oppresses sections of its own people at home cannot be expected to do otherwise abroad.  Every colonial regime brutalized some of its own people, the weaker and defenseless sectors of its own society, before it brutalized external others.  One fundamental contribution of Dr. King’s Riverside Church oration was to bring home to the American people the inextricable relationship of American militarism in Vietnam and the desperate attempts by white racists to enforce racial segregation and discrimination in the US.  The country that denied black people the dignity that permits a person to call himself or herself free was the same country that would seek to virtually obliterate the Vietnamese.  Thus it is that Dr. King would go on to characterize his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.   Yet he does not permit this damning indictment to eviscerate his hope that America might one day be brought around to a different view of the world, such that it is no longer, as he says, “on the wrong side of a world revolution.”  But “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” Dr. King insists, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

It is a matter of record that Dr. King would be roundly criticized by nearly every major newspaper and periodical in the country.  One of the few magazines that stood by him was, not surprisingly, the NationThe Washington Post, which had been supportive of the war, stated with unvarnished arrogance that “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence”; moreover, Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country, and to his people.”  The supposed bastion of ‘true news’ and liberal opinion, the New York Times, which had been critical of the war, spoke in a rather identical idiom when it lamented that Dr. King had engaged in a “wasteful and self-defeating” exercise that had needlessly sought to fuse “two public problems that are distinct and separate” and thereby paved the way for an outcome that “could very well be disastrous for both causes.”  It is not, however, the supreme irrelevance of the observations of these two highly regarded newspapers that should be of most concern to us; rather, it is the indubitable fact that Dr. King’s speech might well be delivered today with barely any change, except for the alteration of some bare facts of life, that should give us to pause to consider whether we have even to the slightest degree rendered obsolete the moral concerns which framed Dr. King’s majestic set of reflections.

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