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The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future.   Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea.  Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals:  the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.  At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element.  The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.

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Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted.  Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands.  Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating.  Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”.  It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating.  Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video.  She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches:  one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon.  Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar.  And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point.  For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game.  Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.

We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary.  The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”.  The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool.  The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:

Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule.  (Note:  I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.)  But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all?  It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent.  Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property:  here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her.  But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases.  There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them.  If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace.  Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars:  more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.

The answer to the question is obvious:  racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship.  This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel.  We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies.  (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn.   Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say:  “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet.  She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.”  The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss.  Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition:  he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him.  He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.

Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process.  Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason.  I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized.  Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate.  There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.

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A garlanded tool at Vishwakarma Puja, Delhi.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Iy3vUwSrmw [video footage]

That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools.  Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship.  Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods.  In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them.  This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.

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Vishwarkarma Puja, Amrtisar, 2012.  Source:  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vishwakarma-day-keeps-all-markets-closed-today-121403-2012-11-14

It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”.  My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos.  But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
https://www.atpworldtour.com/-/media/files/rulebook/2017/2017-atp-rulebook.pdf

 

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On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.

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Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.

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Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.

 

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Part V of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

Most histories of the Taj Mahal that have ventured into politics advert either to Aurangzeb’s intolerance for what he took to be idolatry or to Hindutva accounts of the Taj as narrated in the first three parts of this article.  Shah Jahan watched as his sons competed to succeed him on the throne, with Aurangzeb eventually emerging triumphant.  The war of succession was brutal, as such wars are—everywhere.  It is said that Aurangzeb had his father imprisoned:  as narrated to me by my father decades ago, the pitiful old man was put behind bars in a room from where he could view the Taj.  The commonly accepted account is that Shah Jahan was confined to the Agra Fort, where his daughter Jahanara tended to his needs for eight years before he passed away in 1666.  One of the more moving compositions of the great artist Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath and the younger brother of the celebrated Gagendranath, is called “The Passing of Shah Jahan.”  The Emperor’s last thoughts were evidently on the Taj. He reposes in bed with Jahanara at its foot; his head is turned towards his greatest creation.  The longing in his eyes is palpable, but the object of his attentions is ever so far away.  Jahanara’s own tomb, though elegant, was to be very simple by comparison: it is open to the sky and part of the famous Nizamuddin complex in Delhi.

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‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1902), a painting by Abanindranath Tagore.  At the foot of the bed is Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan; the Taj Mahal is in the background.

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The cenotaph of Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, in Nizamuddin, Delhi.

The political history of the Taj, for the present, thus appears to be bookended by Aurangzeb at one hand and the Hindutva nationalists, whose loathing for Aurangzeb is unqualified, at the other end.  There are a few numbers which appear in nearly every history of the Taj that is more than a paragraph long:  20,000 workers are said to have labored over a period of 22 years.  There would seem to be something in this for the historian of the working class.  The craftsmen appear to have come from as far as Baghdad and Constantinople.  But just exactly how were ‘workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ distinguished?  We can imagine that those who inscribed the verses from the Koran, wove the jewels into the stone, or carved out the most delicate windows from the stone were all “craftsmen”. The dome of the Taj is nearly 20 stories high; it required a ramp one mile in length to take the workers to the top.

But, moving beyond the construction of the Taj, why is it that we hear so little about the Taj in the colonial period?  In the mid-19th century, apparently, the Taj was little more than a honeymooning site and a pleasure resort.  The histories tell us that at this degenerate point, when neither the Indians nor the British cared much for the Taj—the Indians because they were supremely indifferent to their own cultural achievements, the British because they were indubitably certain of their own superiority—the intrepid and far-sighted British hero came along. That hero was none other than Nathaniel George Curzon, later Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who commenced his Viceroyalty at the close of the 19th century and served until 1905.  A popular Balliol College rhyme on Curzon summed it up neatly:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim [the ancestral home of Churchill] twice a week.
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George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India. Source:  Wikimedia.

Curzon had the Taj Mahal restored and the canals repaired and filled with water; the gardens, which had fallen into decline, were likewise spruced up though Curzon did not entirely follow the original design. The Taj was finally becoming a candidate for admission into the modern age.  It is around this time that Jamsetji Tata opened the first luxury hotel owned by an Indian and named it, perhaps not coincidentally, the Taj Mahal Palace, which since 1903 has remained one of the most iconic landmarks of Bombay.

It took something like 250 years for the Taj Mahal to become part of the traveler’s itinerary, another fifty years before it became part of the tourist trail, and another two to three decades before it would become an item of consumption.  The Taj’s history would henceforth be inextricably linked up with the ugly trinity of modernity in India:  banality, corruption, and terrorism. First, the banality: one imagines that this is easily explained.  The Taj is unlike any other building in the world: a visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, the White House, or the Forbidden City counts for something, but nothing mesmerizes like the Taj. A visit to the Taj without having oneself photographed in front of it is nearly inconceivable; the photograph is a rite of passage, almost. We may think of something like the selfie before “the selfie” was invented.  But that is only the most predictable source of the banality behind a visit to the Taj.  I was astounded to learn that, on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, the Greek musician Yanni was allowed the rare honor of giving a live concert at the Taj Mahal.  Those who have even the remotest kind of familiarity with Yanni’s music will recognize it as something like a slightly superior kind of ‘elevator music’. To suppose that the Government of India could find no more elevated specimen of a musician, and that in a country like India, to perform live at the Taj is staggering to the imagination.  Yanni has his fans, and they will take umbrage at my verdict, but the fact that the Government of India associated the sentimental hogwash around Yanni’s music with the Taj tells us something about the kind of Mills & Boon romanticism in which the Taj is drenched.

The banality offends or one may just shrug one’s shoulders.  One may also view the decision of the Government of India to permit a live concert at the Taj as a challenge to the terrorists, though it would not explain the choice of Yanni.  Last year, terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State appear to have issued a threat against the Taj, but terrorist threats to blow up the Taj have a much longer history.  The most palpable of these threats emanated from Sikh secessionists in the mid-1980s, who were enraged when the government of then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, in an attempt to weed out militants who had holed up in the shrine and amassed a large arsenal of firearms and bombs. They promised to blow up the Taj Mahal in retaliation, and I recall days in the mid-1980s when the Taj was shut down.  Viewings of the Taj by moonlight were halted.  The militant secessionists had for some years been targeting not only Hindus but ‘moderate’ Sikhs, those who—like men shorn of beards—refused to keep the symbols of the faith, but in issuing threats to blow up the Taj they may have, quite unknowingly perhaps, been triggering off a new chapter in the history of Sikh-Muslim animosity.  Two of the Sikh Gurus had been martyred at the hands of Mughal Emperors, one at the hands of Aurangzeb and another by the command of his grandfather, Jahangir. If the Sikh militants thought they were sending a message to the Government of India and their Hindu persecutors in issuing a threat against the Taj, the message was quite possibly being read and interpreted by Indian Muslims as an assault on their history and cultural memory.  A political history of the Taj revolving around semiotics and what I would characterize as ‘message panics’ is yet to be attempted.

The political history of the Taj, however, can be written in other idioms as well. I have briefly alluded to ‘corruption’ and others will have in mind the ‘pollution’ that has at times disfigured the Taj and remains an ever-present threat.  Agra, for all the great monument that characterize the city, a city which was the capital—an exceedingly short-lived one—of the Mughals and even of Sikandar Lodi before the Lodis were sent packing by Babur, has long been in shambles; the state of Uttar Pradesh is nearly rock-bottom in India with respect to most of the important markers of economic and social progress.  Small-scale industries—highly polluting, largely unregulated—have over the decades sprung up around the Taj, in both very close and medium proximity.  The Taj, by the late 1980s, was beginning to look dirty, disfigured, decrepit; soot had formed around the minarets and domes; even the marble in the interior was losing its sheen.  Intellectuals, ‘concerned citizens’, environmentalists, the various keepers of India’s heritage:  these were among the groups that agitated for government action to save India’s most famous monument from irreparable harm.  Others sought the same outcome for the more practical reason that the Taj was then, as it is today, a principal revenue earner for a state government that is not only strapped for cash but is corrupt to the core. The Supreme Court ordered these unregulated industries around the Taj shut down: however, in India, as in other countries where there is a separation of powers, the Court can command change but cannot execute it.  Moreover, in India the stories of ‘pollution’ and ‘corruption’ are intertwined.  Far too many local and state-level politicians were invested in the industries; some only received bribes from the businessmen who owned these interpreters, others were themselves owners.  Most of these industries would eventually be shuttered:  when it comes to the question of the Taj, the country’s reputation is at stake.  Whatever else the Taj may be good for, it is also likely to exercise something of a restraining effect on those who only act because they long that India should look good before the world.

(concluded)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

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Part IV of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

I recall hearing a number of stories about the Taj Mahal, which I first visited around the summer of 1987, through my teens and into my twenties.  Some Greek philosopher or savant—it may have been Heraclitus, Parmenides, or perhaps Homer, but not Socrates—said that you cannot go anywhere without running into a story.  Human civilization can do without history, anthropology, indeed all the academic disciplines that in their own bloated fashion think of themselves as indispensable, but it cannot do without stories.  The fire around which primeval men and women huddled was meant not only to keep away wild animals, provide warmth, and cook raw meat:  so long as the fire kept burning, the stories kept flowing. Civilizations are known by the kind of stories they tell:  the fact that social scientists, about whom I know a thing or two, have so little interest in stories, and even less a capacity to narrate them, tells us something about the state of civilization. The most egregious offenders in this respect, as in most others, are the economists:  one pathetic specimen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whom I met several years ago in the lion’s den, that is at a gathering of professional economists that I visited out of anthropological curiosity, assured me that he could “model love” and do economic regressions to establish the best conditions for suitors, consensual fornication, and pure lust.  But even professional historians, a tribe that I know well, generally disavow stories in favor of a rank positivism—a positivism that is rarely admitted as such and is now disguised by work that purports to be global, interdisciplinary, mindful of ‘networks of exchange’, etcetera.

TajMahalSymmetry

Source:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/eight-secrets-taj-mahal-180962168/  The article also discusses what it calls the greatest “myths” about the Taj.

 

The dazzling and venerable “magic” of the Taj itself owes everything to the story of the love that Shah Jahan, ‘Emperor of the World’, apparently had for Arjumand Banu, upon whom the Emperor conferred the title, ‘Exalted One of the Palace’.  When she died bearing his 14th child, his grief was as deep as the ocean; and so he resolved to build her a mausoleum that would be worthy of this love.  Six of their children died before reaching the age of four, another at the age of seven—and that is perhaps why Shah Jahan kept subjecting Mumtaz Mahal to pregnancy.  However, except for her first-born, the five children that followed all survived—and among them were Aurangzeb, Shah Shuja, Dara Shikoh, and the Emperor’s two famous daughters, Jahanara Begum and Roshnara Begum. One might quite easily put Mumtaz’s constant state of pregnancy down to “the times”: in predominantly agricultural societies, and certainly in pre-modern societies, it seems to have been common for women to bear a very large number of children.  One could also say that not enough was known about the perils of repeated pregnancy for women.  But considering that the first half of her flock survived infancy and early adolescence, and that three of Mumtaz’s children, before her last pregnancy, were to die in infancy, we must ask what kind of love Shah Jahan bore for Mumtaz. It may be that one conception of love for a woman demands of her that she be a child-producing machine, but whatever one’s opinion of the matter the received view of Shah Jahan’s unmatched love for Mumtaz requires some deliberation and reconsideration.

Mumtaz&ShahJahan

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan:  A contemporary painting (2010) in the Mughal ‘miniature’ style.

However, it is not this kind of story that I have in mind when I advert to the rumors and legends that swirled around the Taj.  My father was the source of some of these stories about the Taj; but I also heard them from family friends, acquaintances, and others whose views I sought in my endeavor to be something of an ethnographer of Taj legends.  Two such stories I heard frequently. Shah Jahan, I was told, had apparently planned on having another Taj built for himself from across the white-domed splendor on the banks of the Yamuna, except that his mausoleum was going to be in black marble.  It had to be black, of course, or how else would one have a radiant symphony in black & white.  I didn’t ask where the black marble would have been mined:  the white marble in the Taj is quarried from Makrana in Rajasthan’s Nagour District.  But Aurangzeb, who waged an eventually successful battle to eliminate his brothers (and thus, some have said, almost certainly rewrote history) in the struggle over succession, had other plans for his father in his own quest for the Mughal throne.  And how common is black marble, anyhow? Common enough to build a Taj?

Another widely circulating story has Shah Jahan ordering the amputation of both arms of the architect of the Taj Mahal so that the building would never be replicated.  Often the same person who told me the first story would tell me the second story!  So, either Shah Jahan would have the Taj in black or no one else would have it:  such are the prerogatives of Emperors, something akin to the tantrums of children.  But surely Shah Jahan would have known that once you replicate the Taj, it is no longer the Taj.  Moreover, an armchair architect, as it were, could easily have presided over the construction of a second Taj, guiding junior architects and supervising the workers.  Accordingly, this story survives in variants:  one version has Shah Jahan directing that the architect be killed, while another version points to a more draconian expedient, the only one calculated to ensure that the rays of the sun would never fall upon another Taj Mahal:  all the 20,000 workers were, on completion of the Taj, blinded, maimed, or put to death.

Luckily, there is no archive contemporary to Shah Jahan to tell us the story of the Taj. Historians may lament this omission, but storytellers should rejoice.  Lovers should celebrate that we know little in concrete; if we knew more, it is not impossible that we might have the most pedestrian explanation for the Taj’s existence.  Who is to say that Shah Jahan might not have been a pre-modern Donald Trump:  the latter, in any case, has not been reticent in appropriating the legacy of the Taj, as we know from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.  The architectural plans do not survive; almost nothing has been recorded about its construction. There is some discussion that the architect may have been European in origin: just as P N Oak held it impossible that any Muslim could have built anything so beautiful as the Taj Mahal, there are Europeans who have long held that it is inconceivable that any Indian could have built something so majestic. A Venetian architect has been mentioned in this connection.  Florentine influence has been detected in the pietra dura gemstones.

Whoever the architect, every visitor has been most impressed by the symmetry that the building and the complex presents to the naked eye; and some would perhaps have thought of these lines from Blake: “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Yet the story is not complete. Shah Jahan had placed the marble cenotaph beneath which Mumtaz’s body rests in the dead center, in open view from the outside; however, Aurangzeb, who otherwise left the Taj, placed the body of Shah Jahan next to that of his wife. Was Aurangzeb being the dutiful son, rendering homage to the father whose death he precipitated, by placing Shah Jahan alongside his dearly beloved wife? Or did he wish to ruin the perfect symmetry and trouble his father’s soul? Was this perhaps the most expeditious way that he could leave his mark on a wretched but ever so beautiful building? Or should we perhaps pay some credence to the “Hindu Brahmin” guide who told the New York Times reporter, Amy Waldman, that in Islam symmetry is reserved only for God and that Aurangzeb, “a fanatic Muslim”, was only doing his duty?

CenotaphOfMumtazMahal

The Cenotpah of Mumtaz Mahal at the Taj Mahal.

(To be continued)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers

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Part III of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

PNOakPhoto&TajPamphlet

Preposterous as P N Oak’s arguments doubtless are, scarcely worthy even of rebuttal, the position adopted in recent months by BJP hardliners and their supporters, as outlined in the first part of this article, compels us to move towards a history of the Taj Mahal that would be more sensitive to considerations which are far removed from those who marvel at the architecture and the design of the entire complex or who are entranced by the idea of romantic love.  Oak’s popularity is not of recent vintage: his claims generated a controversy that was, as I had written fifteen years ago in my History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2002; 2nd ed. with postscript, 2005), carried out in the “Letters to the Editor” column of the English-language daily Indian Express over a period of four months in 1987-88. Historians have felt bound to rebut his claims, which suggests how Hindu nationalists have been able to shift the grounds of the debate.

Indian-Conspiracy-Taj-Mahal-Or-Tejo-Mahalaya-800x445

This is from a website called “The Truth Behind Taj Mahal (Tejo Mahalaya).”  It offers what is claims are “103 Facts” about the Taj.  Source:  https://www.moviemint.com/the-truth-behind-taj-mahal-tejo-mahalaya-lord-shiva-temple/

In December 1989, to take one illustration, the monthly magazine Seminar, which has at times occupied an important place in the intellectual life of the country, devoted an issue to the theme of “Mythifying History”.  One of the contributors, R. Nath, then a historian at Rajasthan University, penned a piece called “The Taj:  A Mausoleum”.  Nath, who had devoted many years of his life to the study of the Taj Mahal, sought to show conclusively that Oak does not have a shred of evidence to support his various allegations that the Taj Mahal was earlier a temple devoted to Shiva, or even a palace built or owned by one of Akbar’s generals, Raja Mansingh (1550-1614).

DomeOfTheTajMahal

“The dome of the Taj Mahal bearing a trident pinnacle made of a non-rusting eight-metal Hindu alloy. The pinnacle served as a lightning deflector too. This pinnacle has been blindly assumed by many to be an Islamic crescent and star, or a lightning conductor installed by the British. This is a measure of the careless manner in which Indian history has been studied till now. ”  This is part of the caption that appears with a photograph on one of many websites, following P N Oak, which claims to offer proof that the Taj Mahal is Tejo-Mahalaya, a Shiva Temple.  Source:  http://www.krishnapath.org/photographic-evidence-taj-mahal-a-vedic-temple/

There is little doubt that the political preeminence of the BJP at present has given Oak’s ideas a fresh lease of life.  On 26 March 2015, a petition was filed in the Agra District Court by six lawyers acting on behalf of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindutva’s principal ideological organization.  I should say rather that the petition was filed on behalf of Lord Shiva himself, since this deity is named as the plaintiff:  it is alleged by Mahadev [Shiva] that the Taj Mahal complex, which has long been under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India, is its lawful property.  The petition, where the lawyer Harishankar Jain appears as “friend” of the deity, states that “during the 12th century, Raja Paramardi Dev had built [the] Tejo Mahalaya temple palace, which at present in common parlance is known as Taj Mahal. The temple was later inherited by Raja Maan Singh, the then maharaja of Jaipur. After him in [the] 17th century, the property was held and managed by Raja Jai Singh but was annexed by Shah Jahan (1632) during his regime.”  The deity therefore sought lawful restitution of his property—and also protection from encroachment, defilement, and usurpation.  “The property is not a burial ground and has never been so in the past”, the petition continues, and it therefore requests that the use of the property for “purposes” other “than Hindu ‘pooja’ of the deity”—these other purposes being the offering of prayers by Muslims—be barred as “unconstitutional”.

There is much that is marvelously interesting in this petition:  as I have had occasion to remark to my students on many occasions, Hinduism suggests a continuum between asuras [demons], humans, demi-gods, and gods.  If gods and goddesses can be born and reborn, there is no reason why they cannot ‘appear’ as plaintiffs in courts of law. Hinduism is nonpareil, as far as religions go, in its homage to the element of play.  The admixture of an invocation of the prerogatives of the deity and rights guaranteed under the constitution is likewise more than worthy of comment.  But let us leave aside all the fecund possibilities that come to mind. The Agra court in its wisdom admitted the petition, directing the central government, the ministry of culture, the Archaeological Survey, and the home ministry to file their replies within a month.  In November 2015, the Minister for Culture addressed Parliament and made it be known that in its opinion the Taj Mahal was a “tomb” and not a “temple”; more recently, on 17 August 2017, representatives of the Archaeological Survey appeared before the Agra Court and flatly rejected the claim that the Taj Mahal had ever been a Shiva temple.

There may be, it has been argued by Ebba Koch in her 2006 book on the Taj Mahal, a longer history of Hindu misgivings about the Taj.  She notes that despite the monument’s worldwide fame, it has been little studied—except perhaps by architectural historians.  Koch contends that the Archaeological Survey, which has been in existence since 1861, has never published a guidebook to the monument.  But Koch seems to puzzle little over this omission, if indeed she is right about the ASI’s failure to publish a guidebook to the most famous site under its care, and seems rather certain about what this failure portends.  Thus, she writes: “The image of the Taj Mahal has been reproduced more often that of any other building. It has become a symbol of India, despite India’s uneasiness with its Islamic past and despite being a tomb, which has no place in the Hindu tradition.”  Has India always been uneasy about its Islamic past?  Are some communities rather more uneasy than others?  “That the Taj was founded as a Hindu temple is now the firm belief of many a visitor,” Koch argues, “who is at pains to put his foreign fellow visitors right about the origin of the building”: “The Taj Mahal is really ‘Tejo-Mahalaya’, a Shiva temple.”

Dwight Eisenhower, Jawaharlal Nehru

President Dwight Eisenhower on a visit to the Taj Mahal with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 13 December 1959.

So perhaps, whatever the Archaeological Survey or the Culture Ministry might say, P. N. Oak and his acolytes have triumphed after all.  But perhaps we should also be less hasty in reaching such a conclusion.  I have not read Koch’s book and have only seen excerpts from her book in reviews, and I am unable to say what led her to the view that the communal history of the Taj has now become part of Hindu commonsense and that the Taj-as-Tejo-Mahalaya is now part of “the firm belief of many a visitor”.  Did she speak to the so-called guides who roam the Taj’s grounds in the hundreds? Has she read pamphlet literature in Hindi which would lead her such a view?  The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti [literally, ‘Organization for the Reawakening of Hindus], set up for the “Establishment of the Hindu Rashtra” [Hindu nation-state], has already deified “Pujya [Venerable] P. N. Oak” and given over an entire web page to the “Shocking Truth of the Taj Mahal”, but do these Hindutva enthusiasts reflect the views of common Hindus?  As I have argued so often before, Hindu nationalists have been, from the inception of the internet, ardent advocates of the digital rewriting of Indian history.

And yet Koch’s reading is not entirely communal, even if she doesn’t pursue the further implications—about Indian Islam—of her own argument.  The Taj Mahal poses problems for Muslims as much as it does for Hindus—perhaps even more so.  As Koch points out, “tombs were from the beginning a controversial issue” in Islamic traditions:  the devout have held tombs “to be irreligious, heathen, and non-Islamic”, and there are hadiths which unequivocally forbid worship at tombs as a form of idolatry and polytheism. Certainly, if India had been under Wahhabi rule, the Taj might well have been reduced to rubble by now.  The Saudi religious establishment is nothing if it is not full of ferocious anti-idolaters, and we should remember that they have not even spared the mosque of Fatima, the grave of Muhammad’s mother, the tombs and graves of early martyrs of the religion, and so on. Ziauddin Sardar is among many scholars who have documented the wholesale desecration of Mecca in recent years—not by infidels, but by those who describe themselves as Islam’s most zealous votaries.  I doubt, however, that there are more than a handful of Muslims in India who would call for the destruction of the Taj Mahal as ‘grievously un-Islamic’.  Indian Islam has not been reduced to this state—not yet, in any case.

(To be continued)

For Part I, “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

For Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers

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Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, 455 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-1-4696-2230-9.)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India.  The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson:  there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982).  Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. 

WaldenPond1Jan1908

Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1 January 1908; photographer:  unknown.  Source:  Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Thoreau would also dedicate the Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers largely to a discussion of a few Indian texts from he quoted copiously.  But in all this, he had been, in some respects, anticipated by his mentor (of sorts), Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose first engagement with the ‘idea of India’ may be seen in a long poem called Indian Superstition (1821), which the young student wrote when he was but seventeen years old, and who in his poem Brahma (1856, published in 1857) showed just how far Emerson had traveled in his understanding of Indian philosophy in the intervening 35 years.  But, to return to the main subject, after some tidbits here and there, whereby Hindu mysticism, yoga, and the interest in Sanskrit among some scholars are brought into the picture, and the origins of Indian immigration into the US around 1890 are identified, the narrative of India’s place in the making of the United States generally moves to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Gandhi nearly became a household word in the United States after the embrace of his ideas of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The terrain covered by Jonathan Eacott in his meticulously detailed study, Selling Empire, enhances enormously our understanding of how India was configured in the American imagination and economy alike, though his ambition is yet greater as he seeks to place Indian within the global British imperial system.  The backdrop to his book is furnished by a more enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian Ocean studies; but there is also the stimulus of what these days are called “interconnected histories”.  Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire of which India, in the clichéd phrase, was the crown jewel; and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.  Curiously, the two figures who have on occasion surfaced in attempts to write an integrated narrative are altogether missing from Eacott’s study:  Elihu Yale, who amassed a fortune as the Governor of Madras (1684-92) before he was dismissed on charges of venality and went on to become the benefactor of a college that would eventually take his name, and Lord Cornwallis, who, if one had to put it cynically, seems to have been rewarded for his surrender to George Washington at Yorktown (1781) with the Governor-Generalship of India (1786-93).

CIS:IS.21-1956

Painted and dyed cotton from India, 1625-1685, not for the European market.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

Eacott shifts the focus to the 17th and 18th centuries and his history might be described as revolving around two axes.  The question at the outset for traders, mercantilists, and financiers in Britain was:  Could America be a new India?  In what manner could one conceive of a triangular trade between India, Britain, and the American colonies in North America?  Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes, and not only because of their immense popularity.  1750-75 banyan, painted & dyed, India (fabric). Designed for European market.

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Indian cotton fabric (banyan), painted & dyed, designed for European market, 1750-1775.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

There was much expectation in Britain that eventually consumers in the Americas would support the East India Company and thus support the British empire and the metropole (London) through which everything was funneled.  However, Eacott by no means confines himself to this terrain of cotton, chintzes, calicoes, silk, and woolens:  tea and spices were much in demand both in Britain and North America, but, quite unexpectedly, so were umbrellas and the Indian hookah.  Perhaps a scholar with a greater sense of play, and not so rigidly bound to the idea of what constitutes scholarly work, a scholarly ‘monograph’, and the notion of ‘historical rigor’, may have done wonders with tea and the hookah.  There are precedents, if I may put it this way, both to Starbuck’s marketing of “chai” and the proliferation of hookah bars and restaurants in recent years in American cities.

SamuelJohnsonAtTea

The English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), at tea:  a print by by R. Redgrave and H. L. Shenton. Source:  http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/14/398833059/tea-tuesdays-the-evolution-of-tea-sets-from-ancient-legend-to-modern-biometrics

It is, however, Eacott’s discussion of the anxieties generated by ideas of the despotic and effeminate Orient that forms the most arresting part of his book.  Montesquieu is commonly seen as the originary point of European notions of ‘Oriental Despotism’, but the satirical play, Eastward Ho (1605), gave considerable expression to the idea of Asia, “with its great wealth,” as a “place of emasculating luxury” (p. 23).  India’s manufactures, an essay in the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle in 1744 proclaimed, displayed a “gaudy pride” and needed the sobering restraint of Protestant Britain (p. 165). The sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Eacott notes, reports of Company servants strutting around on horseback and accumulating fortunes “by every method of rapacity” circulated widely (p. 305).

In his unusual attentiveness, thus, to questions both of political economy and of the politics of representation, Eacott opens for historians new possibilities of linking Britain’s first empire to the British Raj.

[A shorter version of this review was first published in the Journal of American History (June 2017), 173-74; doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax024]

For a translation into Portuguese of this article by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos, see:  https://www.homeyou.com/~edu/triangulacao-do-comercio

 

 

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

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
               -Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]

 

It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason.  The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared.  Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later.  The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’.  Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.

Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this.  On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store.  Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home.  They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.

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The Mutilated Body of Emmett Till, with his mother, Mamie Till. Photograph by David Jackson. Copyright: Time Magazine.

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Emmett Till in 1955.

Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race.  Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them.  In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”

MamieTill

Mamie Till at the Funeral of Her son, Emmett Till.  Copyright:  New York Times.

Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge.  For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000:  murder pays, literally.  Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications.  Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement.  Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”  The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.

The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history.  There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till:  early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her.  “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case.  But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month.  Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time.  It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim.  She is white.

DianaSchutzOpenCasket

Diana Schutz, “Open Casket”, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, March 2017.

The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view.  The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting.  A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death.  Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.  Their pain is your pain.  My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

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Protest before Diana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket”. Photograph: New York Times.

Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother.  History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth.  But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation.  Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes?  Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself.  Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea.  If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?

In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences.  In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead.  The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement.  Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side.  This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”.  Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not  hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation.  If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women?  It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling.  But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?

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