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Archive for the ‘Postcolonial Thought’ Category

Fourth and Concluding Part of “Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine” 

As I argued in the last part of this essay, there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism remains rife among most Arab communities—and indeed among Christians in many parts of the world, as the attacks on synagogues, which have increased since the time that Mr. Trump assumed high office, amply demonstrate.  Nevertheless, it is equally the case that the charge of anti-Semitism has itself become a totalitarian form of stifling dissent and an attempt to enforce complete submissiveness to the ideology of Zionism.  On the geopolitical plane, the leadership (as it is called) of the United States, has done nothing to bring about an amicable resolution, even as the United States is construed as the peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians.  Indeed, one might well ask if the United States is even remotely the right party to position itself as an arbiter, and not only for the all too obvious reason that its staunch and nakedly partisan support for Israel, punctuated only by a few homilies on the necessity of exercising restraint and Israel’s right to protect itself in the face of the gravest provocations, makes it unfit to insert itself into the conflict as a peacemaker. We have seen this all too often, most recently of course in the carnage let loose on the border last week as Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding and the Palestinians marked seventy years of the catastrophe that has befallen them: even as Israel was mowing down Palestinian youth and young men, most of them unarmed and some evidently shot in the back, the United States was applauding Israel for acting “with restraint”.

13 Falk cover

In an essay that Richard Falk wrote a few years ago at my invitation, entitled The Endless Search for a Just and Sustainable Peace: Palestine-Israel (2014), he advanced briefly an argument the implications of which, with respect to the conflict and its possible resolution, have never really been worked out.  Falk observed that the Abrahamic revelation, from which the two political theologies that inform this conflict have taken their birth, is predisposed towards violence and even an annihilationist outlook towards the other.   There is, in Regina M. Schwartz’s eloquently argued if little-known book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), an extended treatment of this subject, though I suspect that her view that monotheistic religions have an intrinsic predisposition towards exterminationist violence will all too easily and with little thought be countered by those eager to demonstrate that religions guided by the Abrahamic revelation scarcely have a monopoly on violence.  It has, for example, become a commonplace in certain strands of thinking in India to declare that nothing in the world equals the violence perpetrated in various idioms by upper-caste Hindus against lower-caste Hindus over the course of two millennia or more.  One could, quite plausibly, also argue that there is a long-strand of nonviolent thinking available within the Christian dispensation, commencing with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s injunctions towards nonviolent conduct in Romans and exemplified in our times by such dedicated practitioners of Christian nonviolence as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, among them the Reverends M. L. King, James M. Lawson, and Fred Shuttleworth.

SchwartzCurseOfCain

Whatever one makes of the view that the political theologies that inform the Abrahamic revelation make a peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict an immense challenge to the ethical imagination, what is perhaps being tacitly expressed here is a serious reservation about the fitness of the United States, which evangelicals would like to have openly recognized as a land of Abrahamic revelation, to intervene in this debate. I would put it rather more strongly. The supposition that the United States, which has all too often harbored genocidal feelings towards others, and has been consistently committed, through the change of administrations over the last few decades, to the idea that it must remain the paramount global power, can now act equitably and wisely in bringing a just peace to the region must be challenged at every turn.  There is, as well, the equally profound question of whether there is anything within the national experience of the United States that allows it to consider such conflicts on a civilizational plane, not readily amenable to the nation-state framework and the rules that constitute normalized politics.Pa

Richard Falk sees, in the willingness of British government after decades of violence, arson, terrorist attacks, and a bitterness that surprised even those hardened by politics, to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a political entity some precedent for discussions that might lead to a framework for an equitable peace.  Assuming this to be the case, one must nevertheless be aware that all proposed solutions to the conflict are fraught with acute hazards.  Those who are inclined to see the conflict entirely or largely through the prism of religion have displayed little sensitivity to the idea that if religion repels frequently because of its exclusiveness it just as often attracts because of its potential inclusiveness. Those who look at the conflict entirely as a political matter will not concede what is palpably true, namely that the present practice of politics precludes possibilities of a just peace.  The advocates of the two-state solution, clearly in an overwhelming majority today, must know that if such a solution becomes reality, Palestine will be little more than a Bantustan.  Some may claim that even an impoverished, debilitated, and besieged but independent Palestine would be a better option for its subjects than the apartheid which circumscribes and demeans their lives today, but any such solution cannot be viewed as anything other than a surrender to the most debased notion of politics.

Israel should not be permitted to use the rantings of the Holocaust deniers, or the more severe anti-Semitic pronouncements of its detractors, as a foil for the equally implausible argument that the Palestinians are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  The greater majority of the Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as many commentators have points out, have signaled their acceptance of the pre-1967 borders of Israel provided that Israel withdraws from the territory it has occupied since the 1967 war and displays a serious willingness to address the refugee problem.  In a more ideological vein, most Palestinians are reconciled to the idea that the Zionist project, originating in a desire to establish a Jewish state on Arab lands, is a fait accompli.  However equitable a political solution—and that, too, seems to be a remote possibility—the more fundamental questions to which the conflict gives rise are those which touch upon our ability to live with others who are presented to us as radically different, even if the notion of the ‘radical’ that is at stake here is only grounded in historical contingencies.  Living with others is never easy, and is not infrequently an unhappy, even traumatic, affair; but it is certainly the most challenging and humane way to check the impulse to gravitate towards outright discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.  “We cannot choose”, Hannah Arendt has written, “with whom we cohabit the world”, but Israel appears to have signified its choice, terrifyingly so, not only by the erection of the Separation Wall, but also by imposing a draconian regime of segregationist measures that reek of apartheid.  In so doing, it behooves Israel to recognize that victory is catastrophic for the vanquisher as much as defeat is catastrophic for the vanquished.

(concluded)

See also Part III, “Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism”

Part II, “A Vastly Unequal Struggle:  Palestine, Israel, and the Disequilibrium of Power”

Part I, “Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict”

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/fjerde-og-avsluttende-delen-av-bortvising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

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Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.

Nathuram-Godse_GettyImage

Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.

Gandhi_in_Noakhali,_1946

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.

 

[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

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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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Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.

(concluded)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

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(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)

 

A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

For Part II:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai

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Tom Alter.  Source:  Indian Express.

a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American.  I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American:  he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India.  Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India.  He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.

Tom Alter was born in India to American parents.  He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life.  His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans.  They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo.  And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter.   I wish it had been otherwise.  He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man.  But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian.  In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema.  The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.”  This may be thought of as an unusual confession:  of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion.  I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him.  Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed.  Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.

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Rajesh Khanna serenading his lady love, in Aradhana.

Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines.  The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost.  One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?”  Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background.  So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.

Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.  I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind.  Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot.  Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet.  “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?”  “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?”  So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly.  When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”

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Tom Alter as Capt. Weston, aide-de-camp to General Outram, Resident of Lucknow, in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”), 1977.

Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu.  He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties.  Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.

It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects.  If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language.  But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways.  Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore.  Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India.  One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition:  that is another story in the making.  Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India.  Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.

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Tom Alter as Maulana Azad.  YouTube Screen Grab.

Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked.  Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse.  The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors.  The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism.  The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons.  Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression.  The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit.  This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.

Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is.  In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30].  The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith.  Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna:  it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”).  This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief.  That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice.  In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’.  It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.

Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart.  But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India.  Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb.  His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body.  The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.

Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries.  It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

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

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black man in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and then at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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