African American Studies: The Indian Perspective

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Indian scholars believe that African American Studies, especially African American literature, poses an important challenge to white American literature. Since much of white American literature, which has taken root in India, militates against the ideals of liberty and equality for all peoples, Indian scholars welcome African American literature as an alternative to it, an alternative that fosters the genuine values proclaimed in American documents. This exciting body of African American literature is filled with the spirit of self-examination and questioning, challenging the very basis of almost all major institutions of America. This literature is thus of unique interest to Dalit Indians (i.e., the oppressed Indians formerly called untouchables), who are similarly engaged in articulating, questioning, and challenging the contradictions in Indian society.

African American Studies and Dalit Studies

Although throughout the world the history of those oppressed in the name of color, caste, or religion has not run the same course, the broad framework of the struggle of the oppressed for liberation has been more or less the same. The context of the production of Dalit Indian and African American literary discourses is the suffering, marginalization, and oppression of these groups by the supremacist ruling classes and discrimination. Oppressed African American scholars have seen similarities between their predicament and that of the suffering masses in other parts of the world. They have thus provided a perspective for the study of oppression and resistance and inspired Dalit Indians to see through the designs of the nexus between the white savarana (meaning “upper class” in Hindi) and the oppressor or ruling capitalistic classes. Like their African American counterparts, the writings of the Dalit record the search for identity and selfhood in the context of their respective cultures and the struggle of their community to survive whole, forcing their oppressors to revise their literary imagination and affirm the legitimacy of their voices. In this regard, the Dalits relate much of their assertion of literary and cultural ideals to those of the practitioners of African American Studies.
In their writings the Dalit have closely examined the sociocultural religious framework that has limited their horizons and sought the possibility of reforming the way they live. In doing so, they reject the existing religious order. Yet they find it difficult to collectively revolt against the system. As in the case of some African Americans, some Dalits have compromised and given up their past. One reason for the Dalits' lack of response to issues of history is that education came late to them and, with the exception of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, they have lacked strong leaders. In addition, there were the middle-class Dalits who estranged themselves from their caste and got entangled in the socioreligious complexities and microinterests of the society. However, they still inspired their brothers and sisters to change their ways and also to do something to change the “touchable” Hindu. At the same time, the Dalits gave a wake-up call to the savarana Hindus to remove the contradictions in the society or else the sufferers would blow up the structure of their democracy.
The Dalits have not had organized strategies, such as Afrocentricity, to counter their exploitation by others, but they have beguiled others by adopting quasipersonas, however uncomfortable and conscious they themselves have been of the deception. Such personas are transitory and have been adopted by the Dalits only until they are able to live without them. In the Dalits' writings—especially in their autobiographies, which are closer to factual reality and are the most revealing modes of expression for underprivileged selves—the movement is from awareness of the false image imposed upon them to rejection of it and, finally, to an affirmation of self. But the writings do not end in any kind of final resolution. The questions remain unanswered. The analysis of their predicament and the system is done very competently, but an alternative vision does not emerge. It is here, in this context, that African American Studies has a great contribution to make. African American autobiographers not only show the movement from the consciousness of their predicament to an analysis of America's racism but also point a way out of the existing race relations. They point to an alternative to a materialistic civilization that is satisfied with the acquisition of trinkets and trash. African American writers, following Richard Wright, have provided a critique of white society as well as an alternative vision of a new society based on equality and justice.
The role of the black creative writers and the literary scholars who serve as intermediaries is to explain the relationship between black people and those who attempt to subdue them. These writers have discovered that they are treated differently not only because of their skin color but also because of the entire attitude with which white Americans interpret the world. The responsibility of such writers is to not be limited to the racial question and to move beyond such concerns. In doing so, writers have been able to discover the universal significance of blacks' position. These writers thus are not confined to the limitations of protest literature and can focus on defining the nature of reality and finding appropriate forms for conveying it.
The Dalit writer can learn from the African American experience how to seek and redefine a common culture. The Dalits' dream of a secular Indian nation that brings communities together and emphasizes unity in diversity comes into conflict with the existing, hierarchical social order in which birth still determines worth. The resolution of this conflict is not in sight and this dream of an alternative order has been temporarily sidelined. This is not to say that the Dalits need to imitate black writings. Some Dalit writings analyze the existing system very competently, and each writer deals with it in her or his own way. Although the stages and process of liberation are the same, the conditions of existence are different, so the experience and its treatment will have to be different. Black literature can provide a platform on which Dalit writers can test their plan of action for equality, reassess key issues in intellectual history and expressive culture, dissolve boundaries, and write a nontraditional version of literature. The blueprint provided by African American writers for such a change can help the Dalits to triumph over the trivialities that divide their world.

References

Keywords

  • American literature
  • African American literature
  • African Americans
  • white Americans
  • American studies
  • African American studies
  • Americans

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Asante, Molefi Kete. (2003). Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Chicago: African American Images. This book is a classic wake-up call for oppressed people. Asante's book was popularized in India in the 1990s.
  • Bennett, Lerone. (1968). The Challenge of Blackness. Chicago: Johnson. Bennett's book demonstrates that oppressed people can choose their own path to liberation through identifying with their own sense of history.
  • Rajiv, Sudhi. (1992). Forms of Black Consciousness. New York: Advent Books. This is one of the best works done by an Indian scholar on the nature of black consciousness.