Gandhi in African American eyes
Vinay Lal | 27 Sep, 2019
Bill Mauldin’s cartoon, Chicago Sun-Times, 1968
SIXTY YEARS AGO, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr arrived in India on what was practically a state visit. He travelled to other countries as a tourist; but to India, the land of Mohandas Gandhi, he came, in King’s own words, as a “pilgrim”. Their names have been inextricably linked together in the popular imagination as emissaries of peace and prophets of nonviolence, though the cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times displayed considerably greater ingenuity in suggesting that the likes of Gandhi and King had to be assassinated repeatedly. King, who was the public face of the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ to the rest of the world, became as well the supreme embodiment of the African American encounter with Gandhi.
The putative singularity of King in this narrative has never been more questionable: indeed, two generations of Black American intellectuals, writers, theologians and public figures forged an extraordinary association with Gandhi and his large body of work. It is around 1919-1920 that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who in some measure had already established himself as the leading African American intellectual and who held forth for the next several decades with an astonishingly prolific array of works until his death in 1961, appears to have first taken notice of Gandhi. The ‘problem of the Twentieth Century’, Du Bois famously wrote in 1903, ‘is the problem of the color line’, and a few years later he assumed the role of the founding editor of the journal The Crisis, subtitled ‘A Record of the Darker Races’. Some 16 months after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Du Bois devoted several pages of the August 1920 issue of The Crisis to the Hunter Commission’s report on the Punjab Disturbances and its frosty reception at the hands of Congress leaders and some English liberals. He cited liberally from the Congress Inquiry Committee Report, in the authorship of which Gandhi played a critical role.
In May 1921, Du Bois took explicit notice of Gandhi as the editor of Young India, and lauded him for seeking to resist colonial rule with oracular demonstrations of ‘bravery of the soul’. Two months later, the reader of The Crisis would become witness to the apotheosis of Gandhi, lionised in an unsigned editorial as ‘India’s Saint’. Du Bois characterised Gandhi as a man of ‘unimpeachable character’, and allowed his views to merge into those of his admirers. Thus, when he adverts to his asceticism, he speaks as countless others did: ‘He eats only vegetable, rice and nuts. By voluntary fasting he has reduced himself to a mere skeleton…. He sits on a mat spread on the floor and sleeps on hard planks. He dresses like a poor workingman, and he walks barefoot.’ Du Bois followed this up, in the March 1922 issue of The Crisis, with an article on ‘Gandhi and India’. Gandhi occupied, in Du Bois’ view, ‘the imponderable kingdom of the soul’. He had made it difficult for the British to arrest him; moreover, in his principled advocacy of nonviolent resistance, he loomed large as a figure who offered an example to American Negroes.
Much has been made by some scholars of a very brief exchange of correspondence between BR Ambedkar and Du Bois in 1946, but Du Bois’ interest in Gandhi was far-reaching and sustained over a course of four decades. A few years before his death in 1963, Du Bois asked in a longish piece, ‘Will the Great Gandhi Live Again?’ (National Guardian, February 11th, 1957). If the call for a ‘Negro Gandhi’ first came forth from his pen, Du Bois persisted to his dying days in the view that the onus was on African Americans to do a close study of Gandhi’s achievement in India. Putting a missive from Gandhi to him on the cover of The Crisis’ July 1929 issue, Du Bois unhesitatingly declared him ‘the greatest colored man in the world, and perhaps the greatest man in the world’, speculating further that ‘real human equality and brotherhood in the United States will come only under the leadership of another Gandhi’. But he was also mindful of the fact that, in the US, Gandhi was largely seen as a quaint little man, an ‘Oriental’ of inscrutable ways, to which Du Bois had a scathing rejoinder: ‘All America sees in Gandhi is a joke, but
the real joke is America.’
If King would become the iconic figure in the history of Black American engagement with Gandhi in the late 1950s and 1960s, Du Bois assumed that place in earlier decades. Together, they only bookend a narrative canvas that, as I have remarked earlier, is peopled by two generations of Black writers, poets, intellectuals and educators whose endeavours would lead to the greatest efflorescence of creativity in the history of the US. Kelly Miller, an African American mathematician, sociologist and staunch critic of White racism, gave it as his opinion in his column in the African American newspaper New York Amsterdam News that the ‘American Negro can learn valuable lessons from Mahatma Gandhi, who represents the best living embodiment of that mind which was also in Christ’ (April 2nd, 1930). He was echoing the view of an entire generation of Black theologians to whom the parallel between Gandhi and Christ was palpable and who saw the teachings of Christ reincarnated in a person who appeared
at a juncture when the world had already witnessed the carnage of a World War.
Among these Black theologians, the names of Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman and William Stuart Nelson figure prominently. They appear in older scholarly works mainly as tutors of King in Gandhian thinking. Nelson, for instance, published a scholarly article in 1958 entitled ‘Satyagraha: Gandhian Principles of Non-Violent Non-Cooperation’, which King, in a letter on August 18th, 1958, described as ‘one of the best and most balanced analyses of the Gandhian principles of nonviolent, noncooperation that I have ever read’. Mordecai’s sermon on Gandhi in 1949, King recalled some years later, had such a ‘profound and electrifying’ effect on him that he ‘left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works’. But these theologians were major thinkers in their own right, and the story of their sustained interest in Gandhi has many twists and turns. Nelson accompanied Gandhi on his walk through violence-torn Noakhali, but much earlier, in 1937, Mays met Gandhi at Wardha where he put difficult questions to him: Why had Gandhi opposed untouchability but not caste? How could he reconcile his nonviolence with his actions during the Boer War?
It is, nonetheless, the visit with Howard Thurman, who came at the head of a group of four African Americans to meet Gandhi in 1936, which yields the most surprising outcomes. Thurman recalled in his autobiography that Gandhi floored him with his intellectual curiosity and interest in African American history: ‘He had questions. Never in my life have I been a part of that kind of examination: persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery, and how we had survived it. One of the things that puzzled him was why the slaves did not become Moslems.’ They conversed over many hours, with Gandhi concluding on a dazzlingly prescient note after being told by Thurman that in speaking with him he was reminded of Negro spirituals: ‘It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.’
The quest for a Negro Gandhi was by no means confined to a few savants or those who saw in Gandhi a ‘brown Christ’. The vibrant African American press tells us a related story of the extraordinary interest among Black Americans in Gandhi, the independence movement in India and the question of racism against ‘colored races’ throughout the world. The Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro-American, Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, Marcus Garvey’s Negro World: these were among the Black-owned newspapers that offered sustained coverage of events in India from the 1920s until the attainment of Indian independence. Some even appointed correspondents to India. These newspapers, which to Indian scholars are uncharted territory, commanded a considerable market. The Pittsburgh Courier, published in four editions, had a subscription in its heyday in the late 1930s of 250,000. James Weldon Johnson, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, had no doubt why Gandhi and India were of such enduring interest to his people: ‘If noncooperation brings the British to their knees in India, there is no reason why it should not bring the white man to his knees in the South.’ An examination of the Courier’s coverage of India suggests other distinctive features of Black journalistic writing on India. The editors of these newspapers were swayed by the arguments neither of the British press nor of mainstream American newspapers such as The New York Times. An editorial published on November 6th, 1943, with the title ‘India: The Bankruptcy of Empire’, was forthright, even brutal, in its denunciation of the usual claims advanced in behalf of the justness of British rule. The papers were unusually sensitive to the part being played by Indian women in the anti-colonial struggle and later in independent India, highlighting what Gandhi had done to facilitate their entry into the public sphere.
WHY SHOULD THIS history matter? The African American encounter, and engagement, with Gandhi acquires all the more significance in view of the fact that some supposed champions of liberty have gleefully admitted Gandhi into the ranks of those earmarked as ‘racist’. The small but growing chorus of faux dissenters has made reference to Gandhi’s characterisation of Africans during his South African years as ‘kaffirs’, and much has been made of his failure to forge a brotherhood with them—a failure on his part, in more concrete terms, to welcome them directly into the struggle to secure an end to discrimination against Indians in South Africa and question the scourge of racism. They have curiously joined hands with American and British conservatives who, after the release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982, railed against the various sins of Gandhi and opined that the world was entitled, in the words of Richard Grenier, to be made aware of ‘The Gandhi that Nobody Knows’—a man who apparently was a racist, a lecher and molester of young girls, a friend of the bourgeoisie and of course a casteist. That Gandhi’s pronouncements about Black people rankle some in Africa may be gauged from the movement that led to the removal of his statue from the University of Ghana last year.
There were certainly Black Americans who, even as they stood in awe of Gandhi, maintained a critical distance from him. Writing in the Pittsburgh Courier on August 3rd, 1946, on the eve of Indian Independence, Horace Clayton averred that ‘Gandhi and Nehru have been heroes no less in Mississippi than in Bombay, for we have seen India’s fight as an integral part of the struggle everywhere.’ But Clayton pondered over the ‘tendency’ of Indian students at American colleges ‘to shun Negroes as though they were lepers’, and went on to suggest, apropos of the notorious reputation of Indian moneylenders in East Africa, that ‘even Gandhi seems to have a blind spot on Africa.’ Why is it, Clayton asks, that Gandhi has denounced the Jews for trying to force themselves upon Palestine where they are not wanted, but has not raised a voice against the Indian exploitation of Africans? The article’s enticing title, ‘Brother India’, suggests the acute ambivalence experienced by Clayton. Some critics have supposed that Black Americans were wholly unaware of some of Gandhi’s views on Africans, but Howard Thurman pointedly probed Gandhi on why he had chosen not to include South African Blacks in the Indian campaigns in South Africa.
Supposing, then, that Gandhi’s moral imagination with respect to Black people may be found wanting, there is still something wholly enduring that emerges from a consideration of how Gandhi was received by African Americans. The history of the long conversation between Black American intellectuals and Gandhi is, however, interesting not only because it should call into question the frequently voiced criticism that Gandhi was impervious to the sufferings of Black South Africans, or that he remained captive to the colonial sociology of knowledge and the pernicious racism of the White man. There was a messianic view of Gandhi in the African American community as the bearer of the cross, as the supreme representative, or stretcher-bearer, of the coloured races. The African American press offers some unusual insights into the Indian independence movement and the possibilities of solidarity among coloured peoples. The South African scholar, Isabel Hofmeyr, has recently advanced an important argument about how Indian Opinion, a newspaper founded by Gandhi in the early years of the 20th century, drew upon diverse strands of histories of migration and myriad crisscrossing intellectual trajectories, thereby weaving together a tapestry in which multiple languages, religious faiths, styles of thought and cultural histories were imbricated. Indian Opinion also became a repository of information about struggles for political autonomy, in however incipient a form, among colonised peoples around the world and in this respect, at least, The Crisis, founded around the same time by Du Bois, was a rather similar newspaper.
But the coverage of Gandhi and Indian affairs in African American newspapers alerts us to a more profound question around transnational history. Ten thousand miles apart, African Americans and Indians had, one is inclined to believe, made common cause—all the more remarkable in that, as Du Bois wrote, their relations were characterised by the ‘almost utter lack of knowledge’ they had of each other. The Negroes, Du Bois observed in an April 1936 article, ‘had almost no conception of the history of India’; on the other, ‘the knowledge which educated Indians have of the American Negro’ stopped at the conventional story circulated by ‘white American and English writers’, which represented the Negro as a ‘savage’ who was only fit for physical labour. In such an environment, one further poisoned by the fact that ‘to the editors of the great news agencies, Indians and Negroes are not news’, newspapers such as The Crisis and Pittsburgh Courier—and, on the other side of the globe, Indian Opinion and, later, Navajivan, Young India, Modern Review and a slate of other Indian journals—had a critical role to play in shaping a new world. Du Bois deplored the fact, as he saw it, that ‘from American newspapers Negroes get no idea of the great struggle for freedom and self-government which has been going on in India, or of that deep philosophy of the meaning and end of human life which characterizes the Indian nation. They only hear of what England has done to develop India and to keep the pace.’
AFRICAN AMERICANS FOUND voyaging into Gandhi’s worldview no easier than anyone else. The gifted poet, social activist and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, would have nothing of the idea that Gandhi could be conceived as some kind of modern-day liberator in the image of Christ; indeed, as a staunch Marxist, he had little use for Christianity, either. A visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 furnished him with the necessary provocation to pen a farewell, ‘Goodbye, Christ’, to all religion: ‘Goodbye,/ Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,/ Beat it on away from here now./ Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—/ A real guy named/ Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—/ I said, ME!/ Go ahead on now,/ You’re getting in the way of things, Lord./ And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go…’ But he was scarcely alone in eventually warming up to Gandhi: the butchery of yet another World War ostensibly fought to save civilisation may have prompted the change of heart, but just as likely it would have dawned on Langston Hughes that Gandhi wrought another form of poetry in his deployment of the body to effect a transformation of the body politic itself. Thus followed this little-known gem of a poem, ‘Gandhi is Fasting’ (1943):
Mighty Britain, tremble!
Let your empire’s standard sway
Let it break entirely—
My Gandhi fasts today.
You may think it foolish—
That there’s no truth in what I say—
That all of Asia’s watching
As Gandhi fasts today.
All of Asia’s watching.
And I am watching, too.
For I am also jim crowed—
As India is jim crowed by you.
You know quite well, Great Britain,
That it is not right
To starve and beat and oppress
Those who are not white.
Of course, we do it too.
Here in the U.S.A.
May Gandhi’s prayers help us, as well
As he fasts today.
Black Americans and Indians had both been, as Hughes would have it, jim crowed. Two oppressed groups had wrought into being a sustained communication with each other, but it is not clear that they did so through the mediation of a dominant culture. True, Gandhi had been educated in Britain, and he was even intimate with Christian missionaries; he was also conversant in certain portions of the New Testament. But the world of Black churches in America would have been foreign to him; moreover, it is well to reflect on an observation of his that has gone unheeded by those who have been busy trying to unearth this or that ‘influence’ on him: though not unmindful of the fact that certain dissenters working within Western intellectual traditions had been important in shaping his thinking, he was keen to impress upon his readers that, in his word, ‘whatever service I have been able to render to the nation has been due entirely to the retention by me of Eastern culture to the extent it has been possible’ (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi).
In considering how Gandhi appeared to the imagination of African Americans, we stumble, then, upon some of the most arresting questions in 20th century political, cultural and intellectual history. The lengthy and sustained engagement of Black Americans across a wide spectrum of professions with Gandhi and the anti-colonial struggle compels renewed assessment of how ideas travelled across borders, the nature of political solidarity among subordinated groups, the heterogeneous legacies of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, and theories of cosmopolitanism that have not deviated much from the supposition that the fount of ecumenism remains the liberal humanist tradition of the West. In these fractured times, as xenophobia reigns supreme, the African American imagery of Gandhi illustrates the promise of interculturality and of acts of transgression across received notions of self, culture, community and nation.