“The Egyptians entered into Egypt from a southern country called Punt, across the seas. Some say that that Punt is the modern Malabar, and that the Egyptians and Dravidians belong to the same race.“
“The ship is steadily sailing north. The borders of this Red Sea were a great centre of ancient civilisation. There, on the other side, are the deserts of Arabia, and on this — Egypt. This is that ancient Egypt. Thousands of years ago, these Egyptians starting from Punt (probably Malabar) crossed the Red Sea, and steadily extended their kingdom till they reached Egypt. Wonderful was the expansion of their power, their territory, and their civilisation. The Greeks were the disciples of these. The wonderful mausoleums of their kings, the Pyramids, with figures of the Sphinx, and even their dead bodies are preserved to this day. Here lived the ancient Egyptian peoples, with curling hair and ear-rings, and wearing snow-white dhotis without one end being tucked up behind. This is Egypt — the memorable stage where the Hyksos, the Pharaohs, the Persian Emperors, Alexander the Great, and the Ptolemies, and the Roman and Arab conquerors played their part. So many centuries ago, they left their history inscribed in great detail in hieroglyphic characters on papyrus paper, on stone slabs, and on the sides of earthen vessels.
This is the land where Isis was worshipped and Horus flourished.”
–Vivekananda’s Memoirs of European Travel
This extraordinary man was a Hindu monk of the order of the Vedantas. He was called the Swami Vivi Kananda, and was widely known in America for his religious teachings. He was lecturing in Chicago one year when I was there; and as I was at that time greatly depressed in mind and body, I decided to go to him, having seen how greatly he had helped some of my friends.
An appointment was arranged for me, and when I arrived at his house I was immediately ushered into his study. Before going, I had been told not to speak until he addressed me. When I entered the room, therefore, I stood before him in silence for a moment. He was seated in a noble attitude of meditation, his robe of saffron yellow falling in straight lines to the floor, his head, swathed in a turban, bent forward, his eyes on the ground. After a brief pause, he spoke without looking up.
“My child,” he said, “what a troubled atmosphere you have about you! Be calm! It is essential!”
With the Swami and some of his friends and followers, I went upon a most remarkable trip, through Turkey, Egypt and Greece. Our party included the Swami, Father Hyacinthe Loyson, his wife, a Bostonian, Miss McL. of Chicago, ardent Swamist and charming, enthusiastic woman, and myself, the song bird of the troupe.
What a pilgrimage it was! Science, philosophy and history had no secrets from the Swami. I listened with all my ears to the wise and learned discourse that went on around me. I did not attempt to join in their arguments, but I sang on all occasions, as is my custom.
One day we lost our way in Cairo. I suppose we had been talking too intently. At any rate, we found ourselves in a squalid, ill-smelling street, where half-clad women lolled from windows and sprawled on doorsteps.
The Swami noticed nothing until a particularly noisy group of women on a bench in the shadow of a dilapidated building began laughing and calling to him. One of the ladies of our party tried to hurry us along, but the Swami detached himself gently from our group and approached the women on the bench.
“Poor children!” he said. “Poor creatures! They have put their divinity in their beauty. Look at them now!”
He began to weep, as Jesus might have done before the woman taken in adultery.
The women were silenced and abashed. One of them leaned forward and kissed the hem of his robe, murmuring brokenly in Spanish,“Hombre de dios, hombre de diosr(Man of God!) The other, with a sudden gesture of modesty and fear, threw her arm in front of her face, as though she would screen her shrinking soul from those pure eyes.
This marvellous journey proved to be almost the last occasion on which I was to see the Swami. Shortly afterward he announced that he was to return to his own country. He felt that his end was approaching, and he wished to go back to the community of which he was director and where he had spent his youth.
A year later we heard that he had died, after writing the book of his life, not one page of which was destroyed. He passed away in the state called Samadhi, which means, in Sanscrit, to die voluntarily, from a “will to die,” without accident or sickness, saying to his disciples, “I will die on such a day.”
(From ‘My Life’ by Emma Calve. Translated by Rosamond Gilder)
Wherein are words sublime or noble? What
Invests one speech with haloed eminence,
Makes it the sesame for all doors shut,
Yet in its like sees but impertinence?
Is it the hue? Is it the cast of eye,
The curve of lip or Asiatic breath,
Which mark a lesser place for Gandhi’s cry
Than “Give me liberty or give me death!”Is Indian speech so quaint, so weak, so rude,
So like its land enslaved, denied, and crude,
That men who claim they fight for liberty
Can hear this battle-shout impassively,
Yet to their arms with high resolve have sprung
At those same words cried in the English tongue?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of victory?
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!
—Sarojini Naidu, “The Gift of India”
India is formerly colonized country which has been attacked since its birth in 1947 by commercial superpowers. For the U.S to claim a “trade deficit” with India or any oppressed country is hypocrisy given that it is the Americans who have systematically destroyed the economy and the possibility of peace in the region in order to secure their extravagant and corrupt lifestyle. W.E.B Du Bois was right when he said inThe World and Africathat all of the exploitation of the world is apparent in the face of a young, seemingly innocent white socialite whose household is furnished and powered almost entirely by the labor of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and African-America.
It is the mounting panic about how whites will continue to sustain this lifestyle in the twenty-first century that is driving the present political drama about impeachment. To do so, they realize that they must scramble anew for the resources of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Once more, the white race seeks to use the darker races as means of neocolonial production but this is proving highly unlikely as from Syria to North Korea to China to Palestine, people are clamoring for peace, truth, and freedom from the violence of the West.
Diplomatic meetings between world leaders (including corrupt native leaders like Narendra Modi who collude with capital) obscure the grim truth of American-led and Europe-backed wars on Asian and African soil. These are wars aimed at destroying the civilization and industries of these continents so as to keep them utterly dependent on Western markets and Western civilization. Then, capital arrives with friendly trade deals, treaties, and humanitarian aid, claiming to offer an antidote to the very evil it personifies and strives to cultivate in the hearts of humankind.
Americans sought in-roads into India, a socialist republic, after its hard won Independence from the British in 1947 because they saw themselves to be next in line after the British Empire, to which white American culture continues to aspire. As a deep alliance flourished between Indians, Latinos, Africans and African-Americans as a result of the Pan-African, socialist, non-violent, and non-aligned alliance against Western imperialism, white Americans, backed by the international bourgeoisie of all colors, united against the freedom of the darker races. NATO, an alliance of Western countries, was specifically aimed at countering the Communism of the East and South. The so-called War on Terror which is the longest war fought by the American Empire is merely the new face of these unresolved tensions. The American people are now suffering because Western capital has exported the jobs to oppressed nations in order to save on labor costs. And yet, Trump blames China and other countries for the trade deficit instead of accepting responsibility for capital’s failure to meet the needs and interests of world humanity.
Amidst all the hoopla about terror overseas, conveniently labeled “radical Islam,” little is said about the the violence wrought by white Christianity, which entirely distorted the love ethic of Jesus. America is nation that continues to terrorize its own black citizens and it was mass opposition to white terror which propelled Dr. King’s movement. In the background of the Negro spiritual “Were You There?”–one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns most memorably sung by the great Marian Anderson–looms the shadow of the Jim Crow South. As Coretta Scott King notes in her autobiography, white Southerners burned down her family’s home and her father’s business when she was growing. When we consider the aftermath of the cases of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and others, we see that murder of black men, women, children in the United States is sanctioned by the state. This sordid racial reality continues to remain obscured by 9/11 jingoism, which located terror in the so-called “Middle East.” In this relentless milieu of false patriotism cut with bouts of liberal guilt, it’s worth remember that such xenophobic sentiments, based on corrupt economic and political motives, led to the persecution of hundreds of courageous people in the U.S during the McCarthyite era, including Paul Robeson and W.E.B Du Bois, descendants of African slaves held captive by this so-called American democracy.
In the past twenty years, the U.S. has waged wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Korea, Syria and Pakistan—Asian countries which were formerly colonized by European powers. In the 1970s, America seduced Maoist China against India and Vietnam while claiming to be their saviors after the horrific invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Japan, and Korea. Now it seeks to use India to “box in” (per Kissinger and Nixon) the threats posed by India, China and Russia to the Western economy.
An attempt was also made by Americans to invade India under Indira Gandhi’s tenure during the liberation of East Pakistan, an effort heroically supported by Mrs. Gandhi, to the great consternation of President Richard Nixon. It is still unclear as to what role the U.S government played in the assassinations of Indian leaders like Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, as well as Black American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X, though a great deal of evidence has emerged about the state’s machinations in the assassination and overthrow of colored leaders throughout the world.
The lies and schemes of American politicians have fueled mounting national paranoia about Russian collusion in U.S elections which has led to the Democratic party’s impeachment of Donald Trump, though the corporate Democrats are equally if not more guilty, for they co-opt the language of social justice and freedom fighters in order to further their own corrupt agenda in the bourgeois public sphere. The Democratic Party simply wants to escalate tensions with Russia and as socialistic as some of the candidates seem, none of them contend with the fundamental problems of Western civilization, which is riven by the inescapable dilemma of the color line. This has rightly caused the masses of Americans to reject the Democratic Party’s veneer of liberalism, which is merely a new iteration of the white man’s burden.
The West relished in the destruction of the Soviet Union, which was their ultimate aim during the Cold War seeing it as a victory for Western civilization and capital. India was one of the most important allies of the Soviet Union and American foreign policy sought to sever this bond in the 1990s and 2000s by infiltrating it’s economy, military, and leadership. The economic liberalization of India, which Americans falsely deem a triumph, led to an increase in trade with U.S during the 1990s. However, it rolled back many of the crucial socialist programs designed by Gandhi, Nehru, and other founding fathers and mothers and replaced them with neocolonial NGO and non-profits which used predatory lending techniques and white authority to forcefully secure native cooperation.
In the renascence of Cold War sentiments we see today through the paradigm of a white “Atlantic”, which is the organizing political principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) we once again witness efforts to divide India, China, and Russia, in a similar pattern of previous attempts at Balkanization under Kissinger and Nixon. When the crisis in Ukraine is discussed in the U.S by figures like Joe Biden and Donald Trump, little is said about the fact that Ukraine represents a flashpoint in the international struggle between the capitalist and communist mode of production. NATO waged horrific wars against former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in an effort to reclaim Eastern Europe for Western capital. It has continually aggressed upon Russia—and not the other way around, as the powers that be claim.
Lastly, consider the Western worry about “intellectual property” amidst the panic over trade deficits with countries like China and India. These ruthless American and European business tactics have nothing to do with the integrity of thought; rather, they are thinly veiled gestures once more aimed at the racial subordination, for they seek to keep oppressed people thinking and feeling as though they are worthless and without history, alienating them from their work and well-being. It is yet another way for the West to claim dominance over knowledge production and claim hegemony over science, art, and civilization. Like the British, Americans will claim to have invented everything, though the West in truth has not created much in the past four hundred years of destruction, having derived the majority of its inventions, products, and innovations from the uncompensated yet highly skilled labor of Africa and Asia.
In his spiritual message to the world, notable because it is one of the rare extant speeches Mohandas K. Gandhi gave in English, the satygrahi remarked that
There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.
God is indescribable and ominpresent for Gandhi, capable of being sensed without manifesting physically. Love is perhaps the most important illustration of this truth: one cannot see love, one cannot grasp it in one’s hands; it lodges itself in the deep recesses of memory and time to be reawakened in each epoch by resurgent forces that seek to preserve it. We can thus see, equally, what is not loved for where there is no love, there is loss and war, war with self and war with the greater family of humankind. To the Western empiricists who demanded proof that Indians were deserving of their freedom, all the while beating, jailing, and exploiting them, Gandhi effectively replied: I cannot show you, but I can assure you that I feel a deep love for my downtrodden countrymen and for you, because you have not yet been discovered by God’s love.
Part of Gandhi’s turn to nonviolence towards all human beings and living entities was profoundly influenced by the belief that all matter is life, a scientific discovery confirmed by Indian biophysicist, Jagdish Chandra Bose, who presented his experiment on the sensate faculties of plants at the Royal Society in 1901. Bose, who Gandhi references in this speech, would invent the crescograph to detect whether or not plants were able to feel and respond to external stimuli like members of the animal kingdom by sensing microscopic movements. This proved that a flower was capable of feeling pain, like a man. Humans, in Gandhi’s eyes, had a much higher purpose: to overcome the need to inflict pain and suffering on other beings. The putative progress of Western science had outrun its moral progress in prescribing the very opposite, Gandhi understood, like Martin Luther King Jr.,
Finally, Gandhi’s critique of Western science recalls W.E.B Du Bois’s critique of scientific positivism, the philosophy of science advanced by the Comteian school, which held that the human world could be studied like its physical counterpart, a perspective which could not fathom the infinitude of human decisive and creative power. Consciousness of the world and the struggle for life creates conditions for improbabilities that deviate from the expected trajectories and outcomes. These improbabilities are what we call history, which is nothing more than the words and deeds of humankind. Gandhi also said, like Marx, that struggle is the mother of history. History, Gandhi argued
is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul. Two brothers quarrel; one of them repents and reawakens the love that was lying dormant in him; the two again begin to live in peace; nobody takes note of this. But if the two brothers, through the intervention of solicitors or some other reason, take up arms or go to law-which is another form of the exhibition of brute force-their doings would be immediately noticed in the Press, they would be the talk of their neighbours and would probably go down to history. And what is true of families and communities is true of nations. There is no reason to believe that there is one law for families and another for nations. History, then, is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul force, being natural, is not noted in history.
The soul force transcends history. It is the energetic residue that persists in the world after every physical incarnation of life, taking new form and life at every new interval. History interrupts the soul’s unfolding unto the cosmos because it creates divisions reinforced over time. Thus, Gandhi argues, we can see that what is true of family quarrels is also true of national conflict for it is the contending desires and wills of large units of people that then lives on in human memory. Consider, for example, the history plays of Shakespeare, the story of Abraham’s family, the fraternal conflict between Cain and Abel. Nowhere is this more true than America, where an unnatural color line persistently fragments the human family and suppresses the human soul-force.
Faith transcends reason because it returns us to this cosmic journey of the soul force to be free of earthly suffering. The belief in something higher than oneself, has been central to the development of human civilization for millennia because it forces consideration of the larger aims and ideals of civilization itself–of how human beings ought to live with one another. Thus, the greatest practitioners of all of the world’s religions have evolved a culture of peace, which overcomes our understanding, that is, our reason. And yet, faith without reason can degenerate into fanaticism. This faith in the power of the human mind and heart in its “upward reach for God,” to recall Dr. King, pervades Du Bois’s critique of Western science as it does Gandhi’s in his spiritual message to the world, which declares that all matter is life, and so, infinite in its relational and regenerative capacities.
Du Bois asserted that human behavior and society were not merely governed by fixed natural laws as claimed by Comte and others; rather, there was something fundamentally incalculable, and thus unknowable, about humanity and to accept a positivist dialectic would negate the truth of human reality, which is the mirroring of past and future against the present, each side existing simultaneously The infinitude and incalculability of human possibility grows in direct proportion to one’s faith in God which is why faith is the salvation of the oppressed, the Disinherited, to recall Howard Thurman. Faith confers to the disinherited the belief in their humanity in the face of dehumanization. Under such circumstances, faith deepens one’s own capacity to evolve to greater ends. It creates power, through self-love and communal affection, in the face of powerlessness, giving significance, substance, and continuity to one’s life. The love of the people for their civilizations, which were destroyed by imperialism, fired the freedom movements of the twentieth century, which sought to sever Europe and white America’s chokehold on the development of oppressed races and nations.
It is not historically insignificant that the last thing Du Bois entrusts his literary executor Herbert Aptheker with a book of poems called Prayers For Dark People before taking leave to Ghana. Du Bois, like Thurman and King, recognized the capacity of oppressed humanity to reach super-humanity through love, friendship, and material cooperation. The human will in both epistemologies is a decisive force. Thus, history and philosophy–the force of the human will to wrest destiny from a bitter Earth–could not be studied objectively in a natural vacuum, as the positivist averred. Rather, history was a contention of contesting wills struggling for the realization of self and people. This epistemology was indispensable to Du Bois because for too long, the black working-class was studied as an adjunct of American history rather than a shaping and determining force in the history of human relations on this continent.
II. THE PENALTY OF DECEPTION
To arrive at the truth one must face the truth about oneself. James Baldwin said in No Name in the Street that Western civilization is caught in the lie of its pretended humanism. Until whites reckoned with the psychological consequences of their investment in color prejudice, they would remain fundamentally severed from their own humanity. They cannot love their black childhood playmate, their initial care-providers, their very own children and siblings. And they cannot stop lying to themselves about who they are and how they arrived upon their identity, which is a founded upon a series of lies and distortions about black peoples all over the world.
Deception can only culminate in an eternity of guilt. The guilt of deception is overwhelming, robbing relationships of their sincerity and productivity. Howard Thurman writes that deception has particularly dangerous consequences for the development of humanity and the progress of civilization. As a consequence, Life becomes a meaningless series of events manipulated into a narrative that suits the liar’s interests, canceling out all moral distinctions and discipline. The internal lie of the liar persists such that he or she is inhibited from arriving at a sober distillation of the truth. As he observes in Jesus and the Disinherited
The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not. In other words, the moral mercury of life is reduced to zero. Shakespeare has immortalized this aspect of character in his drama of Macbeth.
To face yourself, you must first know love. Thurman refers here to William Shakespeare’s play about the Scottish king, Macbeth, because though driven by purpose and a great sense of his destiny, Macbeth is ultimately defeated by his political ambition because he sought the love of power rather than the power of Love. If you cannot love others, you cannot love yourself and this has tragic consequences– psychological and physical–for Macbeth. He is consumed with guilt and paranoia, indeed paralyzed from ruling, his initial aspiration. The original sin of Duncan’s murder begets new sins and crimes Macbeth and his wife must undertake in order to stabilize their power over the realm, which ultimately results in their descent into madness and death.
Time is long. And the words and deeds of humans persist so long as there is suffering. Faith is the sigh of the oppressed, the Disinherited. Faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence Gandhi deduced in his message of peace to humanity. As such, the safest course, was the moral government of the world. A moral science of America reveals a deeply divided country with a profoundly fragmented psychic and social life. In a nation plagued by a profound spiritual emptiness, we must once again pose the question: what does a truly moral government of the world, a kingdom of heaven on earth, look like and what has it to do with the pursuit of love and faith in our common humanity?
As revolutionary India entered the world stage as a free nation in 1947, The Hindu, a widely read Indian newspaper, condemned the banning of Paul Robeson’s public performance in Peoria, Illinois as a consequence for his agitation for world peace and the freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere. “If Paul Robeson is un-American, so much the worse for America,” declared the writer of the piece. The article was republished on the first page of The Baltimore Afro-American on May 24, 1947
In 1956, Robeson would be viciously targeted for his support of the erstwhile Soviet Union and his lifelong admiration for the Russian Revolution as well as the revolutions of Asian and African peoples for independence from colonial rule by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was established in 1938 in efforts to quell the rising tide of communism as the American nation struggled against a deep economic depression. Robeson’s heroic defense at the investigation against the encroachments of the virulent Jim Crow, anti-communist regime:
Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . .
Here are the beginnings of a modern industrial system: iron and steel for permanent investment, bound to yield large dividends; cloth as the cheapest exchange for invaluable raw material; liquor to tickle the appetites of the natives and render the alienation of land and the breakdown of customary law easier; eventually forced and contract labor under white drivers to increase and systematize the production of raw materials. These materials are capable of indefinite expansion: cotton may yet challenge the southern United States, fruits and vegetables, hides and skins, lumber and dye-stuffs, coffee and tea, grain and tobacco, and fibers of all sorts can easily follow organized and systematic toil.
Those who do believe in men, who know what black men have done in human history, who have taken pains to follow even superficially the story of the rise of the Negro in Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas of our day know that our modern contempt of Negroes rests upon no scientific foundation worth a moment’s attention. It is nothing more than a vicious habit of mind. It could easily be overthrown as our belief in war, as our international hatreds, as our old conception of the status of women, as our fear of educating the masses, as our belief in the necessity of poverty. We can if we inaugurate on the Dark Continent a last great crusade for humanity. With Africa redeemed Asia would be safe and Europe indeed triumphant.
Twenty centuries before Christ a great cloud swept over seas and settled on Africa, darkening and well-nigh blotting out the culture of the land of Egypt. For half a thousand years it rested there, until a black woman, Queen Nefertari, “the most venerated figure in Egyptian history,” rose to the throne of the Pharaohs and redeemed the world and her people. Twenty centuries after Christ, Black Africa,—prostrated, raped, and shamed, lies at the feet of the conquering Philistines of Europe. Beyond the awful sea a black woman is weeping and waiting, with her sons on her breast. What shall the end be? The world-old and fearful things,—war and wealth, murder and luxury? Or shall it be a new thing,—a new peace and a new democracy of all races,—a great humanity of equal men? “Semper novi quid ex Africa!”
The flash and flutter of a lens can capture a moment in eternity. In the photograph below, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., second from left, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, wear garlands in the Hindu tradition. It is 1965 and they are marching from Selma to Montgomery. I am unsure which of three marches this photo is taken from. Protestors marched 87 kilometers to the state capital, where King delivered his speech “Our God is Matching On.” In the sermon, he reaffirms the people’s faith in God as love, truth, and peace, compelling them to test their faith in peaceful non-cooperation so as to win the protracted struggle for civil rights. In 1930, Gandhi would lead a similar kind of march, leading thousands of people from Sabarmati to the sea to make their own salt in protest of British taxation of the mineral.
The wreaths encircling the marchers’ necks recall the garlands with which the nascent government of independent India greeted the King Embassy, which would visit Gandhi’s tomb. Witnessing this example, I heed Gandhi’s advice about faith—that it transcends reason, that the precipitate of this transcendence is none other than love.
Like King, Gandhi was assassinated by reactionary elements in the struggle against imperialism and white domination. Recognizing the Indian leader’s martyrdom, King proclaimed that “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work” at a a gathering in Brooklyn, New York following the Supreme Court’s ruling that Montgomery’s bus segregation was unconstitutional.
The significance of these words must be weighed in light of the Thurman delegation’s visit to India in 1935-1936, which was central meditation in the latter’s seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949)? Jesus and the Disinherited is a moral inquiry into the condition of Christian civilization in the modern epoch, which witnessed a deplorable distortion of the faith, as the loving teachings of Christ–who stood with the poor and the disinherited–were twisted into a diabolical defense of colonialism, black enslavement, and the psycho-social subordination of the darker races to the white masters of the world . King carried the book with him everywhere.
Above, King removes his shoes at the Gandhi Memorial, to pay homage to India’s fallen Mahatma known to the people and his loved ones as Bapu. If a camera illuminates the truth by flooding light into the aperture of a lens, then the revolutionary prophecies of these great leaders illuminated the world by flooding it with love, chiseling into presence a grand legacy of peace and culture amongst humanity over the course of their lifetimes which we now inherit in our own. Contacts between India and African-America in the twentieth century germinated a cultural renaissance, manifesting a new plane of human understanding and civilization—aesthetically, politically, scientifically, and above all, spiritually. Where will these liaisons lead in the fulfillment of our common destiny in the twenty-first century of the Prince of Peace?
Sue Bailey Thurman and Howard Thurman travelled to India, Burma and Ceylon, as part of the first African-American delegation to colonial India in 1935-1936, at the height of its anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire. Known as the Pilgrimage of Friendship to the East, the delegation was organized by the Student Christian Movement in the United States in tandem with Christian student organizations in India, Ceylon, and Burma. The leader of the Christian student organizations in southern Asia at this time was a man named Augustine Ralla Ram, who felt that a black Christian delegation would be more accepted than white missionaries who cooperated with the British Empire, as Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt discuss in their new book, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African-American Nonviolence. He called the delegation because “Christianity in India is the oppressors religion” and that “there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity of the contribution of Christianity” (quoted in Dixie and Eisenstadt 70). An article in the Spelman Messenger reported Augustine Ram Ralla’s interest in “The social and class distinctions to which Negroes in America are subjected” which “seemed to parallel, to some degree, caste distinctions in India” (70).
The delegation was chaired by Howard Thurman, a renowned theologian and civil rights agitator who would become a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., introducing the young King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. The significance of their visit to furthering mutual understanding between India and African-America cannot be underscored enough as it was the first Black Christian delegation to tour India. The pilgrimage would also constitute an crucial dimension of Thurman’s 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, a work of great spiritual striving and erudition, which King carried with him everywhere. Knowing this history is vital to understanding King’s oft-quoted remark that while he went as a tourist to other countries, to India he came as a pilgrim. In this book, Thurman would argue that
American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, the weak, the poor on the theory they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian and the Negro with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. (Jesus and the Disinherited 98)
Thurman was King’s senior by thirty years, sharing the same birth year with his father: 1899. His proselytization, teaching, and scholarship at Howard University and Boston University, had a profound influence on the civil rights struggle and black leadership in the twentieth century. His philosophy emphasized the oneness of humanity and his theology emphasized communion with God and nature as a way of arriving at the truth about human existence. He saw the segregation of the Christian church in the United States as a great evil and his search for peace took him to India, where he and Sue Bailey Thurman, lectured widely and built relations with prominent figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
Though Gandhi had embraced the teachings of Christ by the time the Thurman delegation came to India, most Indians were antagonistic towards Western Christianity given its repression of native spiritual traditions and saw great hope in African-American interpretations of Christ’s teachings. As Gandhi put it, he loved Christ, but couldn’t say the same about white Christians, who invoked the Bible to justify colonial violence against the darker races: “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” King also drew attention to this central contradiction in Christianity, noting in a fiery 1956 sermon about “Redirecting Our Missionary Zeal“:
The paradox of it all is that the white man considers himself the supreme missionary. He sends [millions] of dollars to the foreign field. And in the midst of that he tramples over the Negro.
Gandhi began developing his own interests in Christianity as early as South Africa, after having come in contact with an English priest named Charles Andrews, who decried the white church’s treatment of Africans and Indians and lent his support to Gandhi who was there to study the condition of Indian laborers. In 1929, Andrews traveled to the United States and spoke on the theory of nonviolence at black colleges and universities. At the time, Gandhi was organizing the Indian people against the repressive imperialist tax on salt, which culminated in the great Dandi Satyagraha, where he marched more than. 150 miles from Sabarmati, with upwards of 60,000 Indians vowing to produce their own salt, in defiance of the British tax on the sale of salt. The act commanded the attention of the world to the struggle of the Indians, and was widely covered by the international press.
But Gandhi’s ambition was much higher than independence. “Through the deliverance of India,” he said, “I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner” (see “Independence vs. Swaraj, 12 January 1928). White Christianity was an integral part of Western exploitation. Like Thurman, Gandhi believed that the consequences of racial strife and Western exploitation were manifested them most tragically in the inner life of human beings, in the dilapidation of the soul, in the breaking of the spirit, in the negation humanity’s fundamental interconnectedness to each other as well as to God and nature.
As King put it later, we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny and so responsible to the “cosmic partnership.” Western civilization, by contrast, had done great violence to this unity and oneness of mankind, valorizing in its wake man’s inhumanity to man. It was for this reason that Gandhi would refer to segregation as a “negation of civilization,” a thought that King would echo in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” whose allegorization and ventriloquization of the Apostle Paul as a character requires King to go into a dramatic monologue. Here, he impresses upon the Afro-Asiatic origins of Western civilization, like Gandhi, drawing attention to the fact that Paul would have been writing in Greek. The irony of reading this speech through a Gandhian looking glass tripled when we consider the fact that Paul is beaten, arrested, jailed, and beheaded by the Emperor Nero for his bearing and conveying the teachings of Christ, king of the Disinherited, as Thurman knew him to be.
As is somewhat well-known, King came to the teachings of Gandhi during his time in Pennsylvania, where I am writing this from. He studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, where in a homework assignment, he recognized Gandhi for having revealed to him “the working of the spirit of God in bringing about moral transformation within the individual.” He confesses to becoming a disciple of Gandhi upon listening to a lecture given by Mordecai Johnson in Philadelphia, shortly after the Howard University president’s own trip to India.
Mirabehn (née Miriam Slade), an English disciple of Gandhi’s, played an important role in the concretization of the Thurman delegation’s invitation to India. Mirabehn who was christened as such by Gandhi himself, was a prominent British admiral’s daughter. Thurman, who had been searching for a way to organize a meeting with Gandhi, intercepted her during her visit to the U.S. As he writes of her in his autobiography, With Head and Heart
She was an Englishwoman who had given up her life in England not only to become a mere follower of Gandhi but also to live in his ashram as a member of the family community of which he was the center…Her situation was unique because she was a woman of the upper class And had given up her way of life, abandoning the goals of her peers, including wealth and status.
Now an Englishwoman who had renounced imperial Christianity, Mirabehn took it upon herself to defend Gandhi against his Western critics, leveraging her position as an upper-class white woman . By this time, Gandhi had transmuted the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement clamoring for Indian self-rule through a constructive program, which included the boycott of British goods and cultural institutions, an act that led to the mass jailing of thousands of satyagrahis, as his disciples were known, including Gandhi himself who was arrested and jailed in 1922 for two years on charges of sedition.
After making many inquiries as to her whereabouts, Thurman arranged for Mirabehn to give a lecture at Howard University:
I told her as Howard was the only Negro university of its kind in the United States, her experience there could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
In her address, she analyzed the connections between Gandhi’s teachings and those of Christ. She emphasized, that Christianity had arisen in the Near East, remarking that “the greatest spiritual teachings of the world have all come from the darker races.” As Gandhian philosopher-poetess Sarojini Naidu, had put it, “Jesus was an Asiatic, like me.” Watching Mirabehn speak passionately about these matters, Thurman came to a new awareness of the interconnectedness of Negro and Indian spiritual striving. Grateful for the experience at Howard, Mirabehn assured Thurman that she would relay his interest in visiting Gandhi’s ashram and she made good on her promise for Gandhi wrote back to Thurman:
Dear friend… I shall be delighted to have you and your three friends whenever you can come before the end of the year.
British officials initially opposed the trip, seeing the political connection between Afro-America and India as a threat to white supremacy and the colonial government. Sue Bailey Thurman, who was also invited as an official member of the delegation (not simply in her capacity as Thurman’s spouse), served as an important adviser on African American affairs to Mahatma Gandhi. During the visit to Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s University, she lectured on the historical and aesthetic development of Negro spirituals in America called “The History Of Negro Music,” after Tagore impressed upon her how much the Indian people found inspiration in African-American spirituals and traditionals. Coretta Scott King would discover the same sentiments amongst Indians, who had a great regard for the spiritual strivings of their black brothers and sisters in struggle. While in India, Sue Thurman taught local choirs how to sing spirituals and continued to develop these interests upon her return to the U.S. Thurman writes in his autobiography, “Sue delivered [lectures on the beauties of Indian civilization] at many campuses and communities in the United States and Canada on her return home.” She stayed at Shantiniketan longer than Thurman because “she wanted to learn more about India’s ancient musical instruments,” particularly the veena, a long-necked string instrument with a domed gourd on either end.
The delegation only met with Gandhi about five months into their visit, two weeks shy of their return. Gandhi, realizing that their stay was coming to an end, wrote them a note inviting them to Bardoli, where he was resting, rather than the sevagram. Thurman was lecturing at the University Of Bombay at the time. In his autobiography, Thurman writes of their discourse:
Never in my life have I been a part of the that kind of examination: persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery and how we had survived it.
The conversation about slavery took them to the question of religion and civilization, namely the existence of hierarchies amongst worshippers in all world religions except Islam. Gandhi reserved the highest respect for the Muslim Faith, noting that
If you had become Muslim, Then even though you were a slave, in the faith you would be equal to your master.
Likewise, he argued that Hinduism had been corrupted by caste and that as Hindus, we have lost our self-respect not because of the colonizer, primarily, but because of the presence of untouchability in Hinduism, which was–and remains–the greatest hurdle to be overcome by modern adherents of the faith.
As their three-hour conversation drew to a close (The Thurmans had to catch a train back to Bombay), Gandhi requests a song of them, the spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (see here for Paul Robeson’s rendition which Gandhi likely encountered):
I feel this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.
Thurman remarks that his wife was the real musician, but that he and the others would accompany her and so they joined in song as “Gandhiji and his friends bowed their heads in prayer.” As they took leave, Gandhi bestows a basket of tropical fruit to Sue Bailey Thurman, at which point Howard Thurman requests of him a gift of his own. After gazing upon the spinning wheel which accompanied Gandhi everywhere, he asks for a piece of khadi, the revolutionary fabric that would set India free:
I would like a piece of cloth that you yourself have spun from the flax.
In this essay, W.E.B Du Bois lays out the true causes of World War I, showing that the origins of internecine rivalry amongst the bourgeois nations of Europe lay in their colonial scramble for the Dark Continent. Du Bois’s revolutionary insight into the modern discipline of history confirmed that Europe’s degradation and collapse in the twentieth century was the immanent effect of its systematic looting of African resources and its colonial exploitation of African labor over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
The piece was published in the May 1915 issue of Atlantic Monthly , just a year before Vladimir Lenin completed his groundbreaking treatise, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. As we study America and Europe’s ongoing war on Africa today, we might continue to mount the Du Boisian challenge, posed more than a hundred years ago, and relentlessly query why these facts remain suppressed in the historical record as we enter the second millennium of the Prince of Peace.