The ‘Lost Promise’ of Colored Solidarity

Review of Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India by Nico Slate

[first appeared on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, March 7, 2014]

In Spring 1941, a colored woman boarded the “whites only” car of a segregated train in the American South. Crossing the Louisiana border, she was asked by the ticket collector to move to a colored car or else she “will regret it” (1) She refused and the ticket collector left to get the engineer. When he returned however, he did not ask her to move. He had learned something new. “You are an Asian” he sneered before skulking out of the car (1). He would “not bother her” for the rest of the trip (1).

The woman in question was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, an Indian social reformer and friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Kamaladevi’s refusal to cooperate with the apparatus of Southern segregation was a single episode in a larger solidarity between Indians and African Americans dating back to the late 19th century. African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois were vocal advocates of Indian independence. Similarly, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru called for an end to racial discrimination against African Americans. In his remarkable book, Colored Cosmopolitanism, Nico Slate traces the history of this solidarity, its roots in race and anti-imperialism, and its limits in the tumultuous middle decades of the 20th century. While Slate’s narrative demonstrates the possibility of long-term transnational solidarities, the enduring lesson of Colored Cosmopolitanism is the difficulty of preserving transnational cooperation in a world of nations and national interests.

At the core of Slate’s book is the concept of colored cosmopolitanism. He defines colored cosmopolitans as those who “fought for the freedom of the ‘colored world,’ even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom” (2). Slate’s story is one of radical contingency. As the case of Kamaladevi demonstrates, race could be a powerful rallying point to combat oppression even while it was an ideology that was used to buttress oppression in the United States and India. A shared colored identity could bring together disparate figures like Mohandas Gandhi and George Washington Carver just as it could divide northern and southern Indians – the former of which sometimes claimed whiteness on the grounds of distant Aryan ancestry.  Slate also emphasizes the fluidity of race. Colored identity was not fixed and, as the ambiguous legal position of Indians as a race in the United States attests, subject to pressures from within and without. Domestic anti-immigrant sentiment could lead to Indians being classed with Asians even as Cold War international pressure compelled the United States government to discourage discrimination against Indian diplomats and cultural envoys, particularly in the South.

Slate calls Colored Cosmopolitanism an “interactional history” where “people, ideas, and political pressure flow between regions of the world” (3).  Focusing his history on moments of cooperation between Indians and African Americans allows Slate to have a wider temporal framework. The book’s focus on moments of close cooperation is compounded by Slate’s commitment to intellectual history. Most chapters focus on a particular exchange of ideas between Indians and African Americans; for example, the chapter “Soul Force” focuses on Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha –  nonviolent civil disobedience – and its reception in the United States by intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.

Despite Slate’s protestations to the contrary, Colored Cosmopolitanism is a book about relations between Indian and African American elites. The most prominent figures in the book – Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal and Pandit Nehru, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – are also some of the best known figures from the Indian independence and Civil Rights movements. Slate does make an effort to include non-elite voices by including letters to Indian and African American newspapers commenting on Indian-African American cooperation. These letters provide some of the most fascinating glimpses into the extent colored solidarity penetrated the communities Gandhi and King represented. A letter in The Chicago Defender paints Gandhi as a 20th century Moses, leading the Indians out of British colonial slavery (111). Non-elites were also some of the most vocal critics Slate presents of colored solidarity. A letter from an Indian American named K. Romola proclaimed “his distaste for ‘the black ones’” and expressed hope that “if we [India] become free in the course of ten or twenty years we are after a slice of Africa, too” (88). These examples of non-elite voices notwithstanding, the bulk of Colored Cosmopolitanism presents a narrative of solidarity between intellectual and cultural elites apart from the grassroots organizing that was central to the successes of both the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights Movement.

Like several other recent books about the Civil Rights Movement including Risa Goluboff’sThe Lost Promise of Civil Rights (2007) and Nancy MacLean’s Freedom is Not Enough(2006), Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism is ultimately a story of missed opportunities. The solidarity that existed between Indian and African American elites leading up to Indian Independence in 1947 could not overcome the pull of national interests in the bipolar political climate of the Cold War. Figures like Nehru who had been outspoken advocates of African American equality were compelled by a combination of generous American aid and external threats to mute their criticisms of American domestic issues. The Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955 was the clearest expression of the breakdown of colored solidarity. Though many prominent African Americans attended the conference, it was primarily “a meeting of nations, in which a unified opposition to imperialism and racism was complicated by international politics and Cold War diplomacy” (198). Meanwhile, some African American leaders avoided attending the conference because of its “pink tinge” and the presence of some prominent Communist representatives, most notably Chinese master diplomat Zhou Enlai (199).

Furthermore, the book’s final chapter largely discredits the connection between the methods of nonviolent resistance employed by King during the Civil Rights Movement and Gandhi’s during the Quit India push. Slate argues King’s ability to create the persona of a “black Gandhi” whose tactics had a proven track record in India and who was an unthreatening character to potential white allies was the most important legacy of colored cosmopolitanism for the Civil Rights Movement (204). Slate lament’s King’s decision to limit Gandhi’s satyagraha “to a narrow conception of nonviolence” which splintered the Civil Rights Movement along cosmopolitan (King) and nationalist (Black Panthers) lines. Had King been more willing to appropriate the radical elements of Gandhi’s legacy – notably his antiracism and anti-imperialism – a unified civil rights movement could have taken place, possibly with greater success.

Colored Cosmopolitanism is a thoughtful, important book that puts questions of race and imperialism into an international intellectual history framework. Few books have approached questions of the transnational transmission of ideas between the United States and Asia with Slate’s sensitivity and grace. His restraint is also impressive. Even while extolling its merits, Slate is willing to acknowledge the limits and shortcomings of colored solidarity as a transnational philosophy in a world of nations. Hopefully, Colored Cosmopolitanism will serve as a model for historians looking to explore how American and Asian ideas have interacted and influenced one another.

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