Slate bridges freedom struggles across nations
Members of the Carnegie Mellon community engaged in discussion in Steinberg Auditorium last Friday during Nico Slate’s lecture on the connection between the freedom struggle of South Asians and African-Americans.
Slate, an assistant professor of history, referenced the research he conducted for his book Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India to discuss how to create collaboration between peoples of color.
“There’s hope and optimism, but there’s also misunderstanding and misinterpretation. That’s what makes this history so rich,” Slate said.
Addressing what he called “colored cosmopolitanism” as something “strangely foreign, but strangely familiar,” he said, “In many ways, a world in which whites controlled things across the globe has tumbled and fell, but in many ways it hasn’t.”
Slate spoke of the work of activists, such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pauli Murray, in bridging the African American fight for civil rights with the Indian freedom struggle.
He utilized the Indian term “satyagraha,” which means “holding firmly to the truth,” to refer to Murray’s civil disobedience and active efforts in the civil rights cause.
Slate said that as a young student, Murray compared the advantages and disadvantages of fighting for freedom as an African-American to those of a South Asian.
The first major difference between the black freedom struggle and the Indian freedom struggle, he said, is the fact that in India, Indians were the majority and in America, blacks were the minority.
Murray used this fact to demonstrate that not all tactics used in India can be directly implemented on the plight of African-Americans.
Moving on to describe an example, Slate addressed the tremendous amount of poverty in India due to class disparities as a result of the caste system.
Slate cited the example of a point of realization for Martin Luther King Jr. on a visit to India.
“The principal of the school introduced MLK as an untouchable of the United States. Although King was at first insulted, he realized that his treatment in the States meant he was, in a sense, an untouchable. Then King went on to say, ‘I am an untouchable, and all of my people are untouchables.’ ”
Slate pointed out that in this way, King was connecting caste oppression in India to the oppression of African-Americans.
Slate said, “That conception of colored solidarity is still alive. Many young South Asians feel a sense of solidarity with African-American struggles, which has grown even stronger after 9/11, when racial profiling has targeted people of color.”
Slate said that President Barack Obama carried a large number of minority communities in the election. For example, 75 percent of the South Asian and Indian communities voted for Obama.
“Most Indians were happy that Obama was reelected, but not for all the right reasons. I think that they are mainly focused on Obama’s foreign policy to India, which, like President [George W.] Bush’s policy, has been warm and friendly,” Slate said.
“I think that most of the people in power in India think that Obama can inspire societal change, and is something I wish is more present,” he continued.
Students who attended the lecture had positive things to say.
“I’m in his global histories class, and he really emphasized the transnational aspect of this movement, which I found fascinating. I liked that he mentioned that we can create this solidarity and learn from it. We can learn from history and act on it today,” said Josh Levitson, a fourth-year piano performance and professional writing double major.
“I really liked the fact that he covered so much of the struggle for civil rights of different cultures, whether that be in America or India,” said Theophilus Onime, a first-year information systems major.
“The freedom struggle is not just confined to one place, like we think it is,” he added.
Slate’s lecture was part of the Center for African-American Urban Studies and the Economy 2012–13 speaker series.
The talk was also held in collaboration with The Senator John Heinz History Center Exhibit, “From Slavery to Freedom.”