Two Necks: Emancipation and Afro-Asian Solidarity

Two Necks: Emancipation and Afro-Asian Solidarity

This piece is first in a series of pieces featuring Caribbean writers reflecting on the theme of Emancipation, first published on August 1, 2017 (Emancipation Day).

If the goal of decolonization is, as Fanon might have conceived, the creation of new humanity, the observance of Emancipation Day across many territories in the Caribbean should suggest, at the very least, the beginning of that new humanity’s gestation. First observed in Trinidad and Tobago on 1 August 1985, the ‘holiday’ now commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire on that day in 1834 according to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Across islands today, one may find marches, vigils, and cultural programming to observe the legacy of this declaration. As a Caribbean person in the diaspora, I look to the holiday as an important note in our collective history and an earmark for our liberation.

My message today, however, is addressed primarily toward my Indo-Caribbean bredren and sistren, both on the islands and in the diaspora. Other folks — Chinese and East Asian Caribbeans, Arabs, and mestizx folks among others — feel free to sing along.

Today should mark the observance not only of a public holiday, but as a reminder for solidarity and unity between African and Indian peoples worldwide. Our being from the Caribbean has endowed us with a particular Relation largely marked by curiosity and respect. But we should not so readily divorce ourselves from the realities of other groups along this racial continuum. We must look upon these racial transgressions — whether it’s Indian Americans throwing around the n-word or continental Indians throwing stones and bottles at African students and immigrants — as a reminder that the superficial harmony in our nations can easily be fractured when the logics of white supremacy are left intact.

Africans and Indians are not so exceptionally different under such logic. Both races were brought as labored classes, the key differences being that Indians were deemed worthy of payment (even if only at some point, five or ten years in the future) and spared from shackles (even if such were replaced with a yoke). Is is true that Indians (and other imported classes like the Chinese) were afforded limited privileges over the Creole laboring classes by no genuine virtue. But this should not be confused with legitimate humanization or bestowal by the planting class of dignity befitting of an equal.

Indo-Caribbean folk owe their existence to Emancipation. Without the impulse of Emancipation in the British colonies, the thought to traffick South Asian laborers through indenture to the Caribbean would not have been as prescient. Our observance of Emancipation Day should not rest solely on the liberation of African and Creole folks from bondage, but also on the notion that our migration was a consequence of an artificial labor shortage created by Emancipation which facilitated movement across continents. For better or for worse, our history is linked intricately and intimately with that of formerly enslaved peoples. I would say that our future is similarly linked with African Caribbean strife for liberation and our mutual recognition as Caribbean peoples deserving of dignity thus far withheld.

This can be true while, simultaneously, we can acknowledge that the first indentured laborers had little agency in establishing themselves as Indo-Caribbean. The first experiments in indenture themselves, centered around a select few plantations in British Guiana starting in 1838, more resembled slavery than later establishments at that. We received little sympathy from our colonizers and barely court recognition among their heirs. There is no recompensating the loss of language, culture, and identity through colonial British reprisals both during and after the period of legal indenture which has left many Indo-Caribbeans, especially those in the diaspora, feeling adrift and aloof even in close quarters and among good company. 

But I say with optimism that that these fissures in our history and across our bodies do not mean we are ‘incomplete’ as a people. If we are destined to be among the artificial ethnicities crafted by colonial interruption, we should at least go down as the people who, ascending from the rift as the smokescreen of empire’s destruction wafted away, steadfastly refuse to follow colonizer logic. 

The interactions across our divides have historically been bountiful. Contemporary schoalrs are ever exploring indentureship-era Caribbean, turning up new evidence of enmeshings and encounters. Consider this passage, from Common Trinidad Hindi by Trinidad’s Kumar Mahabir:

At the same time [of] the process of inter-dialectal levelling… Indians were learning French patois from Africans. [But] there was also a reverse linguistic influence on African speakers. In a language contact situation as existed in Trinidad at that time, there was bound to be some degree of mutual exchange. The extent to which elements of Hindi were integrated into the speech patterns of Africans depended on the degree of their intimacy/interaction with the Indian community [and] there were numerous Hindi-speaking Africans during indentureship.
— Mahabir, Common Trinidad Hindi (XI)

Sadly, our community did not always reciprocate even though the common language of African islanders was English or Creole. Mahabir then recounts the following anecdote of an older woman who was raised immediately following the end of indenture: “My parents say ‘hindii bool-tuu kirwal baatee?’ [Speak Hindi! Are you an African?]” (XIV) Even as the tongues which spoke these words grow increasingly distant, it is our imperative to redress the misguided anti-blackness of our ancestors — at the very least for the benefit of the dougla folks in our families and friend groups. According to island lore, the Hindi etymology of ‘dougla’ — contemporarily meaning a Caribbean of mixed African and Indian heritage — is something like ‘having two necks’. I extend the utmost glory to my kinfolk with such admixture; how better to see the complexities of our world than when perched twice as high? 

We ultimately trace this vision back to African-American philosopher W.E.B. DuBois and his vision for a political liberatory path toward Afro-Asian solidarity. In an encounter with Indian theorist N.S. Subba Rao detailed in “The Clash of Colour", he wrote:

If now the coloured peoples—Negroes, Indians, Chinese, and Japanese—are going successfully to oppose these assumptions of white Europe, they have got to be sure of their own attitude… Otherwise they will substitute for the exploitation of coloured by white races, an exploitation of coloured races by coloured men. [Then] and only then, can the union of darker races bring a new and beautiful world, not simply for themselves, but all men.
— DuBois, quoted in Onishi, Transpacific Antiracism (67)

Moving forward, what difference lies between ‘observance' of the holiday upon us and ‘celebration' of that same holiday is in our hands. It is true that slavery of African peoples did not end unilaterally on August 1, 1834 -- the black comrades of Caribbean folks in Cuba would not see this freedom until the 1880s, and furthermore in Brazil until 1890. The descendants of transatlantic slaves (as well as indentured servants) also did not recount true freedom until well after decolonization if at all. Several Caribbean intellectuals take a sardonic approach to any such commemoration; Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir, most notably, is unyielding in saying 'no' to celebrating our own commemoration, Arrival Day. I approach today with cautious embrace, asking not ‘What freedom exists among us now?’ but, more broadly: ‘What is the freedom that we are most looking forward to?’

And as we peer into the kaleidoscope, answer back: ‘The freedom of destination.’ After the cloaking of our origins, let our futures be swollen with ever-more-bountiful ports-of-call.

Hassan Ghanny is a nameless nobody of Indo-Caribbean descent living in Boston, MA. His début novel, NMQP, is forthcoming, inshallah. His shorter writing can be found on Cuepoint, The West Indian Critic, and Burnt Roti.

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