Detroit Diary: Detroit Red and the Untouchables


By Desiree Cooper

This year marks the 85th birthday of Detroit Red, the man the world knows as Malcolm X. The Muslim civil rights activist spent his younger years in Lansing and Detroit, Michigan. In 1953, he became assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit.

I’ve noticed that the mainstream media still talks about Malcolm X as “controversial,” although he seems to be embraced more widely today than he was when he was living. But it wasn’t until I met Meena Kandasamy that I realized just how broadly Malcolm X not only influenced the course of civil rights in the United States, but the worldwide struggle for equality as well.

Meena is slightly built, with a mane of dark hair and a disarming smile. Underneath, she is a fireball poet-revolutionary, full of an indignation reminiscent of the young Malcolm X. A resident of Chennai, India, Meena was born a Dalit, or Untouchable.

The word “Dalit” means crushed, broken down, torn apart. There are more than 160 million Untouchables in India, a group that is reviled as the lowest rung of the caste system, much like African Americans before the Civil Rights Era.

“The Dalit struggle for the last two centuries has sought for the right to use public roads, public transport (recently, a Dalit was beaten up for daring to sit next to an upper caste man), enter public places of worship, and so on,” Meena said.

It’s interesting that while the black Civil Rights Movement looked to Gandhi as a model of social change, Dalits look to African-American militant movements.

“For us, Malcolm X is iconic,” she said. “The Dalits also borrowed from the Black Panther Movement when they realized that they had to deal not only with a discriminatory society, but with ruthless state terror in the form of police atrocities. The crimes against Dalits were seldom taken care of by the state, and in most instances, the worst hit were the women.”

The lack of police protection led the Dalit people to escalate their violent discourse: “They said, if you touch our sister, you will not have that hand,” said Meena, who is an English lecturer in Anna University in Chennai.

The early Dalit militant movement, which began in the state of Maharashtra, even called itself the Dalit Panthers. Dalit activists translated black poets like Langston Hughes.

When will the caste structure finally be decimated? Despite her commitment to the cause, Meena is not optimistic.

“The system operates through distrust: and a preconceived notion that we are not only low, but also evil,” she wrote in the Himal Southasian, in April 2010. “Demonizing us, and dehumanizing us, allows caste Hindus the luxury of having an argument to defend their case, and to gloss over all the social injustices with which the system has been permeated.”

Which is why, she wrote further, that the quest for equality is too often seen by the “upper” castes as a movement to “humanize,” “civilize” and educate the Dalits.

Sound familiar?

Here’s another connection between African Americans and Dalits—it turns out that the culture of segregation is not only about law, but about mindset. Meena told the story about a fellow Tamil Dalit who was driving through Denver with another caste Hindu.

“Seeing the poor African Americans there, the rundown neighborhoods and obvious poverty, the caste Hindu, said, ‘Namba ooru cheri maadiriyae irukku illa?’ (It is exactly like the Dalit settlements in our village, isn’t it?),” Meena wrote. “That is the problem with the caste-Hindu mind: it is trained to recognize caste everywhere, and to replicate its order.”

That’s why, she continued, an Indian living in the United States will perpetuate the caste distinctions, imposing them on the African-American culture. He might wonder, “‘How do I face my relatives and family back in the village if my daughter marries a kallu (black)?’” wrote Meena. “His fear is as heartfelt as that of a 15th-century Brahmin facing excommunication for transgressing caste boundaries.”

She added that President Barack Obama might be astonished that his black brothers and sisters are not only seen through a racial perspective, but also in a casteist manner—a point of view that hampers African-American—Indian relationships. “Until there is a change in this mindset,” she wrote, “wishing away caste is going to be a pointless pastime.”

But at the most basic level, there may still be more to connect Dalits and African Americans than what separates them.

“I believe that a lot of common work is possible,” said Meena. “Discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of caste are basically signs of xenophobia and birth-based discrimination. When society fails to treat people with dignity, deprives them of equal opportunity, makes them victims of violence and unduly criminalizes these communities and denies them access to the best education, there is a lot to be shared—not just in terms of solidarity and support, but also in terms of dialogue and engagement and lessons from each other’s experiences of resistance.”

Desiree Cooper is a contributing author to the anthology Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas. A former columnist with the Detroit Free Press and co-host of public radio’s Weekend America, she is now a freelance writer, BBC correspondent and novelist.


Meena Kandasamy: Angry Young Women Are Labelled Hysterics


When Meena Kandasamy speaks about the contemporary issues of her native India, she incisively reveals the societal assumptions that assign specific roles to people based on caste or gender. When she turns her attention to the past, she deconstructs the heroes. She uses her poetry like a scalpel to dismantle stereotypes.

In 2009, Kandasamy came to Pittsburgh to read at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert. Since then, Sampsonia Way has followed the career of this 26-year-old poet, translator, and creative writer.

Kandasamy’s work articulates the voice of the Dalits, the people at the lowest rung of India’s ancient caste system. Despite the fact that the Indian constitution abolished this system, the Dalits still face widespread discrimination.

Kandasamy recently finished her second book of poetry, Ms. Militancy to be published by Navayana Press in November. In this collection, she retells Hindu and Tamil myths from a feminist and anti-caste perspective.

In this interview she calls herself “an angry young woman,” attacks academic language, and relates how she has faced harassment from people who feel attacked by her writing.

In a recent interview with Sampsonia Way writer Horacio Horacio Castellanos Moya said, “if you have some kind of sensibility towards injustice, you know what rage is.” Your poems have huge doses of rage. How do you deal with anger when you are writing?

I am an angry young woman. The world has not seen enough of our kind, while we have had plenty of angry young men. Angry young men working among the people are killed early; angry young men becoming artists spend a lifetime in anonymity; and savvy angry young men turn into politicians and all the revolution inside them simply fizzles out.

However, society will not let angry young women exist, we will be labelled hysterics. As women, we are indoctrinated merely to accept our situation and be grateful for all the things we have. As women, we are told that it is bad behavior to be angry, we are told that we have to change ourselves because we cannot change the system. Those of us who refuse to comply are the shrews whom everyone loves to hate.

In all this social conditioning, we tend to forget that anger is only a reaction to something outside of oneself, a reaction to an oppressive system. I write as an angry young woman, even as it requires all my artistic skill to maintain that rage and to let it reflect in my writings.

Why did you choose poetry as your sword against discrimination?

Poetry is not caught up within larger structures that pressure you to adopt a certain set of practices while you present your ideas in the way that academic language is. Despite being an academic myself, I dread academia’s ultra-intellectualizing. Perhaps academic jargon does contribute a lot to philosophy—to late-night conversations in air-conditioned rooms with plenty of red wine and Swiss cheese. I can fake that routine, trust me, I pull it of like a real pro. Sometimes, I even subject myself to that horror for pure, wicked pleasure. But is it the language to speak of the oppressed? Is it the language in which any victim would speak?

However, you are a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics and English literature and recently completed your dissertation. How do you deal with academic language?

I often die a death within myself when I am asked to theorize my struggle and present it to scholars. In my mind, this image plays: I am an abused naked woman, I am through trauma, and I go around with a begging bowl. I am not pleading. I am not even fighting at this stage. I am out there collecting words, fancy words in a foreign tongue that I must reproduce in order to be heard, in order for my circumstance to be understood. The same thing happens when you are working with human rights organizations, with NGOs, and with lobby groups.

What kind of language should be used?

Whether it is the Dalits in India or the Tamils in Sri Lanka, there is immense discrimination, there is daily violence, there are unbearable tragedies. But to get people to hear, to get the international community to even blink in our direction, we have to learn a jargon-laden language that they will understand. We have to use a pacifist language that does not point and blame, a passive language that forces your eyes to become mere video-capture devices, a pointless language of emotionicide, a carefully-constructed language that pushes you into a paralysis. Consequently, we languish as a society.

So, do you see your poetry as the antithesis of this paralysis?

Yes. Poetry, it is raw. It is real. It is full of jagged edges. My poetry is naked, my poetry is in tears, my poetry screams in anger, my poetry writhes in pain. My poetry smells of blood, my poetry salutes sacrifice. My poetry speaks like my people, my poetry speaks for my people.

In the poem “Nailed” you write, “Men are afraid of any woman who makes poetry and dangerous portents.” How have men and members of the other groups you criticize responded to your work?

There are men who take great interest in writing obscene emails to me, but their lack of imagination makes for rather depressing reading. Others say that I am “terrorizing” the caste-Hindus with my writing. Very often I know that this anger is because of the political, anti-caste stand I adopt.

When I wrote an article attacking the anti-Muslim hatred in the novelist V. S. Naipaul’s writings, someone wrote, “Is Meena Kandasamy your pedophile prophet’s preteen wife?” on an internet forum. I bring on extreme emotions in people. I have been called all kinds of names. There are hate-mongers who write to me saying that they will come to my city and finish off my career.

It sounds like criticism has turned into threats.

Increasingly, the criticism has also become personal and malicious as well. There is a new breed of moral police who attack me for my writings. There was a woman who said that I write about my body as a way to garner male-attention and she blamed men who posted comments on my Facebook status updates. Sometimes, hatred can provide a lot of amusement!

Being a writer has made me blind and totally brazen. My family and friends are afraid for me. I have been stalked to my hotel and received anonymous threats. At times like that, I am a little scared. I later console myself and gain confidence with the fact that any physical attack on me will only draw more attention and garner a larger audience for my protest against caste discrimination and other issues.

In your poem “Mohandas Karamchand” you wrote to Gandhi: “Don’t ever act like a holy saint. / we can see through you, impure you. / Remember, how you dealt with your poor wife. / But, they wrote your books, they made your life.” What happened when you published this poem?

I was both cheered and reprimanded. To talk solely about the harassment I faced is to portray only one side of the story. Dalits welcomed the poem, Communists welcomed the poem, Muslims welcomed the poem and, above all, most women appreciated the poem. They could never come to term with Ghandi’s sexual experiments (which included sleeping next to naked young women to ‘test’ his vows of celibacy), or how hard he was on his wife, Kasturba. Gandhi supported the revival of the varnashrama dharma (the caste system’s insistence of people only working in their traditional occupations), and he used techniques of blackmail to prevent Dalits from attaining political autonomy and the right to govern themselves.

Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” influenced me a great deal. When I saw what she had done, I thought, “Well, there’s a figure I would like to take on too.” Even today, it is my most popular (although no longer the most controversial) poem. The best thing about poetry is that it opens up space for discussion, a space for a critical revaluation.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Freedom of speech and expression in India is balanced precariously between the ever-present threat of direct, physical attacks from both security forces and social vigilante groups on the one hand, and the reassurance of protection from higher judicial authorities on the other. But the scales seem tipped in favor of the former.” How would you describe freedom of expression in India?

I am proud of quite a few things about my country. One is its constitution, which enshrines the right to freedom of expression for instance. But, is there a thriving freedom of expression? Of course not.

Films are regularly and brutally censored for their politics. Women poets are attacked when they write about sexuality by the so-called moral police. Tamil leaders are jailed when they speak of the right to self-determination and human rights for their people. The state labels them as “secessionists” and says they are a threat to national integrity. The state routinely criminalizes Muslim, Dalit, and Adivasi [indigenous people of India] leaders because they challenge the oppressive system. Journalists have been taken in for questioning and some end up being killed in ‘fake encounters’ by the state. As Indians, we are not totally shocked because our neighboring countries do much worse.

Look at Sri Lanka for example, it has one of the worst records of assassinating, abducting, incarcerating members of the media or anyone who decides to expose human rights abuses or the genocide of the Tamils. So, as Indians, we perhaps draw comfort from the fact that things are much worse elsewhere even as we fight hard to not to lose freedom of expression.


SUBALTERN SPEAK : Meena Kandasamy


City-based poet, writer and translator Meena Kandasamy lends her voice for the historically oppressed

By Lakshmi Krupa

In urban India, where caste, seemingly, does not interfere with day-to-day activities, many take the life opportunities they are offered for granted, even as caste cripples the lives and careers of a vast majority. It is this realisation that, in a broad sense, led 26-year-old city-based Meena Kandasamy to examine caste from close quarters and lend her voice for the sake of the oppressed. “I come from a very mixed background–almost four different backward castes including a Dalit,: she says, at the beginning of our discussion that lasts a good half hour, even as she traces her own life experiences and brush with political awakening.”My grandparents and my parents had an inter-caste marriage adding eclecticism to my identity,” Meena explains.

From 1997, around the time of Ambedkar’s centennial celebrations, when his thoughts  and writings gained momentum again, Meena’s interest in the subject grew deeper. “The Dalit Panthers were also on the rise when my understanding of Dalit issues was increasing and soon after finishing school, I started edited a bimonthly magazine, The Dalit, that was being brought out by the Tamil Nadu-based Dalit Media Network,” she says. Meena has also translated the works of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party) leader, Thol.Thirumavalavan, including his speeches and books. “I have noticed that the market sells only Dalit first-person accounts on oppression and poetry and there really isn’t much in English that talks about their take on politics and what the thinking Dalit wants, and so I decided to translate Thol’s works,” she adds.

Born to academicians whose “careers staggered because of caste” Meena decided to focus on writing poetry and published her first collection, Touch, in August 2006 and worked for the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka soon after. “I grew up in Chepauk and as a child of the 80s, the Lankan Tamil issue was something I had heard about a lot and was familiar with almost everything that was happening,” she says. In 2007, she wrote a blog post about the death of Tamilselvan adn was then invited by TamilNet, “a newswire service that was independently reporting the war from Lanka” to wrier. Many people from war-torn areas in Sri Lanka would talk about what was really happening on the ground over Skype. I would receive these conversations (in Tamil) from Norway and spend hours translating them to English,” she adds.

Caste is not only self-defeating, Meena observes, but also reflects directly on the control a society exercises over a women’s sexuality. “If the system does not allow a woman to marry a man because he is from another caste, like honour killings for instance, is it not a direct oppression of her sexuality?” she asks. Caste identity, she says, is a double-edged sword in the sense that while it allows her to speak on certain issues boldly as she herself a part of the community, it also shuts the doors in many other areas. “I cannot escape that identity, it is who I am,” she says with a smile and continues, “But sometimes, even in my artistic work, critics look for political meanings while I yearn for a critical acknowledgement for exactly what it stands!”

So is politics on the cards for this youngster? “Never! Now I have the freedom to say what I want without sugar-coating it,” Meena says with a laugh. “But what I would like to see is an intense politicisation of our people; for them to be aware and make demands from governments. When people lack basic sanitation facilities what good will a television set do?” she asks, before signing off.

Dalits look upon English as the language of emancipation


Dalits look upon English as the language of emancipation

Dalit activists argue that English not just opens up job opportunities, but also helps ease the caste and power constraints that come with speaking regional languages

New DelhiI dream of an English full of the words of my English in small letters and English that shall tire a white man’s tongue an English where small children practice with smooth round pebbles in their mouth to spell the right zha.

When Meena Kandasamy wrote these lines, almost like a petition, pleading that her roots be allowed to flourish in English, she was just 18 and fresh from the unusual loss of her poetic name: Ilavenil.

Aspiring for change: Tamil poet Meena Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who look at English as a key to progress.

Aspiring for change: Tamil poet Meena Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who look at English as a key to progress.

The Tamil name meant “spring” but often became the subject of ridicule for the young Dalit poet when many said it sounded like the name of a train. “I winced in horror and wept on my pillows. Within my own state, this name was a clear giveaway of my Tamil origins: it was devoid of Hindu/Brahminic/Sanskrit roots. I wanted a name people could accept,” she recalls.She later adopted her nickname Meena to escape the predicament, and in response to any question posed to her in Tamil, she spoke in English. “I want this new tongue to accept me. I expect it to appreciate my sensibilities, admire my culture and, above all, be accommodating,” she says.

Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who are rooting for English, arguing what was once a language of imperial power is now a language of emancipation.

Though a borrowed language, she says, English earned her recognition. Poems in Kandasamy’s first book Touch, written in English and published in 2006, have been translated into five languages. “It doesn’t operate with the Dalits alone. English takes your voice to a larger level and helps in your search for solidarity…(with) like-minded people, people who want change.”

Kandasamy’s engagement is part of an emerging struggle in the journey of English in India: the Dalit aspiration for progress and a growing demand for schools teaching the language.

In Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, a massive English training project is under way. A seven-month-old programme designed by the British Council under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a flagship programme to put every child in school, is training teachers in government-funded schools to teach communicative English better. The real beneficiaries, says Alison Barrett, head of the council’s Project English for State Partnerships, are children from marginalized sections who attend such schools.

Also Read Previous parts of the series

“English is a way of accessing socio-economic advancement. English, in this country, means a language of power, and if you don’t give them English, they cannot access power structures and effect changes in socio-economic policies,” says Barrett.

To listen linguist and author of ‘Indian English’, Pingali Sailaja, talk about Indian English, its characteristics and structure

(Download here)

In Tamil Nadu, where a strong Dravidian movement in the early decades of the 20th century thwarted the Union government’s plans to impose Hindi as the country’s official language, the English Project has brought within its fold 125,000 primary school teachers and five million children in a short span of seven months.

Thiru. S. Kannappan, SSA’s joint director in Tamil Nadu, who is involved in planning, implementation and monitoring, says the project came at just the right time, when learning levels in the language in state-run schools were ebbing—only around 22% children in the schools in Tamil Nadu can read easy sentences, a recent report by education activist group Pratham says.

Dalit activists argue that English not just opens up job opportunities, but also helps ease the caste and power constraints that come with speaking regional languages.

Far away from Tamil Nadu, in Uttar Pradesh, Dalit thinker and author Chandrabhan now calls for the worship of the English goddess—a symbol of Dalit emancipation.

“Not only is the English language spoken everywhere in the world, respected by the people of all the nations and easily learnt, but the people of the English nation are also impartial and unbiased—and to whichever nation they go, they do not indulge in the base acts of casteism or communalism,” says Prasad, who declared 25 October as English Day in a ceremony in New Delhi last year, coinciding with the birthday of T.B. Macaulay, the British administrator who introduced English education in the country.

“English can fill the gap,” says Alka Gupta, founder of the British Academy for English Language in New Delhi. “It is like Bisleri water—you may go for anything to eat but you do need water. Whatever be your personal qualification, you can’t go far without English.”

This is the concluding part of the series

By Pallavi Singh