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.
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.