Letters to a Desi Radical (in the Making): Review of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today by Vijay Prashad
My first encounter with Vijay Prashad came in Austin, Texas. He was speaking at a symposium on some of the ideas that ended up in his book Karma of Brown Folk. With a number of other students I was to meet him the next day for coffee. As I found a seat at the talk I noticed someone walking around selling copies of Samar magazine – a publication I knew well, that was founded in Austin before the move to New York. So it came as a surprise to find someone selling the magazine that I didn’t know, much less one of the guest speakers. This is how I got to know Vijay – always with a DIY spirit and excited to spread good ideas. And that’s also how Karma of Brown Folk felt: a bit of the polemics of punk and a good dose of learned analysis. At the time, it was a source to think through positions of the South Asian left in North America, and more importantly a call to action. So it’s no surprise that a blurb on his new book Uncle Swami from Heems of the hip hop group Das Racist evokes this sentiment. Along with some of the more heated critiques of desi history, Karma of Brown Folk examined a radical history of South Asian movement and migration. In this slim volume were ideas passed on, shared, and debated that became an important signpost of the emerging work on the South Asian diaspora. There was M. Night Shyamalan, Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, the poetry of Meena Alexander, Asian Dub Foundation, and the inimitable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Those were heady times with lots to discuss. A dizzying array of references came to define that moment. Over a decade later, the political context has certainly changed but perhaps the conversation hasn’t.
Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today comes at a time of needed reflection. It’s a sequel of sorts to Karma of Brown Folk in terms of the primary audience. Gone is the urgent tone and perhaps youthful spirit, replaced with an elegant call, nonetheless, for action. Prashad’s critique begins by paying homage to the great writer Saadat Hasan Manto and his Letters to Uncle Sam, a fierce and serious indictment of the US relationship to Pakistan. In Prashad’s version, Uncle Swami is a set of chapters-as-epistles laying out the continuing stakes of struggle. The choice facing desis is much the same as it was at the beginning of the 21st century. In the Preface, Prashad writes: “Our politics – the politics of solidarity, of well-being, and of consideration – asks us to recognize that our so-called adversaries are themselves angry not for inherent or cultural reasons but because they too are survivors in the world of economic insecurity and of fear. It asks us to experiment with whatever intellectual and practical resources we have to produce a new foundation for life. Everybody dies, but not everybody lives. Everybody has to have a chance to live.” With the simple yet profound dictum at the end of this passage, Prashad provides a clear goal of the political struggle over equality. It’s about the chances. Whereas political conservatives would have us believe we are all the authors of our own futures, this impossible syllogism denies the strictures and boundaries of the world.
The reminder that guides much of Uncle Swami is the accomplishment of multiculturalism. A victory instigated by the liberal left that had no guarantees of political commitment. Indeed, the most immediate gains of such changes are to those who don’t necessarily identify with progressive causes. The transformation of the glass ceiling that kept people of color out of positions of influence meant a shift in social structure for some, has in large part also maintained and perhaps contributed to the worsening of economic structures that keep certain populations at the bottom. The contemporary beneficiaries of multiculturalism are conservatives of color, a result of pragmatic decisions to politically embrace diversity and appeal to a base far different from the communities such politicians come from. Prashad is correct to note that in the example of desi politicians such as Bobby Jindal, the platform they represent hardly speaks to issues of importance to South Asians but rather are the result of pandering to an agenda dictated by white conservatives. And even as the politics of desis in America tend to appear to veer toward conservatism, this is certainly not the whole story. While the turn to the narrow politics of the Republican agenda is lamentable, this entrance into the American political sphere perhaps will open up more avenues for those interested in progressive and left politics drawn from the long history of grassroots and social justice organizing (for example in neighboring Canada desis are far more involved in left leadership).
But the question of status quo and privilege does linger. Do desis want to continue in the admirable and just traditions of a Gandhian ethics that call for redistribution and struggle on the behalf of the poor, or is the future a climb on the ladder of social mobility toward neoliberal practices of exploitation and accumulation? Here lies a central and fundamental tenet of Prashad’s argument: with the acceptance of multiculturalism and claims to identity, South Asians in America are selective of their cultural traditions that originate in the subcontinent. The resurgence of religious and cultural practices focuses on narrow interests of individual advancement and personal wealth while foregoing the lessons of ethical responsibility and concern for those most in need. Such concern goes beyond immediate notions of community and requires models of collectivity that understand how violence and unequal forms of distribution affect those outside of individual purview.
This choice in political position is framed by the continuing dominance of white supremacy in American history. Far from the historical past, the reality is that in the United States antiblack racism continues as the dominant violence of our time. Certainly, desis face discrimination, a prejudice that has shifted to encompass anti-Muslim racism. Such is the shape of an American empire that maintains domestic inequality through global migration and bases its imperial ambitions in wars defined by race, color, and the hierarchies of American society.
Much has shifted in the growing fervor of political thought that has emboldened so many to join social movements and left struggle over the last 15 years. From the antiglobalization struggles of the late 1990s, the rise of direct action, to the anti-war movement opposing the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the monumental Immigrant Rights movement, and to the more recent Occupy movement and Arab Spring (Prashad’s recent Arab Spring, Libyan Winter is an excellent analysis of the latter), the future of many of these growing struggles lies in a relationship to antiracism. The success of these movements lies an old lesson of US struggles for liberation and freedom. The ability to build broad coalitions of diverse peoples that widely include people of color will determine the future of how ethical and moral arguments are sustained in favor of building new economic and social models that work against dispossession and suffering.
The complicity in black suffering, though, requires an elaborate historical and comparative analysis that begins with the ability to understand how the War on Terror racialized South Asians as Muslims. Such a racism affects all desis who are read as ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim.’ Yet non-Muslim desis are more apt to simply disclaim an affiliation to Islam over a complete repudiation of this racist logic. To even make a claim to the concept of racism is to align oneself with people of color (alongside black struggles) and antiracism, a position that undermines efforts toward the privilege of economic whiteness that many would rather aspire alongside the ensuing blindness to racial stratification. In the DuBoisian sprit of critical engagement, the imperative facing desis is to join the work of antiracist struggle that undoes the profound and disturbing forces that continue to reinforce dispossession and human suffering not only in the United States but across the globe.
Simultaneously, there is a clear class structure of the diaspora that Prashad describes in Karma of Brown Folk and continues to outline in Uncle Swami. The reality for those in South Asia is that many of the poorest are left behind though outmigration. Some modicum of resources and social networks are required to go abroad, access that is unavailable to the lowest rungs of the social ladders of the subcontinent. Historical processes have further chosen certain groups of people more than others. In the US, state-selection chooses professional classes that are destined to assimilate as a quiescent American middle class, while social structures in South Asian countries also craft the possibilities for migration based on access to particular resources. This social engineering creates the appearance of a well-to-do middle class that can achieve anything through hard work and perseverance thus perpetuating the myth of the model minority. Such is the trick of multiculturalism that a legal statute that allows those to immigrate to the United States based on professional, educated, and middle class status makes invisible those who do not fit this profile. After the 1965 waves of US migration, the practice of family unification created diverse class structures in which the desi working poor became a significant and vulnerable population. This is important to note in relation to the affect of anti-Muslim racism on the lower tiers of this class structure. It is precisely here that the greatest brunt of adversity is seen in the desi diaspora because of their invisibility and susceptibility to deportation, state violence, and everyday racism.
Uncle Swami is a book for us to take the lessons of Prashad’s superb analysis and build a new future. It is a moral indictment of the start of the 21st century that beckons us to work toward a better world. Through spectacular acts, solidarities, commitments, and the thirst so many have to do what is right, not just the notion of right for a few, but the moral imperative to demand better for those beyond your immediate sphere in collective struggle. There is a heart ticking in this book, one that beats to the drum of social justice and a call to make a change. This is required reading for a new generation of desis to take on the world.