When I arrived in the United States in 1984, an Indian graduate student wanting to study African-American history, I was an anomaly. Most of my fellow South Asians were in STEM doctoral programs. During the Reagan years, I supported the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the Democratic Socialists of America in their attempt to push the Democratic Party and the United States to the left. StilI, I could have ill-imagined that one day an African-American man would become the president or that a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent would be a candidate for the vice presidency.
After graduation, I interviewed across the country for positions in early American history. I was asked over and over again why, as an Indian woman, I chose to study the history of slavery and the Civil War. Usually, I described the connections between Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha, the struggle for truth, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s version of nonviolent resistance. The one interview where no one asked me that question was for a position in African-American Studies. I took that job.
Black Americans do not need to be told about the long relationship between the Black struggle for freedom and decolonization in Asia and Africa. As the Rev. James Lawson, the leading civil rights strategist of nonviolence, now 91, said at the funeral of Representative John Lewis, whom he mentored in Nashville, the civil rights movement was really “the nonviolent movement of America.” Reverend Lawson and his fellow activists set out to demonstrate, as he put it, “the efficacy of satyagraha, of soul force, of love truth, that we would have to do it in Nashville. And so I planned, as the strategist and organizer, a four-point Gandhian strategic program to create the campaign.” Nonviolent protest, personified by Gandhi and Dr. King, has deep roots in the abolition movement, specifically the pacifist ideas of William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.” They influenced Leo Tolstoy, who in turn influenced Gandhi. What goes around comes around.
When Barack Obama became president, I also stopped explaining my name to strangers. When asked which historical figure living or dead he would like to have dinner with, Mr. Obama said, “You know, I think it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine.” I, like millions of Americans, especially African-Americans, immigrants and other people of color, felt, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, that “we were eight years in power.” After the shock of Mr. Trump’s ascendance, the rise to national prominence of Kamala Harris, only the second Black woman to be elected to the Senate, has been therapeutic for me.