February is Black History Month in the United States. It originated in 1926 with the efforts of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and the minister Jesse E. Moorland.
Black History Month started as a week-long commemoration of the history of and accomplishments by African-Americans and peoples of African descent. It was held during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
This week-long commemoration evolved into a full month, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognised Black History Month, telling the public “to seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”
South Asians have a lot to learn from African-American history, including during Black History Month. The history of African-Americans in the United States has directly impacted the lives, struggles, and resistance of South Asian-Americans. Moreover, South Asian and African-American communities have meaningfully collaborated and allied with one another to fight oppression.
Despite this history of collaboration, the reality remains that South Asians continue to perpetuate anti-Black racism (also called anti-blackness) against African-Americans and peoples of African descent, both in the United States and in South Asia.
Black History Month and African-American history more broadly are relevant to South Asian communities. The racism that both communities suffer has a common origin: white supremacy.
South Asian-Americans and African-Americans both live in a country that was founded on preserving white supremacy, through the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, racial segregation, and restrictions on immigration and xenophobic policies. Furthermore, South Asians and peoples of African descent have both suffered through colonialism.
In the United States, African-Americans have long been perceived as being more criminal or dangerous than other people.After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, South Asian-Americans have also come under suspicion and are treated as criminals even when they have not committed any crimes.
The intersection between the treatment of African-Americans and South Asian-Americans was highlighted in the case of Sureshbhai Patel. Mr. Patel, an Indian grandfather, was brutally assaulted by two police officers in an Alabama suburb in 2016. He was walking outside his son’s home, when a neighbour thought he looked suspicious and called the police.
The police officers arrived on the scene and later claimed that Mr. Patel would not answer their questions although Mr. Patel claimed that he had told them he did not speak English. The police officers then assaulted Mr. Patel resulting in him being seriously injured.
At first, this incident seems like a straightforward case of anti-South Asian racism. However, it was later revealed that the neighbour who called the police did so because he thought Mr. Patel was a Black man.
The incident reflects not only anti-South Asian racism but also anti-Black racism. It reinforces the fact that African-Americans are immediately considered suspicious and criminal, even when the person in question is simply walking down the street.
But the incident emphasises something else: Mr. Patel could not speak English and was considered uncommunicative by the police officers, which led them to assault him.
His status as a non-English speaking immigrant intersected with the fact that the neighbour who called the police thought he was African-American.
The result was that he was brutally assaulted. In this way, the oppression that African-Americans and South Asians face is often not only similar but also can be part of the same incident.
Black History Month is also relevant to South Asians because many South Asians are Muslim, just like many African-Americans. In fact, the history of Islam in the United States can be traced through the history of African-Americans Muslims.
African Muslims were in North America at least as far back as the 1500s. In 1522, a group of people including enslaved West African Muslims led a revolt against Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego.
Throughout American history, many slaves in the United States were Muslim. Even after slavery was abolished, Black Muslims continued to shape US history and participate in American life.
For example, in the 1920s, P. Nathaniel Johnson, who changed his name to Ahmad Din, was the leader of an integrated mosque in St. Louis. And of course, figures like Malcolm X and organisations like the Nation of Islam significantly shaped the Civil Rights Movement.
For South Asian Muslims, this aspect of Black History is also our history as Muslims. Non-African-American Muslims in this country can live and thrive here largely due to the efforts of Black Muslims, who were the earliest Muslims in America and who have continued being active and vocal in support of Islam, human rights, and civil rights.
South Asians, Muslim or not, should also care about Black History and about standing in solidarity with African-Americans because that is a part of our history. African-American and South Asian collaboration and solidarity has existed for a long time.
For example, African-American figures in the United States provided assistance during India’s fight against colonialism and for independence. In 1942, the African-American press covered resistance movements in India. Moreover, the famous American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin organised the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Free India Committee in 1945, and he even visited South Asia during this time.
South Asians showed solidarity to African-Americans as well. For example, Ram Manohar Lohia, an Indian political leader, spoke out against Jim Crow laws and went to jail in Mississippi after participating in civil disobedience to oppose segregation.
These examples of solidarity between African-Americans and South Asians are very important. But it is equally important to remember that South Asians have perpetuated anti-blackness in our communities for a long time.
The colourism that is endemic in our cultures is reflected through our fear of dark skin and our attempts to lighten our skin as much as possible, through the use of creams like Fair and Lovely.
Many South Asians both in the United States and in South Asia use terms like “kala” to derogatorily refer to African-Americans and peoples of African descent. We perpetuate false and racist beliefs about African-Americans being more likely to be criminals.
Many South Asians use the n-word and other racist terms. South Asians also co-opt aspects of Black culture, including music, dress, and African-American Vernacular English, without giving any credit to African-Americans or without reflecting on their own co-optation and cultural appropriation.
During this Black History Month (as well as every other month), South Asians should reflect on their own contributions to anti-Black racism and should take concrete actions to combat such racism in our communities.
We should remember the rich history of solidarity that we have with African-Americans and the importance of the accomplishments of African-Americans to the history of the United States. We should also strive to fight the oppression that African-Americans face and stand in solidarity with them without co-opting or appropriating their struggles.
In order to do so, we must have difficult conversations with our family members and friends about their anti-blackness and stereotypical beliefs. We should take the time to learn more about Black history and educate others in our communities.
We should also attend meetings and protests and provide financial resources to the extent that it is possible to African-American-led organisations that are standing against human rights violations of African-Americans. This month, let us all commit to combating our own anti-blackness and supporting African-Americans in their struggles for justice.