Were segregationist USA and British India empires in any sense equivalent? And, with enough in common between them to be viewed in juxtaposition? Gerald Horne’s case, in this slender but revelatory narrative, goes beyond establishing likenesses between the Jim Crow regime and John Bull’s raj. What he retrieves is a history of sustained mutual awareness, influence, interaction and solidarity between the two subject peoples in question: African Americans and Indians. This is political history from below, in more ways than one. It foregrounds the subjects of empire and views the great imperial machine in light of the struggles against it. In doing so, it also privileges the empiricism of historical experience in its own right, over abstract theoretical models, letting voices from the time define the terms of reference. Therefore, to answer the two questions posed at the outset, Gerald Horne contends that in the eyes of the subject peoples, white rule in India and the USA was indeed comparable and frequently juxtaposed.
And so, to no small extent, were the struggles against it. Racism, the obvious defining principle of white rule, was enough by itself to provoke fellow feeling among the oppressed. The systematic discrimination suffered by African Americans and Indians had not only a common pedigree, proceeding from colonial Britain, but common dimensions in practice: forced emigration and traffic in people (whether as slaves or indentured workers), systems of inequitable laws, segregation in living and access to public facilities, racist stereotyping—with remarkably similar representations (the dirty, indolent, unpunctual, lustful, philoprogenitive, wildly irrational black)—the expectation of continual deference to white authority, even in its lowliest manifestations; all of this to the accompaniment of pious formulations about democracy, rights and principles. Another shared factor in the background was the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity of the African American and Indian communities, within themselves. Subsumed within the term ‘Negro’ were people from many worlds, far apart. They included East Africans (many of them with Indian forbears) and others from the western edge of the continent, Caribbeans whose individual African origins could lie deep within a lost past, recent immigrants from South America, mulattoes from all of these locations (and then some). Moreover, neither Indians nor Africans had previously regarded themselves as people of colour.
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