Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.
A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?
“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”
In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste.
Wilkerson defines caste as an “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.” “To recalibrate how we see ourselves,” she exchanges racial terms for caste-related ones, such as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower caste.” Extensively narrating interpersonal “scenes of caste” throughout the book, Wilkerson’s “caste” discontents are mapped almost exclusively in the realm of attitudes, imaginations, ideologies, prejudices, and microaggressions—and outside the mutually constituting realms of historical, material, and geo-political power.
In our world of unclotting wounds, Caste seemingly offers its “race-as-skin-deep” analysis as a kind of Balm in Gilead. If we are all bound by caste, instead of race and anti-Blackness, then it is easier to believe in our ability to overcome caste—to create, as the epilogue’s title suggests, “a world without caste.”
What would it mean to rethink race as caste in the global context? History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.
Wilkerson’s book joins a tradition, mainly from the early twentieth century, of scholarship that challenged race’s preeminence by arguing that caste was a more useful analytic. Other kinds of challenges to the sociological reliance on race—for example, by Marxist scholars such as sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox—have often critiqued the use of both race and caste, naming class instead as the central antagonism. Few, though, have set aside race as completely as Wilkerson.
The tradition of Black Marxist scholarship—an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition—also gives us tools to be skeptical of Wilkerson’s refusal to name capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism in Caste’s world-historical analysis. For example, South Africa’s apartheid economy compelled its Marxist scholars, such as Neville Alexander, to realize the centrality of race and theorize “racial capitalism” before it was popularized by Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson. To its proponents, the term “racial capitalism” itself has always been tautological: When has capitalism not been racial or racializing? What is capitalism if not a system sorting who is most fit for suffering, exploitation, and extraction?
All this points to a critical question which should lie at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?
Consider this: Caste was published exactly one week before Namibia officially rejected a nearly 12 million dollar offer that Germany had made in compensation for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples over a century ago. Namibia, the former Southern African apartheid colony, was the site of Germany’s first twentieth-century holocaust during their 1904–1908 colonial war. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum was insulting, but also because Germany, Caste’s exemplar for a society that has overcome “caste” systems, has refused to apologize, having only recently even named the murder of close to 100,000 Herero and Nama people a genocide. Adding insult to injury, Germany refuses to name the offer as reparations—instead calling it “compensation” aimed at “healing the wounds.”
This, too, raises questions about Caste and its implications: If reparations by another name are not reparations, what is the cost of a name? In the long durée of “wounds,” what is the cost of the refusal to name?
The ongoing refusal of “post”-Nazi Germany—not only the book’s, but the world’s exemplar for historical reckoning and reconciliation—to name, repent for, and repair its sins against Black people within its national and imperial borders forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, and anti-Blackness: Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world.
Caste has been critiqued before in these pages for its analysis of the United States. Here I focus on what it would mean to take up Wilkerson’s project and rethink race as caste in the global context. History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.
In the book Wilkerson briefly interrogates some of the religio-mythical underpinnings of caste. However, her world-historical analysis largely frames Indian caste systems as untransformed across time and space by internal and external forces, such as the many racializing forces of Empire—trade, capital, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, indenture, and Aryan racial theory. Meanwhile, her analysis of contemporary Indian caste relations is framed by personal observations and interactions with Indian scholars of different castes at several academic conferences that she attended. Without naming global structural forces, caste appears fixed in this analysis—a timeless, ahistorical force. However, caste, like race, is both a historical and a social construct.
In Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil.
Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that a book intended to confront the modern discontents of race without naming “race” will fail to address how India’s peoples have been racialized by the same world-historical forces that “discovered” and transformed the New World. There is no New World without India and no India, as we now know it, without the New World.
Yet, in Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil. In this analysis U.S. slavery transforms over the centuries unaffected by the rupture that, following Carribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s work, we can call the New Worlding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the true genesis of our racial discontents. Whereas Wilkerson names 1619—the year when nineteen enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—as the origin of our discontents, Wynter locates 1492—the year Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his failed quest to India—as the genesis of “A New World View.” This was a new view of “new” lands demanding new dehumanizing labor regimes under Transoceanic Empire’s racial capitalism. Kenyan scholar K’eguro Macharia writes of the rupture created by these new regimes of racialized capital:
New World blackness speaks not only to the blackness forged in—and on the way to—the Americas, but also to the blackness produced through the worlding of 1492. . . . To be more explicit: Africa does not—cannot—escape this (new) worlding. Blackness names, in part, the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora.
Wilkerson ignores this Black suture between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. When a Nigerian-born playwright informs her that, “there are no black people in Africa. . . . Africans are not black. . . [t]hey don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she uncritically agrees. As a Black person born in “post”-independence Zimbabwe and raised in “post”-apartheid South Africa, I did not need the United States or the United Kingdom in order to be aware of my Blackness. Both Wilkerson and her Nigerian counterpart fail to see that, conscious of it or not, no Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.
No Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.
In the process of New Worlding, the advent of Blackness as bounded with slave-ness—which is to say, Blackness as unbounded from claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—began with the twinned dawn of Transatlantic Slavery and Modernity. This relationship is continually reinscribed by the “second coming[s]” of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid, and their mutations in the “post”-modern world—neo-colonialism, “the New Jim Crow,” the Mediterranean crisis, and the contemporary enslavement of Africans in North Africa.
In the rupture of New Worlding, Blackness is the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. This suture creates reverberating chambers where we are continually blackened by each other’s sufferings. Just as all of us were blackened by the Transatlantic slave trade, we were blackened again by the Scramble for Africa and with it, Germany’s Herero and Nama Holocaust.
Caste, ignoring this historic Black suture, does not include the Herero and Nama genocide in its analysis of Germany. Instead, it uses the Third Reich’s reign as an anchoring timeframe for Germany’s sins, highlighting Nuremberg, reparations, and the public attention to Holocaust history as examples of racial overcoming in “post”-Nazi Germany. Silent on the resurgence of Holocaust-denying and anti-immigrant German right-wing extremism that led to the 2019 Halle Synagogue attack, the book insists that, “to imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany.”
Surely, we need more than this—“post”-Nazi Germany cannot be held as the exemplar for overcoming race or caste systems. We must instead look at the history of the world.
Anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences has consoled and cohered all nationalisms and nation states.
When we map the history of the modern world and mark time by Black lynchings—spanning from the Arab, Transatlantic, and Indian Ocean slave trades to the apartheid government sponsored intra-Black violence and massacres that marked South Africa’s “democratic transition” to the “Rainbow Nation”; from “post”-apartheid South Africa’s recurring violence against Black “foreign nationals” to the country’s 2012 Marikana massacre; from the Nigerian government’s massacre of citizens protesting the brutality of the SARS police unit to the present-day enslavement of Africans in North Africa; from the Mediterranean crisis to China’s 1988–1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests; from India’s recurrent attacks on its African students to Chinese corporations’ human rights abuses on the African continent; all the way through to Southern China’s denial of medical treatment to African migrants in the wake of the global Sinophobic COVID-19 backlash—we find that anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences consoles and coheres all nationalisms and nation states.
Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. When we mark modernity’s time by Black lynchings, there is no “historical progress.” Instead, world-historic lynch-time continually returns us to the Nadir.
If, in this Nadir, 2042 is the spectral wound of the United States, then Southern Africa is its lodestar. Southern Africa in the Nadir, at the dawn of what I call Apartheid Modernity, offers itself as a historic limit case in which Indian caste and race politics intersected with German genocidal eugenics and rising Jim Crow style “separate development” policies. Southern Africa is a world-historic limit case of race, caste, and class entanglements on which we can test the durability of Wilkerson’s caste thesis. When we shift the axis of Caste’s world-historical analysis here, to Southern Africa, it cannot hold under the weight of Apartheid Modernity.
In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith remarked that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”
Just as there is no India as we know it without the New World, there is no India as we know it without the Southern tip of Africa. On his “Voyage of Discovery,” Vasco da Gama opened a new route to India by circumnavigating the Southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good of Hope. The very Natal colony that transformed “Mohandas to a Mahatma” had been so christened by a reverent da Gama as his ships skirted its treacherous coast over Christmas of 1497. “The birth of Christ” coincided with the birth of Transoceanic Empire and, with it, the birth of Transatlantic Slavery.
When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa with Gandhi, it had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands.
Centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, imperial expansion succeeded Transatlantic Slavery. New forms of imperialism across the Black Atlantic mirrored African Americans’ post-Reconstruction suffering in what I call the the Transatlantic Nadir. Following the 1815 Paris Treaty’s prohibition of slavery, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a widespread transition from slavery to subjecthood throughout the British and French Empires. The Transatlantic Nadir began in Jamaica, where Black people were brutally massacred for revolting against post-emancipation injustice and poverty in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion. This portended a “backlash” to British imperial reconstruction. Several stunning reversals in the “post”-slavery status of Black people followed Morant Bay, including the “backlash” to U.S. Reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, the Southern African minerals revolution, the end of the civilizing mission in favor of the rule of law and order after the Indian Mutiny, the rise of eugenicist scientific racism, and the Herero and Nama genocide, the first holocaust of the twentieth century.
The advent of the Transatlantic Nadir portended the rise of Apartheid Modernity—twentieth-century “modernity’s ignoble paradox” of “progress” propelled by the “post”-slavery world’s anti-Black regimes of racial hierarchy, labor, violence, and genocide based on the “separate development” of citizen and subject races. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gilded Age”—of extractive racial capitalism, unprecedented material excess, untrammeled pursuit of profit and imperial expansion, and industrial and technological advancements symbolized by the telegram and the train—was secured by coercive labor and governing regimes. These regimes reinscribed Blackness with slave-ness: that is, they seized any claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—let alone citizenship. In other words, Apartheid Modernity’s train was mechanized by the “ignoble paradox” that Cornel West theorized and Dambudzo Marechera poeticized, writing, “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.”
During that Nadir, Mahatma Gandhi crossed the Kala Pani, the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi arrived in Durban, the South African port that would become “the largest Indian city outside of India,” as a “passenger Indian” thirty-three years after the Truro arrived from Madras in 1860 with the first 342 Indian indentured laborers. Indian people had been indentured across South Africa’s Natal colony, East Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean, and the Mascerene Islands since the early nineteenth-century abolition of slavery across the British and French Empires. Those first making the passage to the British colony of Natal were primarily Hindu, from India’s low to middle castes. However, the indentured often gave false information. Sometimes they gave a lower caste because colonial authorities did not want Brahmins and Muslims; other times, a higher caste to improve their social status.
The Kala Pani crossing molded caste along new contours. On the ship forced intimacy made it impossible to respect caste, as migrants of different castes had to eat and sleep together. Once on land the colliding approaches of the “free” and indentured migrants, and the settler colonial authorities who saw them as “all coolies,” remapped caste along regional contours. These remolded categories were reinscribed with color and physical traits; Kalkatia reflected the “fair” Aryan north of India and Madrasi, the “dark” Dravidian south.
The relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent.
When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa in that Nadir, it also had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands. Since the arrival of Indian indentured laborers in a settler state increasingly bent on the “separate development” of races, the relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent. This is marked by lows, such as the conservative anti-Black racial politics of the Gandhi-led Natal Indian Congress (NIC) (the colony’s first Indian nationalist political organization) and the resurgence of the “Indian question” in post-apartheid politics. It is also marked by highs, such as the 1955 Congress of the People, the 1970s and ’80s Black Consciousness Movement’s radical solidarity politics, and the widespread rejection of the 1983–1994 Tricameral Parliament’s exclusion of the country’s Black “non-citizens.”
The Gandhian era of South African Indian politics marked a significant low point in this history, representing its own Nadir between Black and Indian people. Between 1893 and 1914, as historian Jon Soske concedes in Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa (2017), the “South African Gandhi” helped cement a conservative tradition of Indian diasporic politics reliant on a rhetoric of Indian civilizational superiority vis-à-vis African inferiority.
In 1894 Gandhi founded the NIC after being infamously discriminated against on a train in South Africa. Days into his arrival, he was thrown off a train when a white man complained about sharing his first-class compartment with a “coloured man.” This train incident, in Gandhi’s words, “sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Just days before Gandhi had discovered that, in the South African settler colony, “all Indians were called ‘coolies.’” On that train, icon of Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi, a conservative Gujurati Bania, came to see the need for a unified Indian racial nationalism that could encompass—without subverting—caste and class, region and religion, and motherland and diaspora. Yet, even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.
Even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.
Indeed, one of the first major political acts of Gandhi’s NIC was to press against the Durban Post Office’s two separate entrances for “Europeans” and “natives and Asiatics.” The NIC did not want “natives” and “Asiatics” grouped together—they wanted three separate entrances. In The Green Pamphlet (1895) Gandhi explained, “We felt the indignity too much and . . . petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances.” In this appeal to the Indian public, detailing the grievances of “Her Majesty’s Indian subjects” laboring in South Africa, Gandhi decried the fact that “Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa—Kaffir races.”
When caste and Gandhi traveled into the southernmost tip of Africa, they were transformed by the race-making pressures that erupted into the 1899–1902 South African War, fought between Boer and Briton over the world’s richest store of minerals. Southern Africa’s minerals revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866. The minerals revolution then accelerated twenty years later, when 40 percent of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand at a moment when gold had just recently become the foundation of the global economic system. This discovery exploded into one of the world’s most dramatic industrial and social transformations, and a crisis for British imperialism during the South African War. It was in this moment of imperial crisis that Gandhi’s struggle to obtain rights for Indians as British subjects found the perfect stage. Through service in the South African War already, Gandhi reasoned, Indian subjects had “put their shoulders to the wheel” and “drawn forth the admiration of the violent Colonials who, for the first time then, saw the good trait in the Indian.”
Gandhi was unmoved by the suffering of the 120,000 Black people who were caged in concentration camps during the South African War, and the fates of the 20,000 who died there. Rather, his racially impaired witness of the world’s first concentration camps provided the vision for his philosophy of principled suffering, Satyagraha. Gandhi’s anti-Black vision ensured that only the suffering of Afrikaner women and children was visible in his moral witness.
Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance.
In contrast, Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance. Indeed, the war became the major impetus for the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. The instigators of the Pan-African Conference were Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian barrister who became the first Black person to be called to the South African bar, and Alice Victoria Kinloch, the South African activist who was known in British circles for her impassioned protests against the Black suffering she had witnessed while living on Kimberly’s diamond fields. The Conference convened, in part, over “the compound system in vogue in the mining district of South Africa” and culminated in a petition for Queen Victoria to intervene in the suffering of her Black “subjects” in British South Africa. Attendees of the conference knew that the South African War was a crucible—Queen Victoria’s response to South Africa’s “native question” and the plight of her imperial subjects would ripple across the “post”-slavery Empire and beyond. If Britain—the vanguard of the liberal abolitionist movement, the refuge for African Americans before and after the U.S. Civil War, the purveyors of Cape’s qualified non-racial franchise, and the presumed protector and progenitor of Black freedoms—chose to betray its promise of imperial citizenship and endorse segregation in South Africa, formerly enslaved Black people would be reinscribed as non-citizens across the world.
Accordingly, despite the fact that no South Africans could attend the Pan African Conference, at least half of the presentations referred to the “South African question.” In his address on the question—“Organised Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race their Battlefield”—the Dominican lawyer George James Christian drew a Transatlantic line between Africans who “were stolen from their native shores in the 16th century and were now jostled out of their lands.” He concluded, “What was this if not the revival of slavery?”
Indeed, across Southern Africa, Black miners were referred to as chibaro, or slave labor. The Pan-Africanists understood and felt the Black suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. The “revival of slavery” at the Southern tip of Africa at the turn of the twentieth century threatened to reinscribe the status of all free Black peoples with slave-ness, denying any claim to citizenship in the “post”-emancipation world. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the notable attendees of the Conference. Du Bois and his colleagues debated the South African “native question” and the American “negro question” alongside issues such as the corvée and the Belgian Congo. The Pan-Africanists concluded by prophesying the advent of Apartheid Modernity in their “Address to the Nations of the World,” declaring that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”
Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War.
In the end, British victory in the South African War extended the global color line and plunged the world further into the Transatlantic Nadir. “Free” Black people could not be incorporated as citizens in “post”-slavery Empire. Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War. In the House of Commons, British Parliamentarians cited Reconstruction’s supposedly failed “negro rule” of the multiracial U.S. South as they passed the 1909 South Africa Act that offered Black citizenship as the sacrifice for a unified white laager. Just as African Americans had paid a price for white reconciliation in the United States after Reconstruction, Black South Africans paid, too.
In the post-war years, much of the Union of South Africa’s “separate development” found inspiration and assistance from the post-war U.S. South’s “seperate but equal” regime. The Union of South Africa’s 1910 constitution was based, in part, on the Jim Crow South; the “grand architect of apartheid,” Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, was widely known as an “expert in American social science” and “social welfare systems”; and the Carnegie Corporation collaborated with the Verwoerd’s Stellenbosch University and the Dutch Reformed Church on the 1932 Commission on the Poor White Problem in South Africa, which provided the blueprint for the official institution of Grand Apartheid in 1948. Across the Atlantic, apartheid was the cost of national reconciliation between warring whites.
On the train to Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi was concerned that Indian people would be classed with the “raw Kaffir.” In 1906 the Bambatha Uprising, the last armed resistance against settler rule for decades, broke out in Natal over the poll taxes press ganging Zulu people into the colonial labor market. Gandhi, who railed against taxes on Indian people, recruited his people to serve as stretcher-bearers for the British Empire’s defense, just as he had done during the South African War. Clearly his investments in Empire had not dissipated; Gandhi was still actively fighting against the interests of his fellow colonized Black people so as not to be “dragged down” to their level in Empire’s racial hierarchy.
Considered the jewel of the British Empire, India did occupy a privileged position in the hierarchy of imperial possessions. “In geopolitical terms,” historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed write in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015), “Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into.” Gandhi would have been pleased to know that, in 1903, a British Indian Civil Service official told a Natal government delegation that “the Indian is not on a level with the kafir; he belongs to a higher class. The Indian trader is almost as advanced as ourselves.”
Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste.
Gandhi and the NIC’s disavowal of Black people was not unique across the British Empire’s Indian diaspora. As Desai and Vehad demonstrate, Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste. Like many other members of South Asia’s political elite, who used British Orientalist thinking in the formation of new nationalist and Hindu identities, Gandhi marshaled an Indo-Aryan racial history. This was an attempt to forge, in his own words, an “imperial brotherhood” between the “Western and Eastern branches” of civilization to the exclusion of “lesser” Black peoples.
A few years before Gandhi’s indignation at being classed as a “coloured man” on that South African train, the British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury derided Dadabhai Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of India,” as a “black man” undeserving of the Englishman’s vote after his 1886 British parliamentary defeat. Naoroji, an early Gandhi supporter, was a Parsi scholar and trader who enjoyed the support and confidence of Indian people across the globe as the President of the Indian National Congress.
A furor erupted across India and its diaspora over the Grand Old Man of India’s supposed “blackness.” The Amrita Bazar Patrika condemned Salisbury for calling “one of India’s leaders a nigger.” The Hindu Punch published a cartoon of Nairobi and Salisbury, coloring the Prime Minister black and, therefore, darker than Naoroji. The Manchester Guardian informed Salisbury: “A little inquiry into the rudiments of Indian history would show Lord Salisbury that the Aryan races who entered India from the north prided themselves on their fair complexions.”
Across the British Empire, the public scandal over “Salisbury’s Blackman” coalesced around what historian Antoinette Burton calls the “triangular relationship between Englishness-as-whiteness, Indianness-as-brownness, and Blackness-as-Africanness” where “Africa was, in other words, the unspoken Other not just of Englishness but of Indianness as well.”
In that Transatlantic Nadir, Blackness was bound with slave-ness. Long before the Bandung Conference, Black Consciousness, and Black Power, many South Asian political elites rejected political Black solidarity. As Burton writes:
As late as the 1880s, “black man” was an appellation which in no way could enhance—and indeed, could only endanger—any subject’s chances to achieve recognition as a citizen, much less as a civic representative of the people in the Mother of all Parliaments. It carried with it associations of slavery and subjugation that imperiled Naoroji’s claims about the special qualification of Indian civilisations and people to direct representation.
Suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black.
And yet, as Naoroji’s biographer R. P Masani suggests, it was this very spectacle over his “blackness” that gave him the public profile and sympathy that secured his parliamentary win later on. Prime Minister Salisbury was forced to formally apologize for having offended the Jewel of the British Empire. The Irish nationalist Freeman’s Journal declared Naoroji’s election “the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” A “reparation” for the wounds of associated Blackness.
The Nairoji scandal lays bare how anti-Blackness gave Empire its coherence and could be mobilized for political gain. According to the racial logic of Empire, suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black. More than a “scene of race,” Gandhi’s South African “train moment” was a scene of historic anti-Blackness.
Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, the stakes in naming Gandhi’s anti-Blackness are high. The historic “Indian question” and accusations of Indian anti-Blackness have once again begun to dog political debates in “post”-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 a vigilante crowd looked “startlingly like a lynch mob” as they yelled “Victory for Mother India” and beat three African students in a New Dehli train station. This occurred as India’s prime minister visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial with President Obama. A year later a Gandhi statue was vandalized in South Africa. Then, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed its Gandhi statue.
Political Blackness, the idea that all racially marginalized groups can identify as “politically Black” to unite against racism, no longer seems viable. Members of Black Lives Matter UK recently questioned the erasure of Black women and the casting of Frieda Pinto as the lead of a British Black Panther series. There was backlash to Afro-Punk’s decision to bill M.I.A., the politically complicated and politically Black identifying British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC), “the largest organisation of Black students in Europe” representing “all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage,” launched a campaign to debate and re-think its name.
Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles.
The costs of a name are clearly high. Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles. When the divine ordinance of Empire is divide and rule, naming the anti-Blackness of your comrade-in-arms is a taboo—impolite and identitarian at best, and divisive and representative of false consciousness at worst. But, we must ask, what kind of solidarity are we building if we cannot reflect honestly on our different historical positionings in Empire’s racial order?
In this Nadir, an honest reckoning with history demands that we recognize that Gandhi refused anti-colonial solidarity and, instead, embraced anti-Blackness throughout his twenty-one years in South Africa. Though he later complicated his politics, the “South African Gandhi” navigated the dizzying nexus of Black and Indian race, and class and caste entanglements, by disavowing his fellow colonized Black people. Gandhi continually named Black South Africans with the same murderous epithet that had first been formed in the mouths of Arab slavers, who passed it on to Portuguese slavers, who in turn passed it on to warring Boer and British slaver-settlers, whose tongues imbued its inhumanity with fresh intensity when they sacrificed Black people at the altar of a unified emergent apartheid state at the turn of the twentieth century. Gandhi, like many of his caste, railed for an Indo-Aryan “imperial brotherhood” at the expense of the “raw Kaffir.”
This is not a call to “cancel Gandhi.” Instead, reflecting on his formative years in South Africa offers a chance to name and confront the kinds of historic anti-Blackness that plague our solidarity struggles today. Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, our examinations of race, caste, and political solidarity will demand more political honesty and analytic rigor. Between cynicism and sentimentality, clear-eyed solidarity can lead us out of this Nadir. Wilkerson’s world historical analysis fails to do this.
Wilkerson’s caste thesis cannot hold under the weight of “post”-Nazi Germany, either. In Caste’s epilogue Wilkerson contends that “post”-Nazi Germany “is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled.” The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign. This speaks to the anti-Blackness of the liberal humanist post-World War world—Germany can be hailed for its supposed humility before its Nazi history while it remains unrepentant for its colonial sins, such as the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the Herero and Nama genocide, and the massacring of up to 300,000 in the Maji Maji Uprising. And what of Germany’s historic and often murderous exclusion of Afro-Germans? This is part of the obfuscating cost of using caste as the preeminent analytic. In so doing we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of race and, in particular, anti-Blackness.
The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign.
Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde was clear eyed about Germany’s historic anti-Blackness all through her eight transformative years in West-Berlin. Having arrived in Germany the year after the 1983 U.S. invasion of her ancestral Grenada, Lorde understood the quiet violence of Empire. Even as Germany’s state-subsidized bohemia gave her “a certain amount of room to be” when she arrived in 1984, the spirit of witness moved Lorde to map haunting worlds of Afro-Diasporic border crossings from Grenada, to the United States, to St. Croix, to divided Berlin in her poem, “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls” (1984).
During Lorde’s Berlin years, she sought out and collaborated with women of Germany’s Black Diaspora—including the writers May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Helga Emde, and Ika Hügel-Marshall—to birth the Afro-German movement. This was central to Lorde’s Black queer anti-imperialist praxis, her radical embodiment of what Édouard Glissant called a “poetics of relation.”
A century and a half after Hegel declared that Africa had no history, Ayim and Oguntaye published the first scholarly study of Afro-German history, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1986). Making the first written use of the term “Afro-German,” they proclaimed: “our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.” Showing Our Colors made visible a Black historical line going as far back as the Middle Ages. The line marches forward through the Berlin Conference, through imperial expansion and genocide in Africa, and through war-time interracial liaisons between white German women and Black troops from the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain to the present day.
The lives of Showing Our Colors’ many multi-generational Black German-born and raised authors attest to a Germany invested in “Germanness” as a distinct racial and cultural Volk heritage. Even the authors’ family members seem incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German. Spared the death camp sentences, sterilizations, and forced abortions that “half caste” people from Namibia’s Rehoboth to the Rhineland faced across Germany’s history, many of Showing Our Colors’ women were instead sent away to orphanages.
Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness.
“And where do you come from? And your father? And your mother?” These national questions have echoed across the lives of generations of Afro-Germans. Regardless of their complete self-identification as German—regardless of their shared biology, culture, and language—native-born Afro-Germans remain outsiders to their families and their nation. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness—their own historical estrangement and trepidation at the eruption of anti-Black violence amidst their fellow Germans’ national reunification euphoria.
Lorde heard her sisters’ cries. She heard the call to witness. At the dawn of “post”-Apartheid Modernity, in the midst of Die Wende, the triumphalist “post”-Berlin Wall “turn” heralded as the End of History, Lorde’s border-crossing poetic vision foregrounded modernity’s “ignoble paradox” of Black pain enfolded in national “progress.” A month after the Fall, Lorde’s poem, “East Berlin December 1989,” a geopolitical anachronism questioning the “progression” of national time and foregrounding world-historic lynch-time, begins unequivocally: “It feels dangerous now/ to be Black in Berlin.” Her unflinching witness continues:
Already my blood shrieks
through the East Berlin streets
volcanic tallies rung upon cement
Afro-German woman stomped to death by skinheads in Alexanderplatz
The Black woman died under the wheels of Die Wende’s new century. In modernity’s wake, Black is forever out of time and out of place. We are all bound by our historical estrangement from the modern nation state.
Standing at the precipice of History, amidst suffering, dislocation, and alienation, Ayim’s poem “borderless and brazen: a poem against German u-NOT-y” (1990) offers us a vision:
i will go
yet another step further
to the furthest edge
where my sisters—where my brothers stand
i will go
yet another step further and another step and
when i want
if i want
borderless and brazen
If freedom is our vision, we must cross the border, we must go to the furthest edge. If we are to undo anti-Black violence, then we must undo our investments in the nation state. In the murderous face of Empire, Lorde’s border-crossing poetics of relation “fus[es] the best of all of our heritages.” In her introduction to Showing Our Colors, Lorde implored, “We must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First we must recognize each other.”
This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to go to the furthest edge. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.
Indeed, the key trouble with Caste is that it lacks what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “Black History’s Global Vision.” In “But A Local Phase of Global Problem” (1999), Kelley looked back at the lessons of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist historical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for writing beyond the U.S. nation state. In that Transatlantic Nadir, Kelley writes, Black historians understood that Jim Crow emerged in the “post”-slavery Reconstruction South as “the expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their ‘temperament,’ their destinies.”
The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.
The Black Historical Tradition, an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition, resists Empire. The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. In spite of this tradition, Caste’s comparative world-historical analysis maps anti-Blackness as the sole province of the United States, without recognizing that it is, as Du Bois first described in his essay “The Color Line Belts the World” (1906), “but a local phase of a world problem.” If Caste resists racist historiography, then its downfall is that it does not resist nationalist and imperialist historiography. The Black Radical Historical Tradition is clear—there is no anti-racism without anti-imperialism.
If Germany, the world’s exemplar of historic reckoning and reconciliation, cannot be compelled to repent and pay reparations for its Herero and Nama Holocaust then what hope is there that the United States will be compelled to repent and pay reparations for African American slavery?
The question for Black people the world over is: Can we unbind ourselves and our historic claims for reparations from the nation states that cage us? Can we go to the edge, to where our sisters and brothers stand, and imagine the end of world-historic lynch-time? Can we imagine the end of this world?
As I write, generations are once again dying under the wheels of the twenty-first century. Shocked and ashamed at the horrifying, ever-mounting, ever-rotting trails of flesh and bone left on the track, we turn and look away. We run away from that which mangles us, from that which wounds us. We run away from each other. We run away from ourselves.
Perhaps “post”-Apartheid Modernity’s train—mechanized by the accelerating anti-Black forces of white supremacy, jingoistic nationalisms, late capitalism, neoliberal imperialism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism—has left us so mangled that we fail to recognize each other and ourselves.
Black suffering continues to suture the wounds of the world. Indeed, Black suffering produces the world.
How do we end this world? Contrary to Wilkerson’s thesis, ending a world produced by Black suffering cannot take place within a moral historical “progression.” It will require a rupture of world-historic lynch-time.
How do we end this world? We must accurately name that which wounds us.
How do we end lynch-time? It is a terrifying question with no easy answer. Rupturing lynch-time requires that we name that which wounds us. To name is to witness. In this surveying—in this witnessing of the world’s wounds—the costs of refusal and obfuscation are too high. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to art historian Dr. Zamansele Nsele’s theorization of the train as the icon of imperial and settler colonial modernity in her 2020 essay “Post-Apartheid Nostalgia and Its Images of Common Sense.” Here, she originally places Cornel West and Dambudzo Marechera in conversation.