Citizens of the Colored World: Race, Colored Cosmopolitanism, and Transnational Conceptions of Citizenship in the Age of Decolonization

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Nico Slate, Carnegie Mellon University

In the years between the first and second world wars, African Americans and South Asians helped engineer one of the most creative and politically significant redefinitions of racial borders in the twentieth century—the invention of the colored world.  When, in 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois prophesized, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” he globalized the color line, referring not only to the “millions of black men in Africa, America and the Islands of the Sea” but also to “the brown and yellow myriads elsewhere.”  In the wake of the First World War, Du Bois’s insight became the basis for a transnational initiative to unite the “darker races” in opposition to imperialism and racism.  For Du Bois and other Black advocates of colored unity, India was one of the world’s most populous “colored” countries and the geographical and racial bridge between Africa and Asia.  On their part, many Indians came to express their interest in African Americans in terms of colored solidarity.

India's independence in 1947 both empowered and attenuated these older bonds of color.  A bloody partition had rendered colonial India not one, but two independent nations—both confronting endemic poverty and political instability.  The need for American aid provided a powerful incentive for Indian officials to temper their critiques of American racism.  Nevertheless, old relationships between Black and Indian leaders and the prevalence of an expansive conception of Indian citizenship within a larger colored world inspired a significant, if muted opposition to American racism on the part of several Indian government figures. Meanwhile, former anti-colonial activists struggled to build a postcolonial Indian nation-state in which citizenship rights were granted equally to all and in which one could be simultaneously a citizen of India and of the colored world.

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