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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 263-265

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Book Review

The Karma of Brown Folk

The Karma of Brown Folk. By Vijay Prashad. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

In this splendid contribution to Asian Pacific American studies, social movement theory, and inter-ethnic understanding, Vijay Prashad surveys the role of South Asian immigrants and their descendants within the racial economy of the United States. Sensitive to the ways in which different national histories, migration cohorts, and class positions inflect identities with diverse meanings and dimensions, he nonetheless asks all Asian Pacific Americans--and South Asian Americans in particular--"how can we live with ourselves as we are pledged and sometimes, in acts of bad faith, pledge ourselves, as a weapon against black folk." (viii)

In ten sharp polemical chapters, Prashad surveys the understudied histories of South Asians in North America, of Africans in the Indian subcontinent, and of the formative role of orientalist imaginings of "India" in U.S. culture and thought. He shows us that transnationalism has a history, that the interconnectedness of cultures and countries that characterizes our era has its origins in long legacies of imperialism, labor exploitation, and political struggle. Like the equally important recent work of May Joseph, Rosemary George, and Gayatri Gopinath, his scholarship demonstrates the theoretical richness and complexity that emerges from sustained study of South Asian communities and culture. He ranges widely for his objects of study--from Gandhi to Garvey, from Arabian Nights to Emerson, from Dinesh D'Souza to Deepak Chopra. Yet an extraordinarily unified sensibility governs his inquiry, a sensibility rooted in a responsible engagement with the role that South Asians in the U.S. might play within national and global struggles for social justice.

The Karma of Brown Folk deftly blends culture and politics in its exploration of the unusual affiliations and antagonisms that have historically shaped relations between African Americans and South Asia. Prashad acknowledges the important lessons learned by W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson from national liberation struggles for Indian independence, and he reminds us of the centrality of Gandhi's philosophy to Martin Luther King, Jr. But he also asks us to ruminate on cultural connections, on the popularity of "Nehru" jackets in 1960s African American communities, on Jimi Hendrix's use of images from Hindu calendar art on the covers of his albums, and on John Coltrane's profound devotion to Indian music and philosophy. Powerful points of identification and intersection with South Asia have shaped the meaning of "black" identity in North America. At the same time, African American culture, [End Page 263] politics, and philosophy have offered South Asian Americans vital resources for understanding their own racialization, political marginalization, and class exploitation in North America.

Prashad understands that shared experiences with subordination do not necessarily build unity. Persecuted people often seek the subordination of others to win material advantages and psychic consolation for themselves. African Americans and South Asian Americans have been antagonists as well as allies, competitors as well as comrades-in-arms. No essential qualities characterize the culture or politics of either group; coalitions and conflicts emerge out of political choices made under concrete social and historical circumstances. It is easy for African Americans to see South Asian Americans as privileged newcomers capable of securing resources and status not available to African Americans. For their part, desis (people who identify with South Asian ancestry) find themselves perpetually recruited into anti-black racism through the promise of securing ethnic inclusion for themselves if they only demonstrate their fidelity to the anti-black practices of racial exclusion that characterize so much of the social structure in the U.S. Yet refusing to be divided has its advantages as well, not just because there is strength in numbers, but also because our allies often have experiences and understandings that empower us because they reveal the complexity and connectedness of oppressions.

Politics can give embodied personal identities their determinate shape and meaning, and consequently Prashad's book illuminates social movement theory and practice, especially...


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