Africanness entered my life at the age of 40, when I visited my native island of Madagascar for the first time. I was overwhelmed with inexplicable pride when I saw photos of my great-grandfather and my grandfather. Both were African! Thus, I was part of the big African family! Because until now, I only knew part of this lost family, through souvenir photos. And those photos were mostly of people with Asian features, since my family is of Merina ethnicity which is a mix of Malay-Indonesian and African. For the first time, I felt proud that African blood was flowing through my veins.
Even if the African appeared late in my life, I was attracted very young by the black struggle. My father was surprised to see me reading Peaux Noires, Masques Blancs, which I had borrowed from the library of the French high school in Pondicherry where I was studying. “I knew Frantz Fanon. I was in Algeria at the same time! he said. Thus, his son became interested in the revolt. He too had been a rebel in his youth. Divianadin Gautier, born in 1927, was the first of the family to actually become a French citizen. His ancestors who decided to become French were only colonial subjects.
Nourished by messages from Iyothee Thass, he had joined the reforming movement of Periyar against Brahman hegemony. But his silent protest never had an echo. He had to join the French army and leave the country to get his family out of poverty. When he left me in 1998, I felt that I had to resume his fight that he had never started.
Growing up in Pondicherry, a newly independent colonial city where traces of colonialism are still present, one is easily exposed to structural racism and casteism from an early age. It was my case. How not to be outraged, when somehow your caste is thrown in your face like a slap in the face? How not to be enraged when the name of your caste is used as an insult? Parai paiya (outcast son). Yes, that’s how high caste parents used to scold their offspring when they misbehaved. I understood at that time that a comfortable life was not immune to caste prejudices.
This feeling of injustice was to pursue me in the country whose motto is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. It was in the suburbs of Paris that I felt the resistance getting organized for the first time.
The logo on the palm “Do not touch my friend” is launched with its yellow crest similar to the cursed star of another time. This anti-racist movement was born in France a year after my arrival in the country. Alongside Africans, West Indians, North Africans, Asians, I had my first experience of solidarity against a neocolonial power that treated citizens of color as second-class citizens. The solitary revolt of my youth had found an echo through this movement. But I was afraid that this revolt would end in silence like it did for my father.
An African-American man died of asphyxiation in Minneapolis. Operating The Thinnai Kreyol, an online platform co-founded with Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir, the Dalit in me was outraged. He felt the same pain and suffering. Strangely, the knee that suffocated George Floyd released an invisible weight that weighed on the consciousness of negrodality.
The Dalit of negrodalitality suffers for his black brother who dies every day in the world under police brutality. He suffers for his Dalit brothers and sisters who are burned, beaten and humiliated by a society that has denied them the modicum of dignity for centuries. He is tormented for his Catholic and Muslim brothers and sisters threatened with extinction by an extremist power.
The Dalit invites the African to appear on Le Thinnai Kreyol. The wretched of the Earth decide to challenge and fight injustice with words that will resonate in the world — Negro, Pariah, Achhoot. Afro-dalit takes up these insults to make poetry and transform the social handicap to assert itself and affirm its identity. Negrodalitality is a reconciliation with the unfulfilled past expressed in a cycle of poems.
Words flow and poetry is born from pain and anger. The verses of poetry join the company of the Djembe and the Thappattai which are the symbol of African slavery and the muffled voice of the Pariah.
(The writer is an author, most recently of The Thinnai. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly “Dalitality” column.)