Shivaji D. Sargar
Associate Professor and Head
P. G. Dept. of English, Mahatma Phule College, Panvel. (India)
Literature is an artistic expression of the relationship between the thoughts and feelings of human mind and the social conditions surrounding it. When some new stream of thoughts and
feelings begins to flow continuously with its uniqueness, quality and quantity, it becomes a small stream of literary work flowing towards the great ocean of literature. African American literature
and Dalit literature are two such unique streams in literature today. The literature of African Americans and Dalits is the creation of specific period and social conditions. It rejects the
mainstream literary traditions and comes forth with new literary canons of its own. With the change in life and society, it has also changed with regard to its form, content and style.
This kind of literature is an expression of the newly awakened sensibilities of its author and so naturally, it takes quite a new form, making it difficult for the critics to apply the traditional critical canons to it.
African Americans and Dalits have handled almost all the traditional literary genres like poetry, novel, play and autobiography. But while handling these genres, they have given them new dimensions as the subjects and the experiences they write about are peculiar only to the communities in which they are born. The experiences and feelings expressed in African American and Dalit autobiographies are so unique and strange that it is very difficult for these life-stories to accept the traditional form of autobiography. That is why some critics like Gangadhar Pantawane and Chandrakumar Nalage prefer the word ‘atmakathan’ (self-narrative) to that of ‘atmacharitra’ (autobiography) to refer to the life-story of a Dalit. These critics have rightly pointed out that generally an autobiography is written ‘when the author has lived most of his life and reached at such point of his life that there is very little possibility of happening something dramatic in his life. On the contrary, Dalit self-narratives are being written at the middle or early middle-age of the author. At this point, his life is not like a pond but a overpouring stream that flows on and on and goes on affecting his present in the context of past and future.’ The same can be said with reference to the life-stories of African Americans.
A detailed study of these autobiographies brings out certain common characteristic features of their own. These features are:
1. The ‘self’ in African American and Dalit Autobiography
In an autobiography, the writer looks back into his past at a certain point in his life and creates the character of his own ‘self’ with the help of his memory. From the African American and Dalit autobiography, one comes to know about the character of the author; how he faced the difficulties and conflicts of his life; and with what stuff his personality is formed. Yet while narrating the experiences of his life, the author gives an objective analysis of his ‘self’ and it is due to such objectivity and disinterestedness that his autobiography successfully creates the image of his ‘self’ in conflict with oppressive social and cultural conditions.
The difference between the mainstream autobiography and African American and Dalit autobiography is that African American and Dalit autobiographers write their autobiographies not only to sketch the image of their ‘self’ but also to make the readers aware of the disgusting and distressful conditions of their lives. These writers intend to tell the readers how the cruel and inhuman social order crushed them and made their lives sorrowful and unbearable under the false of social and religious customs. So, naturally, in African American and Dalit autobiography, the ‘self’ of the author reflects both his individual self and the social self. In this connection, Toni Morrison rightly observes. :
“Autobiographical form is classic in Black American or Afro- American literature because it provided an instance in which a writer could be representative, could say, ‘my single solitary and individual life is like the lives of the tribe; it differs in these specific ways, but it is a balanced life because it is both solitary and representative.” (Morrison, 1990: 327)
The narrator, while presenting a portrayal of his own ‘self’, narrates certain experiences, which are common in the lives of all the members of his community. The ‘self’ is depicted not only as an individual with a private career but also as a member of his community with ties and responsibilities to the other members of his community. The ‘self’ is not isolated from its social group because as a member of that social group he, too, has received similar inhuman and humiliating treatment by the established social structure. His personal experiences and the experiences of any other member of his community are usually the same. So the ‘self’ in African American and Dalit autobiography has no private career of its own but it is a part and parcel of its community. Naturally, such an autobiography presents the unity of the personal voice and the voice of the people.
While commenting on the ‘self’ in African American autobiography, Stephen Butterfield
“The appeal of black autobiography is in… their sense of shared life, shared triumph, and communal responsibility. The self belongs to the people and people find a voice in the self.” (Butterfield, 1974: 3)
This sense of shared life is also reflected in Dalit autobiography.
The readers may also come across some experiences in African American and Dalit autobiography, which are purely personal experiences of the author. For instance, on his way towards North, Richard halted with a coloured landlady for few days. During this stay, the landlady tried to get her daughter, Bess married to Richard. He writes what he felt when he happened to be alone with Bess:
“What could I do with a girl like this? …I felt that it would be easy to have sex relations with her and I was tempted… What had I above sex to share with her, and what had she?… The prize of the house did not tempt me. Yet I sat beside her, feeling the attraction of her body increasing and depending for me. What if I made her pregnant?…” (Wright, 1945: 217-18)
This experience of young Richard is purely his personal experience and it has little to do with the common experiences of his community. Such experiences throw light on the character of the ‘self’ of the author and help the readers to understand different stages in the development of his ‘self’. Similar personal experiences are found in many other African American and Dalit autobiographies like Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandys, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, My Bondage My Freedom, Baluta, Katyawarchi Pota, Uchalya, Akkarmashi, and others.
However, in Western as well as in Indian literature, autobiography is a story of the development of an individual self. The concept of ‘self’ in these autobiographies is different from Dalit or African American concept. In mainstream autobiography, the writer narrates the story of the efforts of an individual to succeed in life. Even such a writer, it is observed, emphasizes his achievements and tries to convince the readers that he deserves them.
2. Identity Crisis
Identity crisis can be comprehensibly surveyed in two phases of Black autobiography. In the first phase, while constructing his identity, the African American writer faced a set of multi- layered obstacles across his path created by the slavery. He tried to overcome them by wearing a mask and showing two different faces of his identity. In the slave-narratives, the narrator is seen under the pressure of double-identity – on one hand, he must show the White world that he befits the concept of a ‘nigger’, and on the other, he had his own identity which was a threat to the system of slavery. Yet these narrators did not feel alienated from the Black masses, because they themselves were fugitive slaves and had to fight for the welfare and well-being of the masses.
But in the second phase of Black autobiography, the question of double-identity is rather much more complex. As the narrator had succeeded in locating the White world with the help of his outstanding abilities, he was unable to identify himself with the Black masses, and at the same time, due to his colour, he was not fully admitted in the White American mainstream. He felt alienated from both the Blacks and the Whites. The authors of this period – Richard Wright,
W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, J. Saunders Redding, and Claude McKay – have expressed this pressure of split-identity through their works and tried to search out their unified self by re- examining and redefining the relationship between the writer and the African American community.
This identity crisis is also found in Dalit autobiographies. Dalit Intellectuals were unable to assimilate themselves with their community as they had advanced in their lives and at the same time they were not allowed to enter into the established social order by the upper-caste Hindus. Thus, they were confronted with utterly intricate tug-of-war situation between two extremes – Dalits and Caste Hindus – which seemed to be unlikely to be sorted out gracefully. This kind of identity crisis is not found in the mainstream autobiographies as their writers belong to the same established class.
3. The Horror of Slavery and Untouchability
Mainstream autobiographies lack in the genuine descriptions of slavery and untouchability. Though some of them describe these inhuman social institutions, they are lop- sided and superficial portrayal of reality. This is not the case with African American and Dalit
autobiographies. These autobiographies are the first-hand accounts of the torturous treatment of the African Americans and Dalits by the oppressive hands of the Whites in America and the caste Hindus in India respectively. They were regarded not as human-beings blessed with certain human qualities like love, loyalty, tenderness, and honour but as a piece of property.
In India, Dalits were not legally enslaved like the African Americans in America, but their plight was worse than that of the Black slaves. Until recently, they were denied the right to education; they were forced to live outside the villages; and the public places and temples were closed for them. The monster of segregation was all powerful, discriminating among the people on the basis of their castes. The lower class, Shudra, comprising lower castes, was treated as if it did not belong to the human race. The evil custom of untouchability was practiced and it was believed that the mere touch or even the shadow of a Shudra spoils the sanctity of the Savarna. Though the practice of untouchability is legal crime in independent India, it is found to be practiced in some parts of the country in one way or the other. All these horrors, naturally, have crept in Dalit autobiographies and made the outside world aware of the deplorable conditions of Dalits in India. For instance, Shantabai Kamble draws a picture of the practice of untouchability in the sacred temple of education, where Dalit children were forced to sit outside the class-room and the teacher strictly keeping himself away from their touch. She writes:
ßfrljhP;k oxkZyk ikVhyekLrj f’kdok;yk gqra- R;kauh vkekyk ckfgj cloya- rs vkekyk f’kowu ?ksr uOgra- iksjkauk
iu f’kow nsr uOgr-a
vkepa dk; pqdya rj rs ykacuap NMh
ekjk;pa- ikV;k riklrkuk vkekyk ikV;k [kkyh fBok;yk
lkaxk;pa- R;kauh ikVh riklY;koj [kkyh Bsok;ap- ex vkeh
ikVh ?ksr gqra- ekLrjkyk f’koysya pkyr uOgra- (Kamble,
1986: 6) (Patil Master was the teacher of Standard III. He forced us to sit outside the classroom. He did not let us touch either to him or the other upper-caste students. He used to punish us from a safe distance with a cane. While checking our homework, he used to make us put our slates on the floor and after checking, he put them down. Only then we were allowed to take them back. He did not like to be touched by us.)
4. No Family
An intensive reading of the autobiographies brings out the fact that there is one important difference between mainstream and Dalit autobiography, and African American autobiography. In mainstream autobiographies as well as in Dalit autobiographies, the narrator provides all the details about himself, his parents, his brothers and sisters and also his close and distant relatives. But this is not the case with most of the African American autobiographies, particularly those written by former slaves. When one opens the book, he comes across the fact that the narrator begins from nothing; he has no name, no family. He cannot trace his family much further than his mother. In this connection, Frederick Douglass writes:
“I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday…. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master
concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.” (Douglass, 1968: 22)
It was so probably because of the political motive of the Whites. They knew it well that if a slave is allowed to have the family, the familial ties among the members would be tightened, leading ultimately to the destruction of the system itself. So the Whites deliberately used to separate the members of the slave’s family. In Dalit autobiographies, it is seen that the members of their communities are relatively intimately connected with each other than the members of African American families. However, these familial ties are not that much intimate as that of established classes. The reason behind it seems to be the fact that everybody from these families is so exhausted by the intense struggle of life that at the end of it, they are left with little desire or energy to think about others.
5. Hunger in African American and Dalit Autobiography
The monster of hunger appears in all its ugliness and horror in African American and Dalit autobiography. To face and overcome this monster, they have to die, virtually, thousands of times during their lives. To earn the bread, they have to do all those things, which they did not want to do. The Savarnas in Indian society used to exploit Dalits by making them work the whole day just for a piece of bread. In America, the conditions of Blacks were similar to those of Dalits in India. Naturally, the autobiographies of African Americans and Dalits are replete with incidents of hunger in which the narrators present the portrayal of the monster and make the world aware of their sad plight. As the writers of the mainstream autobiographies belong to the class of ‘haves’, the question of bread rarely occupy any space in their works. Consequently, most of these autobiographies do not deal with ‘hunger’ as a major thematic concern of their autobiographical output.
6. Religion in African American and Dalit autobiography
The autobiographies of these oppressed people are the eye-witness accounts of the horrors of their lives. Amidst all these horrors, the church is the only place where, the African Americans think, they can get mental solace. Though the African Americans were not allowed to enter into the White church, the slave narratives are strongly Christian. The God, prayer, good works, and anti-slavery cause are praised in their works and the sins like drinking, lying, stealing, and fornication are forcefully denounced.
But these authors have carefully distinguished between true Christianity and the religion practiced by their masters to justify the system of slavery. These authors state that the sin of slavery itself was so enormous that to escape from it, the Blacks were left with no choice but to rely on other sins like lying and stealing. These acts of lying to and stealing from the Whites are morally justified but the same acts committed against the members of their own community are severely condemned by the African American autobiographers. It is expected that a Black should not be dishonest towards his fellow Blacks.
In the second phase of African American autobiography, it is observed that the Christian faith is viewed with cynicism and hostility due to the fact that the authors have lost their faith in God and His religion.
The Problem of religion with Dalits in India is multi-sided and more complex than it is with Blacks in America. Dalits are being exploited for hundreds of years in the name of religion. So naturally, Dalits feel disgusted with such religion, which separates one human-being from the other. Though most of the narrators in Dalit autobiographies are Hindus or Neo-Buddhists, they regard religion as a terrible monster, which has exploited them and made their lives unbearable. So their autobiographies present ironic accounts of different rites and rituals, faiths and beliefs of Hindu religion.
The approach of mainstream autobiographers to religion is contrary to that of African Americans and Dalits. In fact, they have been the real beneficiaries of the discrimination created in the name of religion. So these writers have all praise for religion.
As religion has played an important role in leading these oppressed classes towards poverty, hunger has become their constant companion. To quench this hunger, they were compelled to work beyond their physical capacities. It doesn’t mean that the Blacks and Dalits looked upon ‘work’ as a hateful thing; on the contrary, their autobiographies present ‘work’ as a partial solution to the problems created by the system. In most of the African American and Dalit autobiographies, the writers have expressed their positive attitudes towards ‘work’, which helped them to defeat their enemy and accomplish their goal.
8. Violent Resistance
The slaves were forced to work beyond their capacities, starved, whipped, and sexually assaulted, which compelled them to resist their exploitation. There are a number of slave- narratives in which the narrator resorts to violent resistance to keep him safe from the brutal hands of the Whites. The violent resistance is regarded not only as one of the means to keep the slaves safe from the Whites, but it is also regarded as a virtue of the Blacks. So meeting force with force, striking down the oppressor and refusing to succumb to beatings became a persistent motif in their works. It became as inseparable part of their stories as the incidents of whipping and forced sales. And it was the act of violent resistance that encouraged them to find out the hidden aspects of their personality. For instance, Frederick Douglass brings forth the moral and psychological importance of violent resistance to the slave by telling the readers that the beating he gave to his worst overseer:
“revived…a sense of my manhood. It recalled the departed self- confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.” (Douglass, 1968: 82)
Dalits are being exploited physically, mentally, and socially by the upper-caste Hindus. Naturally, they resist their oppression. But it is not so powerfully reflected in Dalit autobiography as in the other forms of Dalit literature. There is a conflict in most of these works but it does not take the form of violent resistance like that of African American autobiographies. There are few autobiographies like Gavaki and Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha in which the narrators write about the conflict between Dalits and Savarnas. But the nature of this conflict does not take the form of direct physical violence. The resistance in Dalit autobiography appears in the form of ‘denial’. These writers vehemently deny all the traditions and taboos, which were
enforced onto them by Hindu religion and society, and at the same time, rely on the weapon of silent endurance, which was more effective than the violent resistance in the given circumstances.
As the lives of most of the mainstream autobiographers flow smoothly without any social hindrances, there is little scope for them to write about violent or non-violent resistance. They portray their own experiences, which are not so bitter and thus different from what has been portrayed by African American and Dalit writers.
The lack of education in the lives of African Americans and Dalits is one more aspect of their autobiographies. The narrator speaks of education as one of the most important elements in his life, which takes him further to fulfill his dream of freedom. These autobiographers tell the readers how the Whites and Caste Hindus take every possible step to ensure that the light of knowledge would never infiltrate into the dark ghettoes of their victims. Here education is looked upon not only as a means of success for the individual authors like that of mainstream autobiography, but also as a means to improve the situation of their community.
Language is a very distinctive aspect of African American and Dalit autobiography. Both of these autobiographers prefer to use their day-to-day spoken languages to those of the standard languages of the mainstream autobiographies. As the experiences of these writers are so unique, that even the standard languages lack the required vocabulary to make them explicit to the general readers. They tend to express their unique experiences of exploitation in their own languages as it can only afford to give proper flavour and touch to such experiences. The use of standard language would otherwise prove an exercise in futility to concretize the true feelings and experiences of African American and Dalit autobiographers. As the spoken language dominates in these autobiographies, the writers enjoy freedom with the rules of grammar.
Above characteristic features form a set of aesthetic norms that helps the African American and Dalit writers to construct their ‘psycho-social self’ in their autobiographies. A close evaluation of African American and Dalit autobiographies shows that the psycho-social self of their authors was constantly in conflict with brutal social, political and religious institutions of their times. It is so because this ‘self’ was a kind of threat to the smooth functioning of these institutions. Therefore, these institutions of established classes always tried to create as many obstacles as possible in the path of the ‘self’ of their victims and attempted to deviate them away from positive growth.
To overcome these impediments and ensure its proper growth, this psycho-social self takes recourse to various means of self-protection including the weapon of protest. That is why this new set of aesthetic norms is at the heart of African American and Dalit autobiographies. These norms are instrumental in serving readers to have a close look at the ‘self’ of the writers during its various developmental stages. Therefore, while writing their autobiographies, African American and Dalit writers usually employ more of these norms rather than those of mainstream autobiographies. In fact, their autobiographical writing is their reaction against the partial aesthetics of mainstream autobiography. Thus, these writers have tried to develop their own
aesthetics, which considers ‘human being’ as ‘human being’, no more, no less. This new aesthetics treats African American and Dalit autobiography as the product of specific social conditions in the lives of their authors. That is why this aesthetics of protest developed by these writers can be better studied and understood with reference to the various norms discussed in the preceding pages of this chapter.
For the sake of convenience and better scrutiny, these norms can be grouped under two main heads – The Content Aspects of Protest and the Expressive Aspects of Protest. The social norms like caste, class, race, religion and gender fall under the Content Aspects of Protest. On the basis of these social norms, African Americans and Dalits were being discriminated and exploited by the dominant groups of their societies. The autobiographies of these oppressed people are the accounts of how they were exploited at the brutal hands of various social and political institutions like slavery, untouchability, patriarchy, education, family, religion, law, culture and literature and how they came to be realized their oppression, and also how they revolted against their oppressors and their institutions of oppression.
Expressive Aspects of Protest include the use of Dalit and Black vernaculars and also the narrative techniques used by them in their autobiographies. A close analysis of these autobiographies shows that they are interspersed with a variety of vocabulary items, which are unknown to the mainstream autobiography.
Therefore, the close analysis of the selected autobiographies, namely The Big Sea, American Daughter, Die Nigger Die!, Antasphot, Berad and Uchalya, with reference to the content aspects and expressive aspects of protest will facilitate to decipher various stages in the construction of the psycho-social self of their respective authors and also to find out how much this ‘self’ has influenced the aesthetics of protest during the course of its construction. Such a study, in turn, will help to see how and to what extent Black aesthetics and Dalit aesthetics have emerged as literary movements with their separate norms of assessment, and if there is any scope of their further development. It will also enable to find out what are the similarities and differences between the Black and Dalit aesthetics and the mainstream aesthetics.
- Bone, Robert, Richard Wright, Minnepolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
- Braxton, Joanne M., Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition, Temple University Press, 1989.
- Brown, H. Rap. Die Nigger Die! New York: The Dial Press, 1969.
- Butterfield, Stephen. 1974. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of
- Douglass, Frederick. 1968. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Signet.
- Dubey, Madhu, Black Aesthetic, Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Payne
& Jessica Rae Barbera, 2nd edition, Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2010.
- Gaikwad, Laxman. Uchalya. Pune: Shrividya Prakashan, 1987.
- Ghurey, G.S., Caste and Race in India, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1969.
- Kamble, Shantabai. 1986. Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha. Mumbai: Purva.
- Limbale, Sharankumar, Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature, Tr. Alok Mukherjee, Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004.
- Morrison, Tony. 1990. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation”, in Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Neal, Larry, The Black Arts Movement, African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000, Ed.
Hazel Arnett Ervin, New York: Twaine Publishers, 1999.
- Thompson, Era Bell. American Daughter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.
- Wright, Richard. 1945. Black Boy, Sixteenth Anniversary Edition (2006). New York: Harper
Perennial Modern Classics.
- http://www.ambedkar.org/ambcd/38B1.%20Who%20were%20the%20Shudras%20PART%20I.h tm