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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

At JLF, Jovas Mays And Sujatha Gidla Spoke About How Songs Of Resistance Bring People Together

  • IWB Post
  •  January 30, 2018

“I fear I might have integrated my people into a burning house”, said Martin Luther King Jr. to Harry Belafonte in the last conversation they had before he was assassinated. The fear saw its culmination in the poem The Burning House written by Jovan Mays as he questioned, “Didn’t we settle this already? Didn’t we have a Civil Rights Moment over this”?  

On the last day of JLF, Jovan Mays and Sujatha Gidla came together for the compelling session, “Narratives of Power, Songs of Resistance” and questioned the power structures that have suppressed them to date. Jovas Mays and Sujatha Gilda share a common legacy in the fact that they both belong to communities that have faced and continue to face ruthless oppression. Jovas Mays is a Black American slam poet who writes about the “slow erosion” of the Black identities at the hands of erosion. Sujatha Gidla is an Indian Dalit, who somehow escaped India, reached the US and is now working as an activist. In her book Ants Among Elephants, she has focused upon the curse of untouchability as an Indian Dalit. The session tried to focus on the individual struggles of their community and to draw a similarity between the two.

When asked by Ajay Bose, who moderated the session, if slavery was as demeaning as untouchability, Sujatha recollected a quote by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, where he had asserted that slave is at a level of disadvantage when compared to an untouchable as he is just “a piece of property” and has absolutely no rights as opposed to an untouchable who still has some.

Juvan Mays left the crowd cheering with the recitation of his poem, The Burning House. He shared how his poem was based on police brutality which has been a major topic of concern for the Black people. He said that 2014 was a very integral year for “the environment of recognition of police brutality”. Enraged by the silence around all that has been happening, Jovas and his partner decided to express the pain through their poem which eventually resonated with a lot of people facing similar problems. Through his poem he wanted the people to question, “What is mercy?” or “do you ever get back what was taken from you”? He shared with the audience the quote by Martin Luther King Junior where he had talked about incorporating his people into a burning house. He said, “As a poet, my job is to bring people into action with the burning house side of Dr King.” He said that he is currently living in a situation where if their children go out they ask them to stay away from police and hope that their kids return alive.

Ajay Bose then asked Sujatha, “Do you feel this heat? As a Dalit do you feel a sense of camaraderie with the Blacks when their houses are burning? Sujatha answered that she looks at it like her “own people burning”. She has been actively participating in various demonstrations since the day she moved to the US. She recollected an incident when she along with a group of ten thousand New Yorkers participated in a rally against the Ku Klax Klan, which incorporated a group of “fascist white supremacists” who had ended up in New York to recruit people to their clan. “We did stop them”, she said.

Yuvan then shared how there is a hierarchy among Blacks too and the lives of Black Americans is entirely different from the lives of African-Americans who migrate to America. He said, “For most African-Americans, we don’t get a particular Nationalism. We can’t rely on a place of origin that is going to come and protect us.”

Ajay Bose then said that Sujatha escaped from India in many ways and seems like her new home has offered her a lot and she, in turn, has done her part. He asked her opinion on the struggle and status of the Black Americans in a country that is their homeland. She replied, “Blacks built the American economy for four hundred years and when immigrants came they got all the opportunities denied from the Black Americans.” She explained how the hierarchy between Black Americans and immigrant African-Americans is just like the one between high-class Christians and low-class Christians in India. When she was younger she used to wonder, “Why am I an Untouchable? Why am I Poor and why they are not?”

Referring to Juvan Sujatha said, “The fact that one of your ancestors came from Africa, that determines your social status in America. Black like untouchables is a caste and that is why American Blacks are treated differently than African-Americans.” Sujatha was then asked by Ajay, “How did you expose the kind of caste prejudice that your uncle faced in a Marxist part as a Naxalite”? Sujatha promptly answered, “Actually the problem is not with Marxism or Communism, the real problem is with the people running these parties. They are all high caste people with no agenda to address the caste problems.” According to her, the shortcoming of both the American and Indian Communists parties lies in their belief that “class is everything and caste will automatically disappear with class with any separate revolution.”

Sujatha openly said that she is not a fan of Malcolm X or Mahatma Gandhi and that Gandhi was a “very casteist man. He wanted to preserve the caste system and only wanted to prettify it by some cosmetic fixing.” The only reason he incorporated Dalits in this moment was that of his fear that they would get together with Muslims and would be a threat for the Hindus. He was similarly intolerant of Blacks and called them Kafirs or lazy. “Any red-blooded untouchable would know what Gandhi was to untouchables”, she added. Sujatha also shared how caste is “not a religious institution but a social institution” and the same applies to Racism as well.

The topic then shifted to Barrack Obama and Modi. Yuvan called Obama, “the most timeline-able African-American movement that has existed ever (sic).” Sujatha expressed an entirely different mindset as she said, “Modi is no different than Congress and Obama is no different than Trump.” The only difference between them all is how open they choose to be about their opinions.

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