“Obama building bridges”

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Dr. Clayborne Carson
Dr. Clayborne Carson

D. Karthikeyan

People once oppressed are now part of power-sharing process: Clayborne Carson

MADURAI: “Black Americans are not subjects of history but participants in the making of history,” said Clayborne Carson, Professor of History, Stanford University, and Director, The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford, U.S.

He was in Madurai with 15 of his students as part of a three-week tour to study Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Asked whether the world is marching forward to a historic transformation, Dr. Carson said, “Yes. It’s a transformation in many ways; one of the first things that Martin Luther King Jr. articulated and fought for was right to vote, and to participate in the political process as a citizen with citizenship rights, which was once available to certain groups, and excluded for others. This goes with the struggle to participate in the political process where the future of the blacks is decided by the blacks as they are increasingly becoming part of the decision making process. It’s a gradual process that people once oppressed are now part of the power sharing process. This would have an impact on the oppressed classes across the globe.”

It was Martin Luther King Jr who made this process a reality and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was following suit. There was a great similarity between Mr. Obama and King. “Both wanted to build bridges unlike some black leaders who were self interested. Obama, like King, has been building bridges between races.”

African-American culture

Elucidating on the role of culture and his perception of cultural politics as resistance to dominant regimes of representation, Dr. Carson said one dominant trend was that American culture was largely seen as African-American culture. “I used to ask my students to imagine American films, music and sports without Afro-Americans and they really find it hard even to imagine as they are very much part of the cultural milieu. America has become a much more complex society and the fastest growing community in the U.S. now are Latin Americans and they are more in number than the blacks. Many Asians are there and in places like California, Sunnyvale, Indians are more in number. Signboards are all in Indian languages. Pizza is now American food. My kids are much more familiar with Chinese food than hamburgers. There is nothing called American restaurant these days.”

Culture became a commodity around the world in the 1930s , he said and pointed out that jazz was a cultural commodity created by the blacks and was received by the whites. It was called swing music and it became a world-wide cultural commodity like basketball.

“Changing phase”

“It’s a changing phase and change is happening slowly and untouchability, which is moulded with religious and cultural beliefs I believe, would slowly change. In future, a Dalit who will be running for Prime Minister’s post would be judged on the content of his/her character rather than caste.”

On black nationalism propounded by Martin Delany, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X and opposition to it by Paul Gilroy and Anthony Appiah, Dr. Carson agreed with the critique of black nationalism, stating it was based on a false assumption. The problem was one could not define blackness because everybody had a different experience.

Defining the essence of someone else’s identity was a sort of fundamentalism. Social justice was not a white or black concept but it was a human concept, he said. The idea of participation in a democracy was not a western or eastern concept but something that allowed people to live freely.

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