Two things disturbed me more than the lockdown I had to deal with after a pandemic was declared earlier this year. First, an announcement that popular skin-lightening product Fair & Lovely would now be called Glow & Lovely to seem more politically correct. The second was an attack on students from Nigeria and Ghana at the Roorkee Institute of Technology in Uttarakhand. Both pointed to a subject that much of the Western world has grappled with for the better part of 2020, and one that has failed to trigger any meaningful discourse in an India struggling to cope with a virus.
Racism continues to cast a long shadow on everything we do in our country, from the way we treat foreigners to how we frame matrimonial advertisements. We have internalized it to such an extent, unfortunately, that it has turned into a blind spot. It’s why multinational corporations can get away with inane new product names and absolve themselves of profiteering from our collective sense of insecurity as a people.
I thought about the theme around which this month’s magazine took shape. Yes, change is good, but any exploration — be it about the evolution of masculinity, or issues related to sustainability, inclusivity, and gender equality — needs to begin with the asking of difficult questions. What #BlackLivesMatter did, for me, was raise questions I had simply never asked myself, about race, how I saw myself as a brown man, or whether my actions towards others carried prejudices I had no knowledge of. It was a sobering exercise aided in no small measure by some powerful writing from contemporary African American voices.
This wasn’t a subject that was new to me, on account of a year spent studying Black women writers for a Master’s degree in what seems like a century ago. This time though, I wanted to get a sense of what contemporary writers were saying, away from the influence of giants like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker. Books like Sula, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Possessing The Secret of Joy would always be relevant, but I wanted to hear from writers of my own time, to try and see how things had changed, if they had at all.
One of the first books I turned to was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was familiar with some of his work as a journalist, and loved his take on the Black Panther comic book series in 2016, but picked up this essay five years after its publication because it was an extended letter to his teenage son. I assumed the form he had chosen would allow him to mix the personal with the political, allowing me, a rank outsider to the question of race in America, to find a way in.
What gripped me almost instantly was a piece of information shared by Coates fairly early on: “At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth $4 billion, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies — cotton — was America’s primary export.” It made me realize that much like the British Empire built upon wealth stolen from its far-flung colonies, the world’s only superpower had long learned to live with blood on its hands.
Coates is not a sentimental writer, even though this slim volume is addressed to his son. He doesn’t sugar-coat his hard lessons learned over time, nor does he try and protect the boy from certain truths that he must inevitably confront irrespective of how privileged he believes his background to be. It was this acceptance of inevitability that moved me the most, suddenly making all those protests across America seem necessary and long overdue.
My next choice was a book-length poem called Citizen: An American Lyric, by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine. It was unlike any book of poetry I had read before, not only because she interspersed blank verse with photographs, graphics, and art, but because she taught me to understand the nature of microaggression — a term coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to define the intentional or unintentional verbal or behavioural indignities that people of colour must live with daily. It reminded me of the many times I had been asked to step out of line at airports around the world, for reasons that failed to make sense at the time.
Citizen left me with an overwhelming sadness, partly because I empathised with the helplessness of Black America, and also because it made me guilty of failing to recognise my inadequacies in interacting with foreigners of a colour other than my own.
Finally, I picked up Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib, a love letter masquerading as a tribute to his favourite hip-hop quartet, A Tribe Called Quest. This was important to me because of how it reflected my long-standing love for the genre, a love that went back over three decades, and one that had taught me more about life on America’s streets than documentaries by CNN ever could. This was another book that was intensely personal, allowing Abdurraqib to use his lifelong passion for the group to explain why music could be such a powerful medium of change.
A Tribe Called Quest no longer exist, but their rise and fall bookend eras of change in how audiences interact with African American artists, offering perspectives that are often ignored by politicians with no time for nuances.
The marches in support of #BlackLivesMatter continue in America and cities around the world as I type this. I think of music playing in the background of those protests too, the rappers from Compton and Queens, Manchester and Glasgow, who distil lessons on identity and social history into pithy rhymes that sink their teeth into listeners long after the beats have faded. The revolution will come because it is inevitable. I am excited about the soundtrack it will bring.
— First published in GQ