We Can't Tell Kamala Harris' Story Without the British Empire. We Can't Tell America's Without It Either - Priya Satia
The United States was formed through rebellion against the British empire, but well after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, resistance to that empire continued to shape America’s history. The civil rights movement, for instance, was not only deeply influenced by the thought and practices of the Indian anticolonial movement, but it was also part of a wider antiracist struggle in the era of decolonization that connected activists across Asia, Africa and beyond, mobilizing the global diasporas of Asians and Africans that colonialism had create
Those diasporas extended to the United States. The British shipped enslaved Africans to the Americas starting in the 17th century. Indians were also in the United States from the start, such as the Bengali woman Mary Emmons, who was Aaron Burr’s servant and mother of two of his children. More Indians, many of them refugees from colonialism, arrived from the 19th century.
And so, freedom struggles abroad merged with the struggles of people of color in the United States. If Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi, Indian anticolonial activists in the United States, like Lala Lajpat Rai, found inspiration in the Black struggle there from the early 20th century.
These intertwined histories of displacement and struggle have profoundly affected America’s current political moment. Two of the most powerful politicians in the Democratic Party, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, are the product of families shaped by the global anticolonial and antiracial optimism of the 1960s, by the bonds of progressive young people around the globe who attempted to make new kinds of societies at a moment in which empire seemed to be completing the process of disintegration that had begun in 1776. As Kamala Harris vies for the Vice Presidency, a complete recounting of her formation requires recognizing her as both a quintessentially American politician—because of, not despite, her being a child of immigrants—and part of a global story of the former British empire.
For Obama, that story goes back to colonial Kenya. His grandfather, serving with British regiments there, saw much of the British empire, including South Asia, during World War II. In the 1950s, he was detained for six traumatic months in the brutal camps the British established to crush anticolonial rebellion in Kenya. His son, the senior Barack, was arrested and jailed for his anticolonial involvement at the age of 20, before coming to the U.S. for university in 1959, on the eve of Kenya’s independence, to study economics. Economics, specifically development economics, was the discipline of the decade for the leaders of the emerging “Third World.” Questioning the theoretical assumptions that had justified colonialism, they strove to remake the discipline for the postcolonial era. With its technical power, they hoped to unleash the progress that colonialism had stifled in their nations.
President Obama’s moving memoir Dreams From My Father recounts his visit to Kenya in 1988, where he realized how profoundly colonialism had shaped his grandfather’s and his father’s lives, including his father’s blind faith in Western technocracy. In fact, the future president concluded, progress depended on “faith in other people.” He saw his work as a community organizer in Chicago as a continuation of his Kenyan forefathers’ struggle for freedom. Equality in America was, to him, part of global anticolonial struggle.
Obama also encountered Indians in Kenya, where, as in many African colonies, they had been brought by the British as indentured workers. When his relatives criticized the community’s seeming disloyalty to Kenya, Obama reassured them with stories of South Asian solidarity with Black struggle in the United States. Alongside the history of Indian anti-Blackness is this history of antiracist solidarity. Thus, after the predominantly white-settler government of another British African colony, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), unilaterally declared independence in 1965, the Indian government deputed P.V. Gopalan to newly independent Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) to help its government cope with the resulting regional refugee crisis.