B. R. Ambedkar. Indian Flag in the backdrop. W.E.B. Du Bois. Flag of Ghana in the backdrop. (Du Bois illustration courtesy: Sarah Rogers, The Daily Beast, 04-10-2017)
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar corresponded with the prominent American Black leader Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois in his effort to explore every possible avenue to liberate and empower Dalits. Ambedkar studied at Columbia University, New York. It was there at the age of 22 he experienced the joy of freedom from the stigma of untouchability. He later recalled: “The best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors”. On his return to India he again experienced discrimination and observed the tyranny of subjugation of Dalits. Liberation of the Dalits from oppression became Ambedkar’s personal mission for the rest of his life. On 2 July 1946, Ambedkar sent a letter to Du Bois, whose reply is dated 31 July 1946. In his letter, Ambedkar pointed out that he had read Du Bois’ writings and found much similarity between the oppressed conditions of Black people in the U.S. and the Dalit people of India. Ambedkar was interested in taking up the issue in the United Nations, and wanted copies of a representation that had recently been submitted to the United Nations. In fact, Ambedkar had examined the similarities and differences between the oppression faced by the enslaved peoples in USA and Dalits in India in his essays (see references).
Ambedkar’s letter and the reply sent by Du Bois are reproduced below. We acknowledge and thank the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst for providing copies of the two letters. (A copy of Ambedkar’s letter is also reported to be found in the files containing his correspondence with the Cabinet Mission and with other leaders at Siddharth College Library, Bombay; see A. M. Rajshekhariah).
In his reply, Du Bois did send the document Ambedkar wanted and assured him of any help he could render in the future. It is not clear if Ambedkar was able to follow up the matter with UNO; it is assumed that all his time and energy in 1946 were consumed by the developments resulting from the decision of the British government to turn over power to Indian leaders. On the other hand, Du Bois was experiencing great frustration because his efforts to report racist practices in the U.S. as human rights abuses to the newly formed United Nations were being completely blocked. This too may have been a reason why Ambedkar did not pursue the issue of Dalits at the UN.
W.E.B. Du Bois – William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on 23 Feb 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA to Mary Silvina Burghardt and Alfred Du Bois. His mother’s family was part of a group of free Blacks who were residents of the Berkshire Hills for more than 100 years. His father was born in Haiti of French and African descent. Du Bois studied in Nashville Tennessee at Fisk University, a historically Black University, then went to Harvard to complete his B.A. and M.A. He was a graduate student at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, Germany and obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. Du Bois was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate from Humboldt-Universität in 1958. Du Bois served as a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University from 1897-1910 and again 1934-44. He was also a distinguished writer, editor and leader of his people for more than half a century. It is not difficult to see that Du Bois’ life and interests have many parallels with those of Ambedkar.
A long and productive life came to an end on 27 August 1963 in Accra, Ghana, two years after Du Bois moved to Ghana and became a citizen there. He was 95 years old and died one day before the celebrated ‘March on Washington’ under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. where Dr. King gave his memorable speech, “I Have a Dream”. Du Bois’ death in Ghana was announced on that day by Roy Wilkins, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Toward the end of his life Du Bois was disappointed by the lack of progress he had hoped for in the liberation of African-Americans. He was also disillusioned by capitalism, as well as the entrenched racist stance of U.S. political powers, and joined the Communist Party. He thought that capitalist ideology cannot reform itself, and universal selfishness cannot offer social good to all people. Du Bois renounced his American citizenship.
Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, invited Du Bois to come to his country. Ghana was the first country in Africa (south of the Sahara) to gain independence. Nkrumah wished that Du Bois might be able to complete writing the Encyclopedia Africana, a project that Du Bois first envisioned in 1909. He wanted to document the social, cultural and scientific knowledge of Africa and the people of Africa who moved or were moved to other countries in the Old World and to other continents. He was also interested in writing about individuals who became intellectuals, scientists, artists and other prominent Africans and African-Americans.
Du Bois’ travels in Germany, England and other European countries, the Soviet Union, China, Latin America and African countries had exposed him to various political, economic and social systems. He is recognized as an intellectual, activist, poet, sociologist, philosopher, professor, economic historian, journalist and a social critic. He was a courageous civil rights leader and a foremost spokesperson for the rights of African-Americans during the early decades of the 1900s. Along with other African-American leaders and abolitionist whites, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. NAACP protested against all forms of racial discrimination, violence, and unequal treatment of African-Americans. Du Bois was the first editor in 1910 of the official publication of the NAACP, The Crisis, and continued as editor for 23 years. It was so popular that within ten years, circulation reached 100,000 subscribers. This publication continues today, acknowledging the founding editor Du Bois. It is considered to be the most widely read and influential publication about racism and social justice in the history of the U.S. (www.thecrisismagazine.com).
Among his writings is the most celebrated one titled The Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903, which is a collection of essays. The book is partly a social documentary, history, autobiography, and anthropological account although it mostly deals with his approach to emancipation and empowerment of African-Americans. He asserted that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”. He wrote dozens of books over a span of 62 years, among them: Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880; Of the Dawn of Freedom; The Gift of Black Folk; Against Racism.
First edition covers of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), courtesy: Between the Covers-Rare Books, Inc., New Jersey; The Crisis(1911) and Dark Princess (1928), both courtesy of Wikipedia
Du Bois extended his scholarship and activism to include Black people worldwide, and is recognized as the ‘Father’ of the Pan-African movement. It was at an initial conference in London in 1900 that Du Bois stated his brilliant prediction: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”. This assertion was repeated in The Souls of Black Folk and is associated with him. He called for justice – not exploitation – of all people, whatever class, caste, privilege or birth. “Let no color or race be a feature of distinction between white and black . . .” but particularly regarding the European colonies in Africa. Du Bois called for the first large Pan-African Congress held in 1919 in Paris, parallel to the Versailles peace accord that ended World War I. Du Bois astutely wanted the voice of Black people to be heard at such a crucial time. Three more Congresses were held, with the bold leadership of Du Bois devolving to African leaders such as Nkrumah of Ghana.
This international focus is evident in the issues of The Crisis. Interestingly, two articles titled “The “Negroes” of India” and “Aryan versus “Untouchable” in India” appeared in the December 1942 and January 1943 issues of The Crisis highlighting the history of the plight of Dalits in India and introducing Ambedkar as their spokesperson. It was written by Harry Paxton Howard when Roy Wilkins was the editor of the magazine. These articles appeared some 3 years before the correspondence between Ambedkar and Du Bois. The articles by Howard are reproduced below (after the references). (See page 378 for Howard’s vivid description of Ambedkar.) Howard also makes a reference to Jotirao Phule in the second article.
In the 1920s Du Bois was interested in the people of India and their colonial rulers. The diversity of the skin colour of Indians must have fascinated Du Bois in his quest for an Afro-Asian solidarity of people of color everywhere, as a revolutionary struggle against white supremacy.
Du Bois wrote five historical novels. One of them, titled Dark Princess (1928), features an African-American man who meets an Indian princess, Kautilya, a member of an international coalition of dark-skinned people who were opposed to Western imperialism. The novel provided a platform for Du Bois to express his favorite theme of revealing the history of people of color in the world, their beauty, and their contributions to society worldwide. His desire was to organize an international and pan-ethnic coalition of people of colour.
Like Du Bois, Ambedkar too was a prolific writer. He authored more than a dozen books; several others exist as incomplete manuscripts. 22 volumes of his writings and speeches have been published by the Government of Maharashtra. Whether on political, economic, administrative, juristic, linguistic, anthropological, religious, philosophical or social issues, Ambedkar’s analyses are deeply penetrating and challenging. The very first paper presented by him in 1916 at a student seminar at Columbia University, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, remains a classic in understanding the Indian society. This beginning would lead him to further analysis of caste not as a division of labour but a division of labourers. He declared the Indian social system as one of ‘graded inequality’; of an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt, and ‘an ascending scale of hatred and a descending scale of contempt’. Justice, equality, liberty and fraternity were themes that shaped his life, actions and writings. Du Bois too would declare: “I believe in Liberty for all men”, right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends. A speech Ambedkar was invited to give in 1936 but cancelled by the organizers for his refusal to make certain changes suggested by them, still remains a most incisive analysis of caste. Ambedkar published this under the title “Annihilation of Caste”.
While Dalits have translated this work into other languages, still study and value the insight, the society at large has avoided reading or facing the implications of his conclusions. This reluctance to touch Ambedkar is equally true for all his other writings. The world at large has been slow to appreciate Ambedkar’s insights which are valuable for all countries, but in recent years more scholars are beginning to pay attention. Ambedkar’s directive, “Educate, Organize, Agitate”, should not be seen as advice only to Dalits in India, but equally applicable to oppressed people who seek, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity everywhere.
Du Bois was disappointed by the lack of progress in reforming American society. Ambedkar was disappointed with attempts to reform Hinduism and create a casteless society which he defined as a prerequisite for India to be a functional constitutional democracy. He converted to Buddhism, an egalitarian religion, in October 1956, fulfilling a declaration he made in 1935: “I will not die a Hindu.” A few months later and after completing his manuscript The Buddha and His Dhamma, he died in December 1956.
Ambedkar is perhaps best known for his role in writing the Indian Constitution. For this reason he is often described as the ‘Architect’ or ‘Father’ of the Indian Constitution. On 29 August 1947, two weeks after Independence, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Constitution drafting committee. Already well acquainted with the constitutions of many countries, with insights derived from travels and studies abroad, and from his extensive knowledge of Indian history and society, Ambedkar guided his committee and produced one of the finest constitutions in the world. The constitutions of at least fourteen countries provided key elements that are incorporated into the Indian Constitution.
Ambedkar (1891-1956) and Du Bois (1868-1963) were contemporaries. Certain similarities in their approach to the process of liberation have been pointed out by scholars. Ambedkar studied at Columbia University from 1913 until 1916 June when he left for further studies in London. He earned his M.A. in 1915 and completed his Ph.D. at Columbia, then obtained an M.Sc. and D.Sc. in Economics at the London School of Economics, and also was admitted to the Bar.
In New York City, Columbia University is adjacent to Harlem, a neighborhood which became a destination from 1904 onwards for Black people who were migrating in large numbers from southern states and from the Caribbean Islands. The era of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who advocated vocational education and accommodation as a strategy of survival for people in the deep south, was giving way to a new bold assertion of civil and human rights. The founding of the NAACP in 1909-1910 was a historical milestone. The connections between Columbia University and the NAACP are many and strong.
Two highly regarded members of Columbia’s faculty were on the first General Committee of NAAC. They were none other than Ambedkar’s favourite mentors: John Dewey, Professor of Philosophy, and Ambedkar’s Ph.D. guide, Edwin R.A. Seligman, Professor of Economics and Social Science. Another prominent figure in NAACP was a graduate and former faculty member of Columbia: Joel E. Spingarn. He was Chairman of the Board, Treasurer, and later the second President of NAACP, serving totally 26 years. All were closely connected with Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Naturally, Columbia published some of the writings of NAACP. Faculty and students at Columbia would have read and subscribed to The Crisis that Du Bois edited. It is possible that Ambedkar was one of those readers, although we have no record of his writings on race during this time in the U.S. While Ambedkar and Du Bois were both in New York city at the same time they did not meet each other.
The Crisis was very much a part of the Harlem Renaissance (c.1917-1930s), which was beginning to emerge while Ambedkar was in New York. The Renaissance was a movement of literary, artistic, musical, and cultural assertion by Black people, fueled in part by the great migration and soldiers returning from World War I (1914-1918). The movement fed off and contributed to the social and legal rights struggle that was growing nationwide in reaction to increasing discriminatory and violent racism. All were indebted to the pioneering earlier work of the towering thinker, social reformer and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).
Du Bois was convinced that arts played a role in bringing about racial equality. As editor of The Crisis Du Bois promoted the outpouring of many African-American performing artists and writers in the magazine. This was also the period when some leaders were active in proposing different strategies for the liberation and advancement of their people. Marcus Garvey from Jamaica, leader of the ‘Universal Negro Improvement Association’, advocated the resettlement of worldwide Black peoples to Africa. Du Bois and the NAACP differed widely from Garvey in approach and solutions. Du Bois also disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s earlier stand in accepting and accommodating to the existing social division. Du Bois worked relentlessly for total integration of the races.
The modern transatlantic slave trade is about 500 years old. The caste system, a form of birth-based slavery, is more than 2000 years old in India. Caste was a matter of consuming interest for many reformers. The Buddha condemned caste hierarchy as it was dividing the society and leading to many evils. As caste spread to all regions of India there emerged protests and reformers; most of their stories have not yet been fully told. Songs of protest against the emerging birth-based discrimination can be seen in 2000 year old Tamil literature. Among the greatest intellectuals was a Tamil Dalit, Thiruvalluvar, who condemned divisions and affirmed the oneness of the human family. His non-religious work of ethics written as beautiful couplets, the Thirukkural, has been translated into more than 40 languages. Such protests against caste have continued ever since.
More recently, in the mid-1800s, some 80 years before Ambedkar, the Maharashtrian intellectual Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule were interested in eradicating untouchability as well as the caste system. He and his wife founded schools for Dalits—boys, girls, and adults—as early as 1843. They believed that secular education can emancipate oppressed castes and women. In 1873 Phule published a book titled Gulamgiri (Slavery). The book was dedicated “to the good people of the United States of America for their battle against slavery”, i.e. the American abolitionists. He compared the condition of the enslaved people in America with the oppressed people of India and hoped that like the 1865 abolition of slavery, there would be an end to all forms of caste discrimination in India. A century later, the Black movements in the USA continued their influence: the “Black Panthers” was the model for Namdeo Dhasal and J. V. Pawar founding the “Dalit Panthers” organization in Maharashtra in 1972.
At about the time Du Bois was interested in documenting the neglected culture, history, and achievements of African nations and leaders, an eclectic Tamil scholar, social reformer and activist, Ayothithass Pandithar (1845–1914), was deconstructing the prevalent narrative of Dalits popularized by the oppressive ‘upper’ castes. He was making powerful arguments about their Buddhist and intellectual past. Besides establishing a Buddhist and Dravidian Society (1891) he published magazines that were widely circulated and read by Tamils in India and in diasporas. In the neighboring state of Kerala too, there were leaders such as Ayyankali (1863-1941) and Narayana Guru (1956-1928) who were challenging caste hegemony and promoting the cause of Dalits and other oppressed communities through organizations, protests and literature. A contemporary of Ambedkar in Tamil Nadu, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar (1879-1973), was a rationalist who worked for the eradication of caste and against exploitation of the marginalized, besides promoting education of women and their rights.
Du Bois promoted racial integration among all Americans and human rights for everyone. His stance was similar to Ambedkar’s later views in his seminal publication, Annihilation of Caste (1936), in the hope that the people of India will unite to affirm their common humanity. Later, Ambedkar would point out the differences between slavery and birth-based caste oppression. He felt that untouchability was an indirect form of slavery and was therefore more difficult to fight and overcome. Ambedkar wanted his people to obtain an education, gain employment, raise awareness and organize themselves to fight for their rights. Likewise, Du Bois realized that high quality education was necessary for African-Americans to compete with Caucasians. This was one of the reasons that Du Bois helped to found The Crisis magazine and NAACP. Besides starting educational institutions, Ambedkar helped to start journals through which he could convey his views and raise the consciousness of his people. The first one was Mooknayak (1920) which ran for three years. Ambedkar continued to publish: Bahishkrut Bharat (1927-1929), Janata (1930-1956), and Prabuddha Bharat (1956). His plans to start a political party materialized only after his death (Republican Party, 1956).
As noted earlier, W.E.B. Du Bois felt frustrated by the continuous blocks to achieving equal rights, prompting him to make a major change in his last years and relocate to Ghana where he was warmly welcomed. It is interesting that B.R. Ambedkar, toward the end of his life, publicly rejected Hinduism and converted to Buddhism in 1956. It was five years later that Du Bois left his country.
Both Ambedkar and Du Bois made enormous intellectual and practical contributions to counter the racist and colonial powers of the twentieth century. The Constitution of India and the writings and life of Ambedkar continue to encourage all who seek a just world. The NAACP continues to be a national leader in the struggle for rights. They both applied their outstanding scholarship to the struggle for the rights to freedom and dignity of minority peoples. They took a global outlook to include all oppressed people. Their achievements, writings, and legacies continue to be powerful forces and influence us today, 100 years after they wrote and lived. Racism and casteism, white supremacy and lynching, caste discrimination and atrocities against Dalits are still practiced today in old and new forms. As ever, the voices of Du Bois and Ambedkar ring true. Their intellectual arguments, political positioning, activism, bold and uncompromising stand on securing human rights for all people remain relevant for the transformation of the societies everywhere.
Note: In the collected works of Ambedkar chapter 3 of volume 5 is titled “Slaves and Untouchables” (p.9-17). In chapter 8 of the same volume Part III is titled “Roots of the Problem”. Here in chapter 3 under the title “Parallel Cases” Ambedkar deals with the oppression in ancient Rome, Villeinage in England, Servility of Jews and “Negroes and Slavery” (p. 75-88).
* Alridge, Derrick P. W. E. B. Du Bois in Georgia, 2003. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/w-e-b-du-bois-georgia
* Anderson, Carol. “From Hope to Disillusion: African Americans, the United Nations, and the Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1947.” Diplomatic History, vol. 20, no. 4, 1996, pp. 531–563. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24913318.
* Bhalla, Tamara. The True Romance of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess. S&F Online, Issue 14.3 | 2018.
* Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (https://archive.org/details/Dr.BabasahebAmbedkarWritingsAndSpeechespdfsAllVolumes/page/n3)
* Du Bois, W.E.B. 1928. Dark Princess – A Romance. Banner Books, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. (Recent editions have an Introduction by the Indian English scholar, Homi K. Bhabha)
* Harlem Renaissance: A Gale critical companion. Janet Witalec, Project Editor. 3 Vols. Gale, 2003.
* How W.E.B. Du Bois Found His Final Resting Place in Ghana. In Ultimate Destination (https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-web-du-bois-found-his-final-resting-place-in-ghana)
* Kapoor S.D. B R Ambedkar, W E B Du Bois and the Process of Liberation. The Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 2003, p. 5344 -5349.
* Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B.Du Bois 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Henry Holt, 1993.
* Pawar, J. V. Dalit Panthers – an Authoritative History. translated by Rakshit Sonawane. Forward Press Books, New Delhi, 2017.
* Rajsekhariah, A. M. B R Ambedkar: The Politics of Emancipation, Sindhu Publication, Bombay, 1971, p 216. (https://archive.org/details/4990010025753B.R.AmbedkarThePoliticsOfEmancipation/page/n6)
* Sambaluk, Nicholas Michael. Du Bois, W.E.B. In: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. (https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/du_bois_web)
* Sivaiah, Tata. Remembering The Legacy of Mahatma Jotirao Phule. 30 Nov 2017.
* The Crisis Magazine. (https://www.thecrisismagazine.com/)
Historical issues from 1910 to 1922 are found at:
* W. E. B. Du Bois: The Life and Legacy of Early 20th Century America’s Most Famous Civil Rights Activist. Charles River Editors. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
* W.E.B. Du Bois Creates Revolutionary, Artistic Data Visualizations Showing the Economic Plight of African-Americans (1900). In: Open Culture, September 21st, 2016.(http://www.openculture.com/2016/09/w-e-b-du-bois-creates-revolutionary-artistic-data-visualizations-showing-the-economic-plight-of-african-americans-1900.html)
* Wolters, Raymond. Du Bois and His Rivals. University of Missouri Press, 2002.
The “Negroes” of India & Aryan versus “Untouchable” in India
Harry Paxton Howard
Both articles reproduced from The Crisis magazine, 1942 & 1943. Courtesy Google Books:
https://books.google.co.in/books/about/The_Crisis.html?id=xloEAAAAMBAJ&redir_esc=y. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=yloEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&ca d=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
The magazine was founded in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Editor: Roy Wilkins. The author “Harry Paxton Howard has lived in the Far East for 25 years, 5 years in Japan and 19 in China. He is the author of “The Socialist and Labor Movement in Japan” publication of which caused his deportation from that country. He was the editor of various newspapers in China, among them the China Courier at Shanghai. At one time he was professor of Chinese diplomatic history at Soochow University. Since his return to the United States in 1940 he has been a prolific writer and lecturer on problems of the Far East.” Below: Cover Page.
P. Dayanandan taught botany at Madras Christian College. (email@example.com). This article was written to honor Dalit leaders Thol Thirumavalavan and D. Ravikumar of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) who were elected as Lok Sabha Members of the Parliament in the elections of May 2019.