There once were 4 girls from Mississippi. Now, I know what you’re thinking but it ain’t them. These girls were not really from Mississippi; they were visiting there and had just returned to Dalit Shakti Kendra (Dalit Power School - DSK), filming and exploring the similarities between racism in the US and untouchability in India. These 4 girls were Indian, from Gujarat, outside of Ahmedabad to be exact. Hell, they weren’t even girls. They were all very much women – in all senses of the word, likely from an early age, India tends to do that.
Regardless of origins or ages, the 4 were as fantastic as any image created by Marvel comics. The 4 were as different as the elements but when put together you had the components to make almost anything. They embodied the best that humanity had to offer, peppered with some of the worst.
For me, T (not her name) always comes first (the one on the far left in the photo). She was the worker-bee of the group, first out the gate, first out the house, the plane or whatever was going on. If it needed doing, she was ready and in all likelihood she had already done it, written a manual for others to follow and on to the next. She was hungry like Whoopi Goldberg after she got away from Danny Glover in the Color Purple. For her, life was an oyster and she had just pulled up to the free buffet of life. T would later manage our 1589 village census, essentially by herself, navigating around her own ambition, inabilities, neglect, familial obligations as well as others expectations and sexist preferences for male involvement.
N (not her name) was the elder of the group and the soulful one (third from the left above). You could tell from her face that something horrible had happened to her but that she lived through it – barely. All of the single women at the school had stories of abuse, abandonment, fear, persecution and/or death. N was responsible for teaching individuals at the DSK how to make clothes. That someone with such a dark cloud over them was associated with some of the brightest colors that you could possibly imagine, died into the cloth in a slow process, was constantly paradoxical. Perhaps the light that was incorporated into the fabric represented the light that she wished to bring forward into the world. Perhaps the darkness that surrounded the splashes of color was the best that she could do to counteract what had happened to her.
R (not her name, first on the right) was the firebrand of the group. She had gone to Mississippi over the objections of her then husband (M). He was to blame though. M worked at DSK and began a project with video-taping the activities of the group as they challenged untouchability as well as the activities in the school. At night, he would bring the camera home. He would not let R touch it, saying that it was very expensive as well as delicate. Nightly, however, she would see it in the house and every now and then she would sneak out of bed and begin to play with it. This became an obsession of hers and after waiting for quite a while she approached the leaders of DSK, expressed an interest in learning about film and then the opportunity to come to the states had arose. M threw a fit but in the context of a progressive social movement to uplift the Dalit as well as a strong commitment from the leaders of the organization to fight sexist practices as well as caste discrimination, his position was not supported. R went to the American south, she learned many aspects of film-making (quickly surpassing M and getting an offer from National Geographic for a small project) but under the strain of the interaction as well as M’s ambitions, she got divorced, left the school with her lovely newborn and attempted to find her way. M was in Canada but is now back in Gujarat.
Finally, there was Z (second from the left) – the heart and voice of the group. Now, Z is one of those people that defies description. She, like the others, had a light and like N you knew that there is some pain in her past. But, the way she has moved beyond it is as uplifting a presence as you can imagine. I was actually introduced to Z through her voice and strangely I was reintroduced to African American history by the experience.
At Martin Macwan’s invitation, she sang “We shall overcome.” Now, I had heard the song a million times before but somehow her version brought me back to it, through it and beyond it. With the different points of emphasis, different accent and rawness of the presentation, I began to feel the resonance of the song and of the African American struggle. Sitting in a courtyard in the middle of some Indian village, I listened to the words and felt renewed. The struggle was here, I thought. Our struggle was here. It continued. It grew. They had heard us – all the way over here, felt solace and moved accordingly. Our presence was much needed. Gandhi and his non-violent movement was not their inspiration, King and his movement was. Gandhi represented Hinduism and betrayal; King represented the oppressed who struggled, righteously and with little contradiction. Mississippi in Ahmedabad. African Americans were kindred to the Dalit – they who believe and practice equality. African Americans were fellow travelers – in the old sense of the word. As we attempted to overcome, so would they. As we attempted change, so would they. As we attempted, so would they. Hopefully they would do better.
Reflecting about my sense of failure regarding the African American struggle in general and the civil rights movement in particular, I heard the song of my liberation for the first time and realized that my metric for success was deficient. Mos Def had it right: the invisible man got the whole world watching. This time though 4 girls from Mississippi showed the light – yet again.