Africanity entered my life at the age of 40, when I visited my native island of Madagascar for the first time. I was overwhelmed with an inexplicable pride when I saw some pictures of my great-grandfather and my grandfather. Both of them were Africans! Thus, I was part of the great African family! Because until that day, I only knew about a part of this lost family, through souvenir photos. And these photos were particularly of people with Asian features, since my family belongs to the Merina ethnic group which is a mixture of Malay-Indonesian and African. For the first time, I felt proud that African blood was running through my veins.
Even if the African appeared late in my life, I was attracted to the black struggle at a very young age. My father was surprised to see me reading Peaux Noires, Masques Blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), that I had borrowed from the library of the French high school in Pondicherry where I was studying. “I knew Frantz Fanon. I was in Algeria at the same time!” he said. So, his son was interested in the revolt. He too had been a rebel in his youth. Divianadin Gautier born in 1927, was the first in the family who really became a French citizen. His forefathers who decided to become French were just colonial subjects.
Nourished by the messages of Iyothee Thass, he had joined the reform movement of Periyar against Brahmin hegemony. But his silent protest was never echoed. He had to join the French army and leave the country to get his family out of poverty. When he left me in 1998, I felt I had to take up his fight that he never started.
Growing up in Pondicherry, a newly independent colonial city where the traces of colonialism are still present, one is easily exposed to structural racism and casteism at an early age. That was my case. How can you not be outraged, when one way or the other your caste is thrown in your face like a slap? How can you not be enraged when the name of your caste is used as an insult? Parai paiya (son of pariah). Yes, that’s how high caste parents used to scold their offspring when they were misbehaving. I understood at that time that an affluent life was not immune to caste prejudices.
This feeling of injustice was to pursue me in the country that espouses “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” as its motto. The Parisian suburbs are where I felt the resistance organising itself for the first time.
The logo on the palm “Touche pas à mon pote (Hands off my pal)” was launched with its yellow badge similar to the cursed star of another time. This anti-racism movement was born in France a year after my arrival in the country. Together with Africans, West-Indians, North Africans, Asians, I lived my first experience of solidarity against a neo-colonial power that treated citizens of colour as second-class citizens. The lonely revolt of my youth had found an echo through this movement. But I was afraid this revolt would end in silence as it did for my father.
An African American man died of suffocation in Minneapolis. Operating Le Thinnai Kreyol, an online platform co-founded with Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir, the Dalit in me was outraged. He felt the same pain and suffering. Strangely, the knee that choked George Floyd released an invisible weight that weighed on the conscience of Negrodalitality.
The Dalit of Negrodalitality suffers for his black brother who dies every day in the world under police brutality. He aches for his Dalit brothers and sisters who are burned, beaten, and humiliated by a society that has denied them the minimum of dignity for centuries. He is tormented for his Catholic and Muslim brothers and sisters who are threatened with extinction by an extremist power.
The Dalit invites the African to appear on Le Thinnai Kreyol. The wretcheds of the Earth decide to defy and fight injustice through words that will echo in the world — Nègre, Pariah, Achhoot. The Afro-Dalit picks up these insults to make poetry and turn the social handicap to assert himself and his identity. Négrodalitalité is a reconciliation with the unmet past expressed in a cycle of poems.
Words flow and poetry is born out of pain and anger. The verses of poetry join the company of Djembe and the Thappattai which are the symbol of African slavery and the suppressed voice of the Pariah.
(The writer is an author, most recently of The Thinnai. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column)
🗞️ Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️