The Karma of Brown Folk at 22

What’s really Indian? I don’t feel American.
That’s probably why I be mixing up the medicine.
-Heems, “I Don’t Want to Deal with Those Monsters”

Here’s me in Fall 1998: I’m twenty-two and in my last semester at Wesleyan. Wesleyan was once a hub of Left activism, like Berkeley but way smaller and tucked away at the top of a hill in Middletown, Connecticut. It’s too far from a major city for its marches, protests, and sit-ins to matter much to the wider world. But lots of kids I know came here because of the politics. I came because my sister Geetanjali went here, and I stayed because it was easier than leaving, although my parents always thought I should have transferred to Swarthmore or Columbia, where I had been offered deferred admission when I applied in 1993. My sister had done great at Wesleyan, but I was not my sister, who was always more self-motivated. I was more like fellow Wes alum Heems (‘07), who, in the Das Racist track “Rapping 2 U,” goes “they say I got potential but the kid lazy.”

So anyhow, that fall I mostly smoke pot and play Dylan covers at the local sports bar on Wednesdays and write shitty poems about farm stands, and I couldn’t give a fuck less about politics. Like not at all. When I first got here, I used to mock the sidewalk chalktivism outside Fisk Hall or Olin Library–the all-caps pink and green and blue bubble letters calling attention to this cause or that cause–but after four and a half years (I took a semester off after a bad acid trip my sophomore year), I never even notice it anymore.

“I never even notice it any more”

Then I take this class, “Recent Indian Literature,” with a Visiting Assistant Professor named Lisa Armstrong. She’s an ABD at Brown, where I’ll later go to get my PhD without ever visiting the campus because I come to look up to her the way I look up to my sister Geetanjali. I liked Professor Armstrong (in Fall 1998, I still call her “Professor Armstrong”) ever since the second day of class. I would have liked her before that, but I missed the first meeting because it met on Monday and Wednesday and I thought it met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anyhow, I do all the reading and I sit up front and never miss another class.

Ok, it’s October, and I’ve been in Lisa’s class for about a month. I am smoking a cigarette behind the English Department on Church St. and looking at the orange leaves and thinking about a poem I might write. Lisa (I still don’t call her Lisa) sees me and joins me for a smoke, and we get to talking about Indian literature and poem-writing and music. She mentions Asian Dub Foundation, who I’ve never heard of, and Cornershop, who I’ve heard of but never listened to. And she mentions her partner, Vijay, who’s just finishing a book that’s called The Karma of Brown Folk after W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which I skimmed once for a class before the bad trip that convinced me to take a leave of absence.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963)

If I had paid more attention to Du Bois, I would have seen that his politics reached far beyond Black America, that in fact his famous proclamation, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” is followed by the explanatory clause, “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” If I had dug deeper, like if I had Geetanjali’s self-motivation, I might have gone over to Olin Library–maybe I would’ve stopped to think about what the chalk messages were trying to say on the way in–and taken a look at Du Bois’s “The Souls of White Folk” and found there this understated moment toward the beginning: “This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts.” Or this one, further down: “Instead of standing as a great example of the success of democracy and the possibility of human brotherhood, America has taken her place as an awful example of its pitfalls and failures, so far as black and brown and yellow peoples are concerned.” Or this one: “The present problem of problems is nothing more than democracy beating itself helplessly against the color bar,—purling, seeping, seething, foaming to burst through, ever and again overwhelming the emerging masses of white men in its rolling backwaters and held back by those who dream of future kingdoms of greed built on black and brown and yellow slavery.”

But I had only skimmed Du Bois, and so it wasn’t until a few years later that I heard my people called “brown,” our condition “brownness.” When Lisa said the title of her partner’s book–The Karma of Brown Folk–I felt, as the kids now say (but did not say in the Fall of 1998), seen. The book riffs off of Du Bois’s question, Lisa told me, “How does it feel to be a problem?” and asks South Asian Americans “How does it feel to be a solution?” Which is to say: How does it feel to be white America’s way of saying, “See these brown people made it, why can’t you Blacks?” Which is, then, also to say: How does it feel to be a model minority, adjacent to white and aspiring always, in your actions if not in your intentions, to whiteness? Which is to say, finally: How does it feel to be a knee on the necks of Black Americans?

“How does it feel” was the question I didn’t know I needed to be asked because I had spent most of my life to that point doing everything I could to feel nothing. The drugs, yeah, but also sitting politics out, skimming anything that might bring me out of my numbed, Gen-X haze. For years I had a subscription to the Times and only ever did the crossword (flawlessly, in ink). For years, I both achieved (good grades, good school) and resisted, by way of apathy, cynicism, and indulgent boredom, the culture of achievement. I hadn’t yet figured out that my kind of resistance was just another kind of complicity with antiblackness and that, in order to refuse my assigned role, I needed to begin by feeling.

To begin by feeling, but not to end there.

In spring 2020 I am forty-four. I am a tenured professor, a specialist in British Romanticism (poetry, orange leaves). I have written a book that has gained some positive notice in my small corner of academia. I am successful, a solution. “There is,” writes Lisa’s husband in The Karma of Brown Folk, “something pathetic in this tendency to celebrate only those who succeed in terms set by white supremacy.” He continues: “Those who are successes in other value frameworks but are not so recognized rarely find themselves felicitated…. Those who struggle silently for social justice, for instance, find few memorials to them….” And finally: “White supremacy judges certain people greater than others, and some are frequently denied the capacity to be great at all. This is the root of antiblackness, for it is ‘blacks’ who are mainly denigrated.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hits, I move my family out to the suburbs, where I continue to do the crossword (now on my iPad, still flawlessly but no ink). I read about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that erupt in the wake. I read about the Third Precinct “set ablaze” as the Times puts it. And, on May 29th, a Friday, I read about the Bangladeshi-American family whose restaurant near the precinct was also, unintentionally, set ablaze. “Let my building burn,” said the owner, Ruhel Islam, as he watched the news. “Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” I realize as I’m reading that I have no idea what Islam felt in that moment. I can’t begin to guess what was in his head or in his heart. All I know is that, with those words, “Let my building burn,” he refused to be a solution.

For everyone else 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of The Karma of Brown Folk, twenty years since the book came out in print. And, yes, it’s been twenty years since I paid full price for the hardback at Shaman Drum Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took it to the Old Town Tavern, and got so immersed my beer got warm. Yes, that was twenty years ago. But I count back to October 1998, when I first heard Lisa say the words “the karma of brown folk,” and felt something groan like a gear in my chest. I count back to that moment and celebrate The Karma of Brown Folk at twenty-two.

Manu Samriti Chander is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. He is the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century (Bucknell UP, 2017), and his current project Browntology is under contract with SUNY Press.