Aba Singh                                                                                                                                                                                   # 6

 Racial and Gender Discrimination in Dalit and AfroAmerican Literature – A Cross Cultural Studies

Abstract: The present paper analyses the condition of Dalits in India and Afro-American race. How they were ghettoized, persecuted and viciously outlawed from all avenues of decency, hope, progress and livelihood. Black writers and Dalit writers of both sexes have dealt with this theme extensively. Racism, as a distinct phenomenon of the American social and political scene was clearly rooted in that period of history.

            Dalits in India are in similar position. Important dalit writers like Mulk Raj Anand, Baburo Bagul, Om Prakash Valmiki Tara Bai, Dongre in their novel have discussed about segregation in every village in India.  How dalits are forced into ghetto.  It reveals to the reader the rigidity and narrow mindedness of castiest in India which is relevant even today.  In both Dalit and Afro-American society girls are viewed as sex objects without any compunction on the part of the males of the dominant culture.   

 Key Words:  racial discrimination; gender discrimination; Dalits;

Gloria Steinem (1984) in her introduction to “Outrageous Acts and every day Rebellions” explains about racism and sexism that they are allied and have a parallel existence.  They are mutually interdependent and hence they arise from the same set of circumstances. “Just as male was universal but female was limited, white was universal but black was limited” Gloria Wade-Gayles (Wade-Gayles 1984:3-4) depicts this phenomenon through the imagery of circles:

There are three major circles of reality in American society, which reflects degrees of power and powerlessness.  There is a large circle in which people, most of them men, experience influence and power.  Far away from it there is a smaller circle, a narrow spare, in which black people, regardless of sex, experience uncertainty, exploitation and powerlessness.  Hidden in this second circle is a third, a small, dark enclosure in which black women experience pain, isolation and vulnerability.  There are the distinguishing marks of black womanhood in white America”(Wade-Gayles 1984).

The Afro American race was ghettoized, persecuted and viciously outlawed from all avenues of decency, hope, progress and livelihood.  Racism is like a life threatening, non nurturing force which exists even today.  Black writers of both sexes have dealt with   this theme extensively, either directly or indirectly.  Male writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, find in racism a major theme of their novels.  Women writers like Nella Larsen, Ann Petry, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker also talk of this basic reality.  The black woman faced the reality of double discrimination of both race and sex.  Racism and sexism co-exit in a traumatic alliance with in the life of the black woman.  Paula Giddings explains:

“…the experience of Black Women, is the relationship between sexism and racism because both are motivated by similar, economic, social, and psychological forces, it is only logical that those who sought to undermine Blacks were also the most virulent anti feminists.  The means of oppression differed across race and sex lines, but the well spring of that oppression was the same”(Giddings 1984: 6).

Racism, as a distinct phenomenon of the American social and political scene, was clearly rooted in that period of history where in the first Africans were brought as cheap labour on to the American work force.  Joel Kovel in his critically penetrating analysis of racism, explains at length the theory where by whites qualified blacks into a wholly new education where in they existed not as people but as things.

 He says that the white slaver:

            “first reduced the human self of his black slave to a body and then reduced the body to a thing, he dehumanized his slave, made him quantifiable, and there by absorbed him into a rising world market or productive exchange…..Thus in the new culture of the West, the black human was reduced to a black thing” (Kovel 1984).

Dehumanization of the black slave into a statistic was only one of steps that went into the creation of a racist America.

Racism and Sexism co-exist in a traumatic alliance within the life of the Black Woman.  For the black Woman, racial discrimination together with gender discrimination proves to be a deadly combination.  Capitalism, racism and sexism have critically affected the lives and conscience of African American Women.  They are like the system of societal and psychological restriction.  According to Walter Rodney, “Africans were enslaved for economic reasons so that their labor power could be exploited” (Rodney 1944:18-19). Eric Williams offers indisputable facts to show that “racism is the results of the exploitation of the African Labor” (Kwane 1976: 27). He points out that the enslavement of the African had everything to do with “the cheapness of labor” not the color of the laborers skin: “Racial difference made it easier to justify and rationalize.

Negro Slavery …. Finally this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper.  The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a negro for life…..” (ibid).

Sex and race have been interrelated in the history of America and the black women writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall they have necessarily reflected the relationship in their novels.  The impact of racism and sexism had been related by these writers in terms of their history and expression as black and female.  Just as blacks as a group are relegated to an under class in America by virtue of their race, so women are relegated to a separate cast by virtue of their sex.  But within that separate caste, a standard of woman is designed in terms of a class definition.  In the contemporary period, black women novelists have continued to analyze the relationship between class, race and gender.  All these three elements- race, gender and class are present in all Black American writers.

Toni Morrison’s novel, ‘The Bluest Eye’ “a neo – slave narrative” is concerned with the theme of racial exploitation during the World War period.  Owing to the then existing circumstances of sexism and racism Pecola Breed love becomes a victim of the white society.  Marked early in her life as ugly, she yearns for blue eyes, the ultimate standard of beauty as “White American prescription for beauty include blonde hair white skin, and above all, blue eyes” (Alphy 1990: 17-18).  The Bluest Eye “a timeless study of a social out cast who rejects herself,” (Walker 1991: 50) implies on underlying desire for assimilation, verification and acceptance by white people.  The novel resolves round the theme of slavery and racial oppression and its far reaching consequences.

In the’Bluest Eye’ Pecola is an eleven year old black girl, poor, deprived, battered by her mother, raped by her father and silenced by all. For Pecola and her family, ugliness is a matter of personal conviction:  “It was as though some mysterious all knowing master had given each one a clock of ugliness to wear to and they had each accepted it without question.  The master had said “you are ugly people”.  They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement, saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every bill board, every movie, every glance” (Morrison 1970: 27).  Pecola threw her ugliness like a mantle over herself. “She hid behind hers, concealed, veiled and then only to yearn for the return of her mask” (ibid. 29). She prays to God ‘Please make me disappear.” She seeks this obliteration because “Blackness is static and dread.  She wills every part of her body to disappear but her eyes just wouldn’t disappear.  She then discovers her, redemption that all she needs is a pair of the bluest eyes and the world would change with her, “We mustn’t do anything bad in front of those pretty Eyes”(ibid. 28), the world would say.  She attributes the imperfections of the world to her own defective perceptions.  She prays for this transformation and only when she enters the neurotic’s world that she can believe in her perfect white vision.  White norms of beauty and the identification of virtue with beauty had been inculcated into Pecola by her mother, herself a victim.

 “Because class and colour separate Pauline’s reality from the illusory are that the cinema projects and her employers seem to embody, her own destructive separation of material duty from affection is validated” (Rosinsky: 382).  If  Pecola seeks her redemption through blue eyes then Claudia and Frieda find their through nerve and resilience.  The same age as Pecola, they are little black girls like her and they take her under their wings.  They have been looked after and are born winners, unfazed by the meanness of their lives or the hegemony of the adults “Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about an away on the hem of life struggling to consolidate our weakness and hang on, or to creep singly up the folds of the major fold of the garment. Our peripheral existence however we had learnt to deal with probably because it was abstract” (ibid).

Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple,’ the issue of sexism is brought into greater focus.  Racism also finds its mark in this novel.  The black woman has her own experience of exploitation-political, racial, sexual and emotional, Alice Walker in her novel ‘The Color Purple’ experiences the oppression by the male dominated society, her sexual abuse by her father and husband how she evolves from submission and acceptance of this exploitation to gradual realization of her own feeling toward shug. “She ain’t fresh tho, but I spect you know that she spoiled,  twice. But you don’t need afresh woman no how” and “she ugly”. He says. But she ain’t no stranger to hard work.  And she clean… you can do every thing just like you want to” (Walker 1983).  Celia suffers on the basis of her sex all through the novel, until she gathers strength from the other women, like Sofia and Shug.  Victimized and tortured by Mr. Albert and generally ill treated on all fronts, Celia slowly becomes acclimatized to this state of affairs.  Indeed she tells Harpo to beat Sofia in order to subdue and dominate her.  Hudson Weem says that it is sad to see that “Celia is so indoctrinated and victimized by sexism that even she herself participate in its perpetuation” (Hudson Weem :192-201).  

The White racists domination and aggression in this scene cause Sofia’s arrest and imprisonment which prove that members of the dominant race always win, irrespective of everything else.  Racism is a constant in the lives of all the characters in the Color Purple and makes their plight hopeless. Walker emphasizes the entrapment of Black Women, the interior colonization they suffer from because of their dependence on men for every thing.  Once they unite in woman to woman relationship, they no longer need the men.  They even manage to free themselves economically since they are hard working and smart.  Celia becomes a professional seam stress and designs parts is also symbolic of her accepting and being accepted as the economic power and moving up on the higher step of class hierarchy.

Both Dalits and Blacks have remained outside the mainstream of their respective cultures excommunicated and exiled.  The Black Americans are curious about the land of his origins-“What is Africa to me”? Brought to the shores of America in chains, the black American is vastly different from the white races, who came to America in search of a “promised land” in search of freedom and prosperity.  Diverted of his African heritage and forced into slavery and property all that was left to the Black Man was his Africans soul. The Dalit in India is in similar position.  Never had he been allowed to become a ‘citizen, an interior of India’s rich cultural, legacy.  Like Black, the Dalit also forced to ask himself- “What is India to me”?.  B.R. Ambedkar the great Dalit leader, reportedly told Mahatma Gandhi – “Gandhi jee I have no home land”.  The Untouchables or Dalits in India have remained socially discriminated and deprived for centuries.  It  is true that the government of India, after adoption of the constitution in 1950 has legally banned the practice of any form of social discrimination against the Dalits, but the various forms of their social discrimination  against the Dalits and deprivation continue even today.  This is because the politico-economic changes do not necessarily go hand in hand with the change in the mind set of the people.  Ambedkar states that “the practice of untouchability  against these nomadic tribes or broken men, with their late settled life, started sometimes in 4th Cent A.D. They had accepted Buddhism, opposed to Hinduism and continued to eat beef the flesh of the dead cattle, which the earlier settler, the Indus had already left that means it was contempt of the Hindus against these Buddhists which caused the practice of untouchability against them” (Ambedkar 1979: 5-22).

For the upliftment of Dalits and also for their social identity the subsequent spells of Dalit assertion or movement emerged during the medieval and colonial as well as contemporary  periods for getting Dalits liberated from the discrimination exploitation etc.

Baburo Bagul, an important dalit writer has likewise claimed that “those who have made the mistake of taking birth in this land must be the ones to rectify it.  Either by leaving the country or through open war.”( Bagul: 1970).  Om Prakash Valmiki a Dalit writer said there is segregation in every village in India and Dalits are forced into ghetto:  In his book “Joothan” he throws light on Dalit’s life.  He writes – “One can some how get past poverty and deprivation but it is impossible to get past caste”. With this statement Valmiki highlights the rigidity of caste system in India that has resulted in the socio-economic oppression of thousands across India over centuries merely because of the ‘lesser caste’ to which they belong.  The title of this auto biographical account ‘Joothan’ encapsulates the pain, the humiliation and the poverty of the ‘untouchable’.  The author himself belonged to ‘Sudra Community’ of Uttar Pradesh the untouchable or Dalit who were social out caste only had to rely on the ‘Joothan’ of others and had to relish it.  The treatment meted out to them was worse that of animals.  It reveals to the reader the rigidity and narrow mindedness of easiest in India which is relevant even today.

In both Christianity and Hinduism the cruel enslavement of this group was justified and sustained on the basis of religion.  In Manusmirti a text book of Hindu society writes how the ‘Chandals’ or untouchables were prohibited from entering the village at night and had to signal their arrival during day time. The various task assigned to them were removal of human wastes, the carrying away of unclaimed corpses – these were the inescapable duties of untouchables.  Even doctrines of Christainity were similarly used to keep the slave in his proper place.  During slavery, the negroes response to the complexities of his tragic existence was to forge a body of songs. Voicing all the cardinal virtues of Christiainity; patience, forbearance, love faith and hope – hope of Compensation in the next world.  “In the Lord, in the Lord/my soul has been anchored in the Lord”, sang the black man in bondage.  And the blues singer of yester year has plaintively asked: “What did I do to be a so black and blues”. A twentieth Century Dalit ascetic, Saint Chokha Mela described about the stigma of untouchability-. “Low is my state Lord, How  may I serve thee, unclear and Untouchable as I am, How should I greet thee? I am in despair, Lord. I know not how to serve you (Karat 1978).

Saint Chokha Mela complaints to God not to man, about his own state of identity.

Mulk Raj Anand’s novel “Untouchable” provides a perceptive example of the theory of double consciousness.  Anand’s hero Bakha accidentally touches a high caste.  The people on the street abuses him.  Bakhs realizes the enormity of his deed, he like other, untouchable has come to believe implicity that he is unclean – “To Bhaka every second seemed an endless age of woe and suffering.  His whole demeanor was concentrated in humility and in his heart there was queer stirring.  His legs trembled and shook under him.  He felt they would fail him.  He was really sorry and tried hard to convey his repentance to his tormentors” (Anand: 1940).

Both Dalits and Afro-Americans have protested against religions which perpetuated their enslavement.  Even after the abolition of slavery white American has continued to hold the black woman in “enslavement” by keeping alive a series of distorted psychological image of Black womanhood.  Both Alice Walker and Morrison have shown in their novel a poignant account of her mother, a maid who were convinced, that they did not “exist” and compared “them to white people.  All these fictions of Afro-American shows the sensitive portrayal of the self hatred that the black woman often experience.

The image of Dalit woman is similarly geared at keeping her in eternal bondage and slavery.  Hindu Society continues to function within the rigid frame work of caste and has kept alive the image of the Dalit as untouchable, polluted and unclean. Dalit women also have the debased self image like Black women. Her touch is considered to be mean, unclean, undesirable in contrast to “twice born” woman hood. She believes that even her shadow is a pollutant.  Vasant Gaekwad speaks of this image of “unseemliness associated with Dalit s which acts as a wall between ‘twice born’ and ‘untouchable’.  In his poem ‘Antar’(distance) he says.

                                              “You within

                                             At the door step I

                                             The distance between

                                             But one door frame” (Kaarat).

Recent spurts in women’s education and the enlightenment that came in the wake of the Ambedkar movement have not done much to elevate the Dalit Women’s self image.  The only way the Dalit can be free and strong is for them to reject all forms of hindu doctrine which has left them resigned to their “karmic” fate as untouchables since the dawn of India. Tarabai Dongree in her story ‘Maherea Prawas” (The Journey Home) describes about Manjula, A Dalit who travels alone with her little infant. She stops at a way side well and surreptitiously draws water to grouch her thirst. Though she does this but at the same time it is significant to note that she prays for forgiveness, for it is a high caste well that she is ostensibly polluting. The watch man catches her red handed and she is mercilessly beaten to death. The little infant cries himself to death.

Om Prakash Valmiki a writer of ‘Joothan said  that there is ‘segregation in

Every village in India and Dalits are forced into Ghetto.”

 “There are several incidents which still takes place today like in Ajmer, A Dalit mother and daughter were stripped on 12th June, 2008.   This incident is a horrific reminder of caste brutalities.  Even today, when Government had already made Bills to stop this kind of heinous practices there are several live incidents which can be quoted for example, Dalit woman was branded as a witch and stripped in Bihar, Champaran dist on 20th Sept. 2006. Dalit women died at Village Nidnapore, West Bengal after going with out food and water for a week. On 20th Aug. 2006.  Middle aged man raped dalit women in Karnataka when she had gone to the nearby woods to fetch mangoes on 20th April, 2007. Dalit fined for touching upper caste boy in Tamil Nadu inspite of the state.  Government introducing a bill recently declaring dalit eligible for appointment as temple priest. School gives no entry to Dalit kids in a village. ”Narwala 5Km away from Panipat. The Villagers say upper caste are not intended in teaching Dalits they beat up the children don’t teach them and take money instead says villager Ram Krishna”

In both Dalit and Afro-American society girls are viewed as sex objects without any compunction on the part of the males of the dominant culture.  In Morrison’s novel ‘Sula’ (1975) school going girls have to devise round about ways of returning home from school because the white gang is ready to molest them at every step.  In Bagul’s’Sood’ (Revenge) “Janaki is shown coming home laden with groceries and  flour bought from money earned as a grass cutter. She is in a hurry to go home, to feed her tuberculosis father and hungry younger siblings. On the way she meets a group of high caste boys and before she can retrace her steps to save the flour and her own chastity. She is surrounded by them; the teenagers begins teasing her, and at the end of this encounter, Janaki is covered with flour and sweat.  Her blouse is torn open, her breast raw and tingling with pain from what is tantamount to gang rape.  Yet there is no authority to whom she may go in for appeal because she is but lowest of the low” (Bagul 1982). Dalit and Afro American women can not escape the fate of being viewed as sexual objects. Socially unacceptable, they are sexually desirable at the same time. Baguls novel ‘Sood’ depicts the terrifying rage of women forced into prostitution. Janaki is the daughter of a ‘devadasi’, ‘Can prostitute daughter hope for honour, respectability, social acceptance?” There are questions which Janaki’s mother posses to her she is told that respectability is the prized possession of the rich. The mother tries to seduce her into the profession, Janaki’s husband and mother-in-law sell her to Rasool, their creditor, who in turn sends her to brothel from where she  finally escapes. She wants to reject her female body so she offers it to the Ganga river, thus begins the terrible quest. With shaven head and ‘trisul’ in her hand, dressed as a young ascetic in ochre robes. Janaki sets out in search of ‘Guru’ she asks, ‘ is there no escape from this female body, will I never be free?  Will I forever remain a woman, will the lust of men continue always to strip me bare?  “Much better to die” she wants a miraculous transformation.  She asks, “Will not find a Yogi, an ascetic, some where in the Himalayas, who will make this body male?” (ibid) The total hopelessness of dalit female existence with its horrifying degradations is thus forcefully brought home to us.  Is this image of the prostitute, out to destroy her femaleness, the root cause of her tragedy.

A cross cultural study of both Dalit and the Black in America shows the cruel enslavement of both these two groups. Who is responsible for the plain, the deprivation and the sheer expendability of the lives of Blacks and Dalits.  It is oppression based on caste and race that comes in for heavy indictment. The Indian Constitution abolishes untouchability yet it is only for name sake, the dominant caste still forces Dalit to perform the traditional occupation. Dalit are still marginalized and despite many movement and on going struggles, the rolling upper castes does not consider dalit as people.

“You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying, its orders and decrees.  An evil system never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good person will resist an evil  system with her or her whole soul.” Gandhi 


 Ambedkar 1979: Ambedkar, B.R. Caste in India: Their Mechanism,Genesi’s and Development.  In Dr.Baba Saheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches VII, Government of Mahavashtra Bombay 1979.

Anand 1940: Anand, Mulk Raj, ‘Untouchable’, Kutub Popular,Bombay 1940

Bagul 1970: Bagul, Baburao – Dalit Sahitya, Nagpur Budhist Publishing House, 1970.

Bagul 1981: Bagul, Baruroo, ‘Sood’ Bombay Abhinav Prakashan, 1981. Dalit Sahitya, Buddhist Publishing House,Nagpur.

 Dongre 1939: Dongre. Tara bai  The Journey Home” Janata 14 Vol (Page7-12) 1939

 Hudson 2002: Hudson Weem, Clenova – “The Tripartite flight of African American Women  as Reflected in the Novels of Huston and Walker.  Journal of Black Studies 2002: p.192-204.

 Giddings 1984: Giddings, Paul “When and where I enter : the impact of Black Woman on Race and Sex in America, Moscow, New York, 1984.

 Karat 1978: Karat, Shan Karrao, Dalit Sahitya, P.B.Inamder,Poona, 1978.

 Kovel 1984: Kovel, Joel White Racism : A psycho history.  Fawcett, New York, 1984.

Kwane 1976: Kwane, N.Krumah. “Class struggle in Africa”, International Publisher, New York, 1976.

Morrison 1970: Morrison Toni. The Bluest Eye Picador: London: 1970

 Rodney 1944: Rodney Walter. Capitalism and Slavery, G.P. Putman”s, New York : 1944

Rosinsky: Natalie M.Rosinsky, “Mothers and Daughter’s: Another Minority Group” in the Lost Tradiition-p.382.

Plakkottam 1990: Plakkoottam, Alphy J. “Racial and Gender discrimination in fiction by Agro- American Women”. Indian Journal of American studies, VO1-20, No.1. Winter 1990

 Wade Gayles 1984: Wade Gayles, Gloria “O Crystal Stair: Vision of Race and Sex in Black Women’s           

Fiction.  The Pilgrin Press, New York, 1984.

Walker 1991: Walker, Melissa. “Down from the Mountain Top” New Haven:Yale University Press,1991

Walker 1983: Walker, Alice. The Color Purple London: The Women Press. 1983.



Volume 5, Issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature