Students at India’s Osmania University Learn About Common Ties to Black History That Bridge Cross-Cultural Understanding

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

HYDERABAD, India – With a microphone in hand and a computer linked up to a screen projector, an American history professor from Virginia recently took about two dozen students here at Osmania University on a whirlwind tour of the Black experience in America.

It was a trip that Dr. Ann Denkler, a professor of American history at Shenandoah University, began by recounting the tortuous journey that enslaved Africans made across the Atlantic as “cargo” in the hulls of slave ships. This led up to the time when enslaved Africans were officially reduced to three-fifths of a human being by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

She continued with the harsh realities of plantation life in the antebellum South and the harassment and lynchings that characterized the era known as Jim Crow. Then she ended with a look at segregation in public facilities in the South that lasted well into the 20th century.

Denkler’s brief overview of Black history was meant to prepare students for a more in-depth discussion about the Civil Rights Movement—a cause that is itself, in many ways, inextricably linked—through an HBCU—to India’s own struggle for liberation.

After all, it was Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson—the first Black president of Howard University—who paid a visit to India in 1950 and then gave a talk in Philadelphia about Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement, which led to India’s independence.

In the audience of Dr. Johnson’s talk was a young man named Martin Luther King Jr., who was subsequently moved to study Gandhi’s life. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It was that history—the Civil Rights Movement—that Denkler came here to teach at Osmania University. She did it during a two-day workshop as part of a month-long return to India. This was prompted in part by relationships she built with Osmania University during her time as a Fulbright scholar last year at the University of Hyderabad. She taught a course that was meant to promote cultural understanding through teaching a “more nuanced understanding of American history.”

Her workshop was held in the stuffy second-floor conference room of the Osmania University Center for International Programmes (OUCIP) where the artwork, furniture and curtains reflected a 1980s’ decor. The university provided her with office space at OUCIP and a stipend for her time as a visiting professor.

It’s the kind of thing you can expect to see more of as high-level discussions between U.S. and Indian government leaders are set to take place in Washington, D.C., this fall to bring about more cooperation between the two nations in the realm of higher education.

Costing 100 rupees, or about $2, to attend, Denkler’s workshop was titled “Liberty and Justice for All? The Challenges of Nation-Building in United States History.”

Students didn’t get credit per se for going to the workshop, but, here, students say getting a certificate sends a message to their professors that they are serious about their academic pursuits. The students included both Indian students as well as international students who were attracted to India because of the lower cost of higher education here.

Denkler told Diverse during a brief interview after her workshop that teaching American history to Indian and international students makes her a better instructor by forcing her to “re-learn American history because I have to teach it from a view I don’t do at home.” It also helps Indians to broaden their framework for understanding America.

“We need more cultural exchange,” Denkler said. “Indians need to learn more of the U.S., not just pop culture.” Conversely, she said, more American students should come to India to learn more about Indian society.

For Indian students here, learning about the Black struggle in America served to help them better understand India’s ongoing struggles with classism and oppression.

“The benefit is we came to know the condition of Black people before the war,” said Sara Sherlin, 23, a Hyderabad native and master’s degree student in American literature at Osmania University.

“The same things happened in India,” Sherlin said of the discrimination that ensued after the Civil War. “Only there (in the United States), it was based on color. Here, it was based on caste,” she said of India’s caste system, which still affects higher education in India today.

One of the most controversial policies in India, for instance, is the system of “reservation” where a certain amount of seats in institutions of higher learning and government are set aside for socially disadvantaged castes and tribes. Recently, discussions have surfaced about the merits of eliminating reservation benefits for the “creamy layer,” that is, members of socially disadvantaged castes and tribes who are not that bad off as individuals. It would essentially be like members of the Black middle class being excluded from the benefits of racial quotas in the United States.

Sherlin said Black history is not necessarily new or absent in India. However, when students at Osmania heard that an American professor—in this case, Denkler—was going to be talking about it, this prompted them to sign up for the workshop in order to get an American perspective.

Denkler said her presentations in India tend to provoke questions not as commonly asked—at least in her experience—back in the United States.

On this particular day, student questions ranged from whether any of the enslaved Africans in America ever put up any resistance during slavery (“Yes, resistance with a capital ‘R,’” Denkler responded) to how there could still be racism in the United States when the president of the country is Black.

“I have a doubt,” Sherlin, the American literature student, said when Denkler broached the topic of whether racism still exists in the United States at a time when President Barack Obama occupies the White House.

“I don’t get that,” Sherlin said.

 Of course, whether racism still exists in America during the so-called “post-racial” era of Barack Obama could be a topic for an entire college course itself—one that could benefit students whether they are nestled in between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans or the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Suggested readings might include works by Williams Julius Wilson and Cornel West.

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