Mohan on Burton, 'Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation'

Antoinette Burton
Jyoti Mohan

Antoinette Burton. Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 200 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-6167-1; $84.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-6148-0.

Reviewed by Jyoti Mohan (Morgan State University) Published on H-Empire (June, 2018) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)

Printable Version:

This is a slim volume of collected essays written over several years. Antoinette Burton focuses on an individual piece of literature in each essay, a novel or a nonfictional work, authored by an Indian or African Indian. Her primary goal is to ascertain to what extent the politically stated aim of “brotherhood” or “solidarity” between Indians and Africans in the Bandung Conference of 1955 is echoed in the work of four authors: Anasuyah Singh, Frank Moraes, Chanakya Sen, and Phyllis Naidoo. The short conclusion states that more often than not, racial tension rather than brotherhood is the dominant theme of the works. Burton not only highlights the simple fact of racial tension between brown and black but also explores it in a sensitive manner, placing the racial relationships against the developing political backdrops of emerging movements for independence (for instance, in Singh’s Behold the Earth Mourns [1960] and in Naidoo’s accounts of anti-apartheid), postcolonial efforts to define individual and national identity (Moraes’s The Importance of Being Black [1965]), and older, existing tropes of sexual danger from darker races (represented in the resistance to interracial relationships in Sen’s The Morning After [1973]). Burton has chosen her material wisely; these are not simplistic representations of binaries but complex works with protagonists who are rebels, politically active in the movement for South Africa’s independence from colonial rule, participants in the larger Afro-Asian struggle against imperialism. The protagonists demonstrate the complexities of the political and social environment, and a constant evolution of their own thought and opinions. 

Burton’s stated aim is to encourage “a politics of citation,” to view the writings by Indians and African Indians through the lens of a “citationary apparatus,” which, defined by her, consists of the prominence of Africa and Africans in shaping the evolving “Indian postcolonial imaginaries.” While this is a laudable goal, there are many questions that Burton leaves unanswered. The four authors she has chosen to highlight in this volume, thoughtful and complex in their works, are yet only marginal to the “Indian postcolonial imaginary.” The same sort of political rhetoric that the Bandung Conference perpetuated can be seen in Jawaharlal Nehru’s oft-cited quote, “Hindu- Cheeni, bhai-bhai,” which roughly translates to Indians and Chinese are brothers, but does not mitigate the fraught political and militant relationship between India and China over Tibet. To prove that the claims of the Bandung Conference went beyond simple political rhetoric, Burton needs to have provided substantial evidence of this claim playing a key role in policy decisions or even the public representation of Africans in India. This volume is incomplete in that sense.

Another shortcoming of the book is its very logic. Burton is a master historian, who has proven her skill and craft time and again. In this volume, she presents four individual essays with thoughtful nuance, highlighting the presence of complex relationships of race, gender, and politics between different groups of disenfranchised people. Published as essays in journals, each would have been a worthy contribution to the larger research on the Indian diaspora in Africa. Yet, as a stand-alone volume, it lacks justification. Apart from the suggestion to apply a “citationary approach,” Burton has added little to the analysis of the Indian diaspora in Africa. The most obvious example of the manner in which Indians in Africa generally looked down on Africans was seen in the fallout of Idi Amin’s coup when Indians were all exiled from Uganda. Even cinematically, Mississippi Masala presents the complex relationship between browns and blacks poetically, juxtaposing prejudices and political awareness in a new geographical environment. South Asians were/are racist. As a generality, this is fact. This racism is not built into South Asian culture or heritage but is yet another remnant of colonial detritus, one that South Asia has yet to unpack and dismantle. Burton has merely examined a new set of texts that echoes this message. Students looking for literary evidence of Indian racism will find excellent analyses in this volume. Generalists of history who may know nothing about the Indian diaspora in Africa but know of Burton’s renown as a historian of imperial history will learn something. Postcolonial scholars of the South Asian diaspora or the Indian subcontinent will find this volume disappointing.

Citation: Jyoti Mohan. Review of Burton, Antoinette, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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