Slides: Claude McKay -- a Diasporic Writer in the Harlem Renaissance

I'm doing a guest lecture at Germantown Friends School this week. Here are my slides for the event. 

In Honor of Susan Stanford Friedman

Susan Stanford Friedman passed away this past spring at the age of 79. She was an inspiring figure and I considered her a friend and mentor, particularly in my work on modernism in South Asia. If you're unfamiliar with her career, a look at this brief obituary at the University of Wisconsin might be a place to start. I'll be speaking at a roundtable at this year's Modernist Studies Association conference in her honor. Below is a draft of the text of my brief talk.

A Transformational Figure -- Brief Remarks for Susan Stanford Friedman Roundtable, MSA 2023

Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University

The work of Susan Stanford Friedman’s that has been most widely cited according to Google Scholar is not one of her many books focused specifically on Modernism, but her 1998 book on transnational feminism, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Mappings has an astounding 1200 citations on Google Scholar, as compared to 460 hits for Planetary Modernisms, and about 300 citations each for her two books on H.D. Admittedly, the number of citations is one among many indications of influence; given that, what might it tell us? While we are here to honor and recognize Susan Friedman’s extraordinary contributions to modernist studies, to my eye, the success of Mappings might be evidence that the MSA as a conference and professional organization only represents a small slice of the conversations with which Susan Friedman was engaged. She was also committed to the community of broadly interdisciplinary, transnational feminist scholarship, where she will also, I suspect, be thought of as a generational figure.  

I spent some time revisiting both Mappings and Planetary Modernisms while thinking about my comments for this roundtable. One immediate observation is that both are first and foremost definitional explorations. Mappings aims to test whether and how feminist scholarship can assimilate what were then about two decades of postcolonial and intersectional thought, and still be understood as feminism. Here's a brief passage:

“In its advocacy of dialogic negotiation, Mappings polemically suggests that the time has come to reverse the past pluralization of feminisms based on difference, not to return to a false notion of a universal feminism that obliterates difference but rather to reinvent a singular feminism that incorporates myriad and often conflicting cultural and political formations in a global context.” – Susan Stanford Friedman, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (1998)

Friedman’s answer, as the passage above indicates, was emphatically yes – and what’s more, she believed feminists should continue to use “feminism” in the singular, even as they radically expanded their field of engagement and challenged their unthinking Eurocentric biases. Among other things, insofar as patriarchy and the domination of cis-men remain a fact of life worldwide, we will continue to need transnational feminism, even if articulated along the lines of strategic essentialism. 

Will we also continue to need “modernism”? In the Introduction to Planetary Modernisms, Friedman references how the method and aims of Mappings informed her subsequent attempt to perform the same transformational redefinition of “Modernism” – and also notes that it turned out to be a much more difficult project. Her first engagement along those lines was the 2002 essay “Definitional Excursions,” but there were many more: over the course of the subsequent fifteen years, Friedman published dozens of essays and chapters, and gave many, many talks that attempted to articulate a truly inclusive, non-Eurocentric planetary modernism. To follow the entirety of her train of thought is beyond our scope for this brief presentation, but suffice it to say that Friedman did not replicate the rhetorical gesture of assimilation and accommodation she confidently asserted in Mappings.

Planetary Modernisms rejects an additive approach to global modernisms and promotes instead a transformational one, a fundamental rethinking on a planetary scale in the longue durĂ©e as a necessary framework to fulfill the transnational turn in modernist studies and to prepare ourselves to survive and thrive in the still-unfolding modernities of the twenty-first century.” –Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms (2015)

Friedman ended with “Modernismsin the plural. And, judging by the complex and frequently open-ended discussions of the problems of expanding modernism across both space and time in the book (especially visible in “A Debate With Myself” at the end of the book), she was nowhere near as confident about the universal applicability of “modernism” as a marker of periodization across an expanded chronology or as an aesthetic linked to a limited set of literary forms and styles in an expanded map. That said, as my second quote above indicates, she never gave up on the term (or the MSA as an institution), even as she seemed to recognize that the radical transformation of the field she advocated was in the category of “Not there … not yet.” (A little Passage to India reference she would most certainly get!)

The expanded map has mattered to me personally, as the kind of modernism I have often wanted to discuss is part of that expanded map, specifically modernism in South Asia. It's a complex problem, as avant-garde and formally experimental writing movements generally emerged a bit later in South Asia (the 1950s and 60s), and sometimes appeared to be operating on a 'diffusionist' emulation of Euro-American modernism. South Asian writers of the 1930s tended to be much more committed to social realism -- under the umbrella of the Progressive Writers Movement. Then you have towering late-Victorian Bengali figures like Rabindranath Tagore (and his sister, Swarnakumari Devi) -- were they modernists? And of course the small number of Indian writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali who spent time in the UK and published books with the support of London editors and publishers. When was modernism in South Asia? How would we define it? Are we sure we need to use the word modernism at all, since South Asian writers themselves rarely did? Susan Friedman’s work didn’t necessarily answer all of these questions, though it did make them legible to the broader modernist studies community, and I'm grateful for that. 

I first met Susan Friedman in the fall of 2002. I was a first-year faculty member at Lehigh University, and I had the temerity to organize a conference on H.D. in the author’s hometown of Bethlehem, PA, on a shoestring budget and with little in the way of administrative support. Working with my colleagues in my home department and with support from folks like Madelyn Detloff and the H.D. Society email list, I invited Susan Friedman to be the keynote – and she actually came! I quickly brushed up as much as I could on her work to write the introduction for the keynote, and to have semi-intelligent things to say over meals in Bethlehem. I'm sure in retrospect that that introduction was not terribly impressive, but I was so relieved when she acknowledged it later with characteristic terseness: "You're a quick study."

Susan Friedman came to Lehigh to speak twice more over the years, first as part of our Literature and Social Justice speaker series in 2012, and then for our considerably fancier second H.D. conference in 2015. In subsequent meetings at those events, and in our many meetings and meals over the years at the MSA and the MLA, I started to feel less like an upstart "quick study" and more like a middle-aged peer. I started to think of Susan Friedman as a forever colleague -- someone I could expect to stop and talk to at MSA and other conferences every year, no appointment necessary. I'm sad those conversations are now over, but I'm very glad to have gained so much from her over the years.

Slides on "Salaam Bombay!" for guest lecture

I did a face-to-face guest lecture for a film class at Rutgers in October. 

Mapping India’s Indigenous (Adivasi) Communities

Some Basic Background about India’s Indigenous (Adivasi) Communities

I have long been interested in the amazing project,, which shows approximate maps of indigenous communities, mostly in North and South America, but increasingly in other regions, including Australia/New Zealand as well as Taiwan. I've been curious about the prospect of having them add indigenous communities in South Asia to the list of maps. I've been in touch with people at the project, and have sent them the following document as a primer oriented towards producing a viable map of Adivasi communities in India.

Below, I am including some basic background information as well as a list of a few of the larger Adivasi communities, along with links to maps that could serve as starting points for mapping areas where these communities live. The focus, for now, is on India specifically, though some of these communities have populations in neighboring countries in South Asia (especially Bangladesh and Pakistan). 

A Note on Names: 

India’s indigenous communities are known by a number of different names – Tribals, Adivasis, Scheduled Tribes (a government name), Denotified Tribes (since 1952; another government name), and the British colonial government’s rather ominous Criminal Tribes (1871-1952).  

The most respectful, politically empowering term in use is probably the term Adivasi, which is a Sanskrit word that means “Original Inhabitants." The term has been in use by activists since the 1930s (the term is thought to have been coined by the Gandhian activist Thakkar Bapa). Below, we will use the term Adivasi in most instances to describe these communities – though there are some historical and ethnographic complexities in doing so (see our note below).  

The British passed a law called the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, that officially designated (“notified”) 150 Tribal groups throughout British India as “Criminal Tribes.” These were generally autonomous indigenous communities that hadn’t really been ‘ruled’ by any local governments or authorities. Some historians have claimed that the British use of the word ‘Criminal’ was a shorthand to mark the ‘outsider’ nature of these communities. 

After independence, the Indian government reversed some aspects of the Criminal Tribes Act, but in effect kept the designation – and the Adivasi communities became “Denotified Tribes” (i.e., “Tribes formally known as Criminal Tribes”) Starting in the 1950s, the Indian Government dramatically expanded the number of communities it recognized as "Scheduled Tribes" -- there are at least 750 such communities now. Unfortunately, many urban and educated Indians continue to believe that Adivasi communities are inherently ‘criminal.’ Adivasi people are subject to ongoing discrimination, harassment, and organized violence at the hand of other communities as well as the police and military. A number of communities have also seen their languages and cultural practices under threat.

Size of population: 

The Indian census of 2011 estimated about 8% of the country’s population to be Adivasi, meaning that the population is 100 million or more. There are also indigenous/Tribal communities in other South Asian countries. I saw an estimate that 1% of the population of Bangladesh is also Adivasi. And about 600,000 Bhils reside in Pakistan; there could be more.

There are certain regions that have particularly high concentrations of Adivasis, and I'll be focusing most of my attention on those in the initial phases of this project. The following map from Wikipedia shows population concentrations per capita. 


The area that runs through the central part of the country is often referred to as the “Tribal Belt.” The regions in the north (Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh) and the Northeast have high proportions of the population understood to be “Tribal,” but these are much more sparsely populated areas overall. So it's that middle region of the country -- the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar, and West Bengal that I'll be starting off with.

Historical and ethnographic complexities

The Adivasi populations around India are quite heterogeneous, with some communities likely with ancient roots in certain regions of India that might predate other settlers (such as the Indo-Aryans) In other cases, linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests the communities might have migrated from other regions of Asia, including Southeast Asia (this is especially likely to be true for Tribal communities in Northeastern India); some of these communities continue to be nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the present day. So these communities may not ‘predate’ other (dominant) groups, but they nevertheless have been treated the same as the others historically. Also, the communities can be quite diverse, even internally, with several different sub-groups of the Gond, Bhil, and Munda communities (to name just three of the larger Adivasi groupings). Sometimes those subgroups have their own names, and there are some inconsistencies regarding whether and how they are marked as separate from the larger groups.

One important point of clarification – the communities listed below are specifically understood as indigenous “scheduled tribes by the Indian government. In the list below, I am not including communities known as “Scheduled Castes” (i.e., Dalits); my focus is specifically on communities that have been included under “Scheduled Tribes.”  

Larger Adivasi Communities: 

There are a number of sources that indicate populations of Adivasi Communities (or Scheduled Tribe communities). The Indian government records extensive Census data every ten years, though analysis of that data sometimes lags, and it can be difficult to find visualizations or maps based on that data.

Below, I give a list of a few of the larger Adivasi communities, indicating population size for a sense of scale. I also am linking to Wikipedia as well as a source that features nice maps. (Warning: the source I am linking to for maps is a Christian Missionary project, so it should not be considered entirely reliable. That said, most of their information aligns with what one finds on Wikipedia and other sources fairly well.) 

There is also an Indian government-funded project called the Illustrated Atlas of Tribal India (2002) that also contains much of this information. I have put a number of maps from that project into a Google Drive folder. However, the maps are much less easy to interpret (and would probably be more difficult to convert to GIS data). They are also kept entirely separated by state, making it harder to see the regional concentrations across state borders (for instance, the Bhil community has large populations in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh...)

Bhil (approx. 15 million people)


Gond (approx. 10 million people):

Santal (approx. 9 million people):


Oraon [they call themselves Kurukh] (4-5 million people):

Oraon is an exonym used by neighboring Munda people. They themselves use the name Kurukh…

Khond (~1.6 million people):


Munda (~4.4 million people)

Bhumij (~1.4 million people) (connected to Munda)

Banjara (~7.2 million people)

Bodo [Boro] (~1.9 million people)

Domar [or Damor]  (~2.5 million people) (connected to Bhil)

Kokna (~1.3 million people)


Saora (~1 million people)

Andh (~600,000 people)

Baiga (~700,000 people)

Ho (~1.3 million people)

Kharia (~900,000 people)

Kol (~2.1 million people)


Mapping African American Poetry, 1850-1944

The map above was generated using Google Maps, based on a dataset that originated with Dorothy Porter's 1945 Checklist of African American poetry (1760-1944). In my own adaptation of checklist, I removed materials that were pre-1850, and also attempted to clean up any omissions from Porter's original list related to publication date, publisher, and location. For more on the dataset, see my previous post.

What does this map show? 

This map is a simple conversion of table data to pinpointed locations. Admittedly, more sophisticated visualizations might also be tried.  (Another form of map that might be revealing would be a heatmap that would show density. Obviously, there are urban concentrations, including a considerable amount of concentration in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. An even more sophisticated version might be animated to show changes over time... Hopefully, one or both of those map formats will be forthcoming...) 

The most interesting takeaway for us is the incredible geographic diversity of publication sites being used by Black poets during this period. A zoomed-in version shows that geographic diversity quite clearly: 

Not just big cities, but regional cities like Nashville, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville Kentucky are important for African American poetry publication. Even smaller smaller towns had printing presses, and many authors who self-published in small towns printed their poetry on local presses. 

Exploring a New Dataset (African American Poetry Books by Decade)

Context and Method: 

In 1916, Arthur Schomburg published a short volume called A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry (available at HathiTrust and It was a list of essentially every published book he could find by Black poets in the U.S., but also the Hispanophone and Francophone Caribbean. (Schomburg, as most readers will know, was himself an Afro-Puerto Rican immigrant...) Many of the texts he listed were from his own collection, though I have reason to believe that at least a few of the texts Schomburg cited (especially from Afro-Caribbean writers) were not actually in his possession. (Later, Schomburg expressed some regret about the rushed nature of the Bibliographical Checklist, which he attributed to the publisher, G.E. Heartman). 

Despite its idiosyncrasies, Schomburg's Checklist is a remarkable and important scholarly contribution, in part because no one else had ever done such a compilation before, and in general white editors and bibliographers often missed entries by African American writers in their various checklists. Also, the sheer number of published collections he was able to record is impressive -- I had never heard of many of the authors, even after working on open-access digital collections of African American poetry for the past few years. That said, a scholar looking at WorldCat or HathiTrust today would likely find some things he missed.

In 1945, a Librarian named Dorothy Porter, who worked at the Schomburg Center branch of the NYPL, took up the task of revising and extending Schomburg's list, publishing North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist 1760-1944 (on HathiTrust here)The extension in time to 1944 is especially important, as the Porter list contains African American writing through what scholars have understood to be its peak years in the Harlem Renaissance. Porter also filled in some gaps in Schomburg's list even from the earlier periods. And she removed the Hispanophone and Francophone texts that were on Schomburg's original list. A couple of notes: 

  • Even with the removals of some of Schomburg's non-Anglophone entries, Porter's 1945 Checklist is much longer -- more than 500 entries. In my estimation, her account is close to a comprehensive list of all books of poetry published by African American authors during this period. 
  • Both the Porter and the Schomburg Checklists are out of copyright. (The copyright on the Porter checklist was not renewed; HathiTrust lists it as out of copyright.)
  • This summer, I converted Porter's Checklist to a spreadsheet format to see if I could use it as a dataset. I removed entries predating 1850, which meant removing a large number of Phillis Wheatley entries, as well as figures like Jupiter Hammond. 
  • I also eliminated most duplicate entries -- Porter included every edition of a text she had available in her Checklist. Here, I only included second or third editions if there was some reason to believe the text had changed substantially (i.e., the length of the text changes) 
  • I also typically removed entries that were single poems published as Broadsides for special occasions -- the emphasis was on entries in Porter's list that were printed as books
  • For many entries, Porter did not have dates or printing / publishing information. Whereever possible, I have been adding that information in, using WorldCat, Google Books/HathiTrust, and even rare booksellers that are selling some of these old titles. 

The final tally in my adjusted version of Porter's checklist is: 440 entries (1850-1944), of which about 20 entries remain undated. 

DecadeNumber of Books of Poetry Published by African American Poets

What can we learn from this dataset in general? 

Before we get into the specific data conveyed by the chart, it might be worth underlining why looking at this dataset is worthwhile. As I suggested above, Porter's Checklist is close to a comprehensive account of all books of poetry published by Black authors during these years. Here and there I found a couple of items she appears to have missed; I added in entries to the dataset in those instances. (Note: We are not including periodical poetry at this point, just published books. My study of periodical poetry is likely forthcoming...)  Having access to all of the texts from a limited historical period might allow us to look at Black poetry without the constraints of editorial filters and academic tradition. This 'macro-look' effectively gives us the ability to reset our understanding of the material. Some of what's entailed in the reset might be quantitative: a few questions I have go as follows: 

  • Did the amount of poetry published by Black poets increase over time? 
  • What was the gender breakdown in African American poetry during this period, and did it change? 
  • What was the geographic breakdown in terms of publishing locations and the locations of the authors themselves? (Did the writing become more urban, metropolitan, and northern over time?) (We'll need a map!!!)
  • What was the breakdown in terms of self-published poetry vs. big commercial publishing houses, and did that change over time? 
  • From within the poetry itself, what are some patterns we can identify in terms of style and theme? Did the poetry generally seem to become more politicized over time, or less so? How did Black poets use or deviate from established poetic forms? What role does the use of AAVE play in Black poetry during this period? 
  • What role did HBCUs play in the formation of a community of Black poets during the late 19th and early 20th centuries? 

Here, I'm just going to look at the first question; we'll save engagements with other questions for subsequent posts. 

What can we learn from this particular chart? 

First and foremost, I think the most important observation is the rate and timing of the growth of the African American poetry publishing world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is first a significant growth between 1881-1890 (9 books) and 1891-1900 (39 books). Second, there is a massive jump between 1891-1900 (39 books) and 1901-1910 (80 books). First the rate of publication quadruples, then it doubles again. And that increased rate continues through the next few decades. 

It would be a mistake to read too much into this (see my caveats below) -- though one clear takeaway might be that the  "Harlem Renaissance" (i.e., of the 1920s-30s) as a decisive tipping point for African American poetry might be overstated or inaccurate. More important might be demographic and educational changes -- many more African American people were literate, and interested in publishing as well as reading poetry starting in the 1890s (the literacy rate for African Americans jumped from 20% in 1870 to 70% in 1910; see the full data here). Also important (though harder to measure) might be the immense popularity of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar not only published extremely prolifically in the 1890s and early 1900s, he also inspired a generation of writers who were influenced by his style and voice. 


The chart above only describes the number of books published per decade. It does not really speak to the influence of those books or their circulation levels. 

Many Black poets, especially before the 1920s, self-published their works in extremely small print runs and circulated them locally. Some poets, especially Frances E.W. Harper and Paul Laurence Dunbar, sold thousands of copies of their collections, often in connection with speaking engagements. Others sold very few. 

Moreover, other forms of literary prestige, including awards, and reviews in poetry journals and mainstream newspapers and magazines, were largely cut off to Black writers from earlier periods. That dynamic shifted substantially in the 1920s, as a growing number of white/mainstream periodicals began publishing poetry by Black authors. 

Another caveat: readers might notice that in the 1920s there is actually a dip in publication. I do not have an explanation for this, though it might be worth exploring. (I do not think the dip is necessarily very significant...) 

Coming soon -- further explorations of the dataset... along gender lines, regional lines, and theme/topic. 

--Amardeep Singh, June 2023

"Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Plain English: an Explainer

 “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Plain English: an Explainer for Teachers and Students

“Clearly, if you are poor, black, and female you get it in three ways.” –Gayatri Spivak

“White men are saving brown women from brown men...” –Gayatri Spivak 

“The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with "woman" as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.” –Gayatri Spivak

This 1988 essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a hugely influential work of postcolonial theory; on Google Scholar, it appears to have been cited nearly 34,000 times!  By contrast, Homi Bhabha’s nearly contemporaneous “Signs Taken For Wonders” (1985) essay shows 2400 citations. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is clearly a foundational text for postcolonial theory, and it remains a rich text with which to engage for people interested in postcolonial studies, South Asian studies, transnational/global feminism, and indeed, broader questions related to the role of intellectuals in any number of contexts. 

Bibliographical: All citations from Spivak below are from the first version of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” published in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 271-313, 1988. 

Core argument: "Can the Subaltern Speak?" remains so salient in part because Spivak’s central concern is with what is sometimes called the “politics of representation” – who speaks for whom? Under what circumstances, if any, can a privileged intellectual (who could be an academic, novelist, journalist, etc.) claim to represent the voices of marginalized communities? Spivak is not saying that people in positions of privilege should never engage with marginalized voices, but first and foremost, we need to be wary of any privileged intellectual's claim to know or speak for the ‘Other’. Second, because of structural disadvantages, it’s extremely difficult to find instances where marginalized (subaltern) women can in fact insert themselves into public conversation authoritatively without mediation. The 'subaltern as woman' may literally be able to speak, but those mediating factors -- institutional gatekeepers who police what is thinkable or sayable, privileged actors who are motivated by their own self-interest, and many others -- mean that we may not ever be able to hear her voice directly. 

On the difficulty of this essay: Admittedly, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is also a text that many readers over the years have struggled with, from the precise definition of Spivak’s use of the word “subaltern,” to her assertion, confusing to many readers, that the “subaltern cannot speak.” Spivak was deeply influenced by French poststructuralism, Freudian psychoanalysis, certain traditions in Marxian theory, and the Subaltern Studies school of colonial Indian history. How it all fits together can be difficult to ascertain, especially if you don't have competency in all of those areas! Below, I’ve attempted to summarize the key points from each section below as much as possible in “plain English," and I've aimed to provide links for further reading for each section.  

If you’re in a rush: The ‘heart’ of the essay is really Section IV – where Spivak engages most directly with the vexed representation of Sati (mistranslated as ‘widow immolation’) in colonial India. It’s there that she has her famous formulation that “White men are saving brown women from brown men,” and it’s also there that she most directly explicates why and how the voice of the ‘subaltern as woman’ cannot be easily or directly accessed in the historical record. 

Section 1: Critique of Foucault and Deleuze

Helps if you read: Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power” (1972); Karl Marx, “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” [especially chapter 7] (1852) 

The first sections of the essay engage several strands of theory, from Marx himself, to a number of French poststructuralist theorists, most importantly Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. For most readers today, the particulars of her critiques may not matter that much – nor need we think of them as offering the last word on especially Deleuze or Foucault (she is very critical of "Intellectuals and Power," but elsewhere in the essay she approvingly cites other Foucault texts). Most of her discussion in the first section is in response to claims made by Foucault and Deleuze in a conversation they had that was published as “Intellectuals and Power” (1972), which was translated into English in a volume of essays called Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (1977)

One pattern Spivak sees is a persistent Eurocentrism in Foucault and Deleuze, which in her account diminishes their self-presentation as radical intellectuals in the early 1970s. With Deleuze, Spivak engages a passage where he refers to the “workers' movement” in somewhat simplistic terms. Spivak notes: 

The apparent banality signals a disavowal. The statement ignores the international division of labor, a gesture that often marks poststructuralist political theory. The invocation of the workers' struggle is baleful in its very innocence; it is incapable of dealing with global capitalism . . . . Ignoring the international division of labor; rendering "Asia" (and on occasion "Africa") transparent (unless the subject is ostensibly the "Third World"); reestablishing the legal subject of socialized capital–these are problems as common to much poststructuralist as to structuralist theory. Why should such occlusions be sanctioned in precisely those intellectuals who are our best prophets of heterogeneity and the Other? (272)

That last question seems like the key one to consider: these are two theorists who have been interested in power, represented by institutions such as the prison, the school, and the medical establishment (see Foucault’s influential books, Madness and Civilization, and Discipline and Punish, and Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus). Their work criticizing these institutions had an outsize impact at the time – so it’s perhaps not surprising they felt comfortable assuming their theoretical projects aligned with revolutionary political movements. But Spivak is rightly skeptical of their abstract support for “revolution” and hostility to “power.” Their use of highly abstract terms overlooks actual, concrete struggles for liberation that were occurring at the time.

Towards the end of the section, Spivak pivots from Foucault and Deleuze to Marx himself on the question of representation and class formation. She quotes a passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to the effect that class formation was not a given or a matter of fixity, but a dynamic and somewhat unstable process. Moreover, Marx was aware that the matter of representing classes was a complex one, and she explores two German words that have slightly different meanings, Darstellen(to represent as in a picture) and “Vertreten” (to represent as in to stand in for). Spivak argues that we need to disentangle these two senses of “representation.” She acknowledges they can’t be entirely separated, “but running them together, especially in order to say that beyond both is where oppressed subjects speak, act, and know for themselves, leads to an essentialist, utopian politics” (276). 

That last phrase above is a core Spivakian rhetorical gesture – her radical skepticism of anything that smacks of “essentialist, utopian politics.” And she appears to be suggesting that a version of this skepticism was available even in Marx himself -- as he indicates in the seventh chapter of "The Eighteenth Brumaire" that it seemed to be impossible for poor peasant farmers to represent themselves, anticipating quite directly (but without gender or acknowledgment of the 'global division of labor') her own argument.

Section II: Introducing the “Subaltern”

Helps if you read: Antonio Gramsci, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” (1926); Ranajit Guha, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India” (1982)

Near the beginning of Section II of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak begins to engage more directly with the question of subalternity as subject and object of representation. Here she starts with the thinking of Antonio Gramsci, who first conceived of the “subaltern” as a subordinate class (the term earlier had referred to lower-ranking officers in the British army), and then moves on to the Subaltern Studies school of historians of colonial India. Subaltern Studies was a highly influential community of scholars that emerged in the 1980s, influenced by poststructuralist theory as well as Marxian thinking, many of them from Bengali Indian backgrounds with elite, Anglophone educations; in some ways, Spivak herself may be seen as an affiliate member of the group:

Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat. According to Foucault and Deleuze (in the First World, under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital, though they do not seem to recognize this) the oppressed, if given the chance (the problem of representation cannot be bypassed here), and on the way to solidarity through alliance politics (a Marxist thematic is at work here) can speak and know their conditions. We must now confront the following question: On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak? (283)

The rhetorical question end of the paragraph above might be taken as a defining question for the essay as a whole. It’s also hard not to see it as somewhat of a ‘leading question’ – in the sense that communities on “the other side of the international division of labor,” people who are “outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education” – people who are in various ways positioned as subalterns – are not going to be likely to speak and be heard. 

Spivak gives a second formulation of the seeming impossibility of subaltern self-representation after introducing Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies school of Indian historiography. Guha and his colleagues are deeply invested in breaking the elitist dominance – both domestic and foreign –in narratives of Indian history. But against it, he posits a category called the “subaltern” that, Spivak argues, he cannot really define, much less access in any convincing sense. 

For the "true" subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself; the intellectual's solution is not to abstain from representation. The problem is that the subject's itinerary has not been traced so as to offer an object of seduction to the representing intellectual. In the slightly dated language of the Indian group, the question becomes, How can we touch the consciousness of the people, even as we investigate their politics? With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak? (285)

As she proceeds, Spivak challenges the vagueness of Guha’s description of subalternity in the Indian context, a concept that is quite loose – does it include Adivasis (‘tribals’), Dalits, poor people of high or intermediate castes, Muslims? All of the above, apparently. For Spivak, it is hard to imagine a coherent historical project emerging out of such a heterogeneous constellation of communities.

Moreover, what about women? Even as Guha seems to have under-theorized the category of the subaltern, there appears to be a glaring blind spot in his thinking with respect to a whole category of unheard 'others' along the lines of gender.

Within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effaced. The question is not of female participation in insurgency, or the ground rules of the sexual division of labor, for both of which there is "evidence." It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow. (287, emphasis mine)

After briefly engaging Guha and a Marxist critic of Guha’s, Ajit Choudhury, Spivak returns to Foucault and Derrida to close out section II. Here she faults Foucault and Deleuze for failing to include a plausible critique of imperialism in their theorization of the role of the intellectual against institutional power, a failing made worse by the fact that they repeatedly gesture towards third-world liberation movements without substantively engaging any of them. The problem she is interested in is crystallized in the passage below: 

Outside (though not completely so) the circuit of the international division of labor, there are people whose consciousness we cannot grasp if we close off our benevolence by constructing a homogeneous Other referring only to our own place in the seat of the Same or the Self. Here are subsistence farmers, unorganized peasant labor, the tribals, and the communities of zero workers on the street or in the countryside. To confront them is not to represent (vertreten) them but to learn to represent (darstellen) ourselves. (288-289)

The final sentence in the passage above is particularly intriguing. For Spivak, the first challenge for the privileged intellectual is not to find the ‘right’ language to represent the Other, but to be transparent about the nature of her own privilege. 

Section III. Introducing Derrida

Helps if you read: Jacques Derrida, “Grammatology as a Positive Science” (in Of Grammatology, pp. 74-93 [1965])

Spivak sees in Derrida a more thoughtful and self-reflexive approach to engaging with the cultural Other. She is clear that she doesn’t see Derrida’s writing as a panacea. Rather, she says she aims to explicate, somewhat humbly, a “few aspects of Derrida's work that retain a long-term usefulness for people outside the First World” (292). 

Spivak then offers a passage from Of Grammatology that speak to the failures of a certain historical western approach to linguistic differences – the ‘grammatologist’ biases regarding scripts very different from Roman scripts: “Our century is not free from it; each time that ethnocentrism is precipitately and ostentatiously reversed, some effort silently hides behind all the spectacular effects to consolidate an inside and to draw from it some domestic benefit.” (293, emphasis mine) In effect, she sees in Derrida a thoroughgoing suspicion of ‘empirical’ European accounts of cultural otherness, and points to the motivation for those accounts – they aim to ‘consolidate an inside’, and tell us more about the fantasies of European scholars than they do about the cultures and communities they describe. In many ways, Spivak reads Derrida here as making arguments that anticipate Edward Said’s hugely influential arguments in books like Orientalism and Culture and Empire

Here might be Spivak’s key account of her reading of Derrida: 

As a postcolonial intellectual, I am not troubled that he does not lead me (as Europeans inevitably seem to do) to the specific path that such a critique makes necessary. It is more important to me that, as a European philosopher, he articulates the European Subject's tendency to constitute the Other as marginal to ethnocentrism and locates that as the problem with all logocentric and therefore also all grammatological endeavors … Not a general problem, but a European problem. (293)

In addition to the echoes of Edward Said here, one also sees arguments anticipating subsequent postcolonial theorists, who would advocate for the ‘provincializing of Europe’ (Dipesh Chakravarty, Provincializing Europe, 2008). Again, she does not see in Derrida all the answers, but rather a rigorous self-reflexivity and self-criticism that aims to critique (or more specifically, to “deconstruct” from within) a whole array of claims and categories of European ‘knowledge’ about peoples outside of Europe. What she sees in Derrida is not an assertion of Knowledge about the Other, but rather a "rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us" (294).

Section IV. Why The Subaltern-as-Woman Cannot Speak: Debates over Sati; “White Men Are Saving Brown Women From Brown Men”

Helps if you read: Background on ‘Sati’; Sigmund Freud, “A Child is Being Beaten”  (1918)

Spivak begins section IV with an account of European feminist theory, specifically the idea that ‘woman’ is a special or privileged category of ‘otherness’. Spivak was writing long before the idea of intersectional feminism came into vogue, but her approach here strongly aligns with what we now recognize as intersectionality: she speaks of ‘unlearning’ (296) certain assumptions from Western feminism, and of being transparent about her status as a privileged (if still often ‘othered’) intellectual. Spivak also has formulations like, “Clearly, if you are poor, black, and female you get it three ways” (294), though she goes on to question specious forms of solidarity that might be assumed to exist across geographic or economic lines. 

Spivak also suggests that she’s putting forward the sentence “White men are saving brown women from brown men” as a formulation loosely analogous to the famous (or infamous) essay by Sigmund Freud, “A Child is Being Beaten.” In that essay, Freud describes a class of patients who are excited by the childhood memory of other children being beaten. According to Spivak (via Sarah Kofman's The Enigma of Woman), the other child’s pain is understood as a fantasy of closeness between the daughter and the father. Spivak is not interested in any literal alignment between Freud and her own thinking here; rather, the point is the three-way dynamic – Party X (the other child) suffers in order to enable an essentially taboo dyadic structure of desire between father/authority figure (Party A) and self/loved child (Party B) to be possible. In both Freud’s formulation and Spivak's own formulation ("White men..."), Party X is cut out of the conversation (abjected, silenced) while Parties A and B are drawn together. So if "White men are saving brown women from brown men," there is a structure of desire imagined that brings white men and brown women together, and excludes "brown men." This is a structure of fantasy that is grounded in the erotic, but that also has broad sociopolitical implications.

Spivak is also suspicious of the way Freud figures the woman patient as a “scapegoat” for a “masculine-imperial ideological formation.” In effect, she suggests, the fantasy structure described in “A child is being beaten” may be operating as a fantasy invented by the male psychoanalyst to serve his own interests (i.e., being figured as the object of desire / the father). 

The core of Section IV is really the discussion of Sati (or more precisely Satipratha), a Hindu religious practice that was the object of considerable attention under British colonial rule in the early 19th century. For those unfamiliar with the topic, the essential story is this: when their husbands passed away some Hindu widows either elected voluntarily or were coerced into being immolated alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The British claimed to find this practice barbaric and enacted a law to ban it in 1829, and this law was (briefly) resisted by many elite Hindu men who had positions of authority under British rule. (The reformer Raja Rammohun Roy supported the banning of Sati.) The banning of the practice represented a relatively anomalous level of involvement in Hindu religious practices – in most other respects, the British left Indian religious traditions alone through the mid-19th century (additional laws were passed in 1856, 1870, and 1891). Both at the time and subsequently, the British engagement with this aspect of Hindu Law was seen by critics as a way of increasing their overall footprint and legal power under the guise of a humanitarian intervention. 

The particular dynamic entailed in the banning of the practice of Sati fits the dynamic of Spivak’s “white men are saving brown women from brown men” quite directly. Here is how Spivak presents the basic scenario: 

The Hindu widow ascends the pyre of the dead husband and immolates herself upon it. This is widow sacrifice. (The conventional transcription of the Sanskrit word for the widow would be sati. The early colonial British transcribed it suttee.) The rite was not practiced universally and was not caste- or class-fixed. The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of "White men saving brown women from brown men." White women–from the nineteenth-century British Missionary Registers to Mary Daly–have not produced an alternative understanding. Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: ''The women actually wanted to die." (297)

Towards the end of this passage, Spivak suggests that white feminism did not at the time (or subsequently) have an account of the suffering of “brown women” that differed from the “masculine imperialist” framing offered by British authorities. The only counter-narrative was offered by elite Hindu men, who, as Spivak indicates, defended Sati by arguing that, as Spivak puts it, “the women actually wanted to die.”

Spivak later points out that since Bengal was one of the few regions of India where “widows could inherit property,” it’s possible that Hindu men were motivated to encourage widows to commit Sati because it took them out of the equation and granted more power to their sons (300). Spivak also engages various references to suicide in ancient Hindu scriptures, at one point noting that a text sometimes used to justify widow suicide might have actually been misread (“agre” [threshold/domicile] replaced by the word “agne” [fire]) (304). Spivak also questions the interpretations of Edward Thompson, who published a book called Sati in 1928. 

In all of the debates over Sati that took place in British India, the voices of Hindu women were either not included or not heard. Due to the intense patriarchal dominance within Hindu society as well as within the English colonial legal authority, it was not really structurally possible for “brown women” to enter the public conversation about their own legal rights in early 19th-century British India.  

(Since Spivak’s essay was first published in 1988, there has been a great deal of additional scholarship on Sati that fills in aspects of the tradition and the debate that Spivak passes over a bit loosely; a good place to start might be Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India [1998]. In her footnotes, Spivak acknowledges that she spoke with Mani as early as 1983, when Mani was writing a Master’s thesis on Sati at UC Santa Cruz. That said, the overwhelming weight of recent ethnographic and historical scholarship appears to support Spivak’s key claim – that the voices of women impacted by the practice were consistently marginalized in these debates.). 

Spivak ends with an example of a Bengali freedom fighter named Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, who hanged herself in 1926. Bhuvaneswari (the Bengali convention is to use first names in narrative accounts) knew that others would interpret her suicide as linked to an illegitimate pregnancy, so she intentionally performed her suicide while she was menstruating. Her death cannot properly be understood as an act of Sati, but like the deaths of Hindu widows in the 19th century, Spivak argues that there are structural blocks in place that prevent her action from being understood: “The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (308).