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Black and Brahmin

This post is about finding your roots, knowing your history and truly understanding why we, in our positions, must work to be in solidarity with Black communities *and* Dalit communities who’ve both been suffering, oppressed, enslaved, exploited and treated with no dignity, humanity or compassion.

My biological father is Black and my mom is Bengali. Just recently, I’d say in the last 5 years I’ve started to reconnect with my Black family tree; it took me a while because my dad was abusive toward my mom and other people and that drove many of us away. I thought I had a small tree on that side, but turns out my maternal grandmother was one of 7, and her parents and their parents were one of several too. A massive family tree.

Within that tree, some of my family members have been doing genealogy work, and we’ve been able to trace our matriarch (Adeline) and patriarch (Austin Chappell) to around 1840s, while they were enslaved.

To see documents that my family members found confirming our enslaved history really hit home for me. The family’s research shows we came from Halifax Virginia off a plantation owned by a white man whose own history is very well documented online (Google “Chappell” and Virginia plantation, or Chappell and Speedwell / Southampton England - the enslavers’ history is quite documented).

A recent African Ancestry test that I did matches my paternal DNA’s to the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and other DNA tests my Black family members have done also pointed to Nigeria as an origin of where we came from. Perhaps this may be the closest thing we’ll get to in understanding where my Black lineage originated from. The plot thickens though.

On the Bengali side, my last name is Benegal (haven’t changed my last name yet to reflect this but will add it to my last name soon), and I’ve recently come to discover that many of my family members were not only a prominent activists in Indian government and social justice reform (Shyam Benegal in Bollywood for example), but one of them was the main architect of India’s constitution (look up Sir Benegal Narsing Rao).

To know a Bengali family member wrote India’s constitution, the longest constitution in the world, while my Black ancestors in the U.S. were only a few generations removed from slavery, stunned me.

I also learned we come from the Brahmin caste, stemming from the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community. It explains as to how much of my family was, over time in history, became privileged, well resourced and supported.

As it so happens, the man who worked with my family member on the constitution, whose speech I just read that convinced me to interrogate Hinduism to the point of renouncing my Brahmin status? B. R. Ambedkar.

You all must read his Annihilation of Caste speech. It’s a must read on the struggles of Dalit communities that so reminds me of the Black struggle in the U.S- the struggles my family has fought through in this country.

So, here I am as a Black Bengali, an Afro Indian, a Blindian, or Blasian: a journalist, a cannabis activist & patient, a parliamentarian, and a Brahmin with enslaved ancestors. A walking contradiction in so many ways. And yet I wouldn’t trade the world with this mixed history.

And if you made it this far, my partner is half Indian (family is from Bihar) and half white, and much more left than me if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have started the hard process of unlearning everything I thought (or was told, or was educated about) was true and for this discovery and journey I’m deeply indebted to her help and support.

So! This is a call to everyone: find your roots as best as you can. Teach your children on learning and centering the Black struggle AND recognizing your Indian privilege and heritage while reading about the caste system and Dalit struggle.

I’ve learned many Indian immigrants who were able to make it to the U.S. during the 50s, 60s and beyond came from privilege, wealth or access to resources to make it to the U.S. I didn’t recognize how privileged my family was, and it’s helped me analyze my own understanding of how I grew up while surrounded in a Bengali community for part of my life.

This entire journey I’m on also showed me how Anti-Black many Indian communities and families are (many of you know this - look at how historical caste & colorism plays a deep role in Indian society that shapes their perspective toward Black people, and their affinity to white people ), so it’s up to us to not hide or bury this fact.

We have to speak up and speak out. If we are to bring Black people into our Indian community, we must be prepared for toxicity, ignorance and racism. We must be prepared to teach and educate, and we should work to help our Indian families unlearn and re-educate themselves.

I hope folx who read this feel inspired to unlearn what they thought they knew, to seek out their family history, and to really understand the parallels & solidarity of oppression within U.S/Black and Indian societies.

Bonus: in reading Annihilation of Caste I learned Black leaders wrote a letter of solidarity to Dalits in India in 2014.

Know your history. Uncover the truth as we tie together our cultures. There’s more connection to these struggles than we know.

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