Vijay Prashad Speaks of Shailja Patel’s Migritude

California is a peculiarly schizophrenic place to be a migrant. On March 31, 2001, the state began to celebrate Cesar E. Chavez Day, to honor the farm worker leader and to celebrate the contribution of migrants to the state. In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, whose intent is to take the many physical barriers along the U.S. - Mexico border and meld them into the Great Wall of America. The Border Wall is an affront to the heritage of Chavez, and to the migrants whose labor created and continues to maintain California as we know it. It is a monument to the brutality of the U.S. war on migrants. (Operation Gatekeeper, begun in 1994, claimed the lives of 444 migrants over five years; the East German border guards killed 263 people from 1949 to 1989.)

These two visions for California are in constant combat, and it is on one side of this conflagration that Shailja decided to unpack the trousseau of saris given to her by her mother. Through them, she reveals an inheritance of emotions, of histories bound up in journeys from India to Kenya to the United States. The sari, a piece of cloth, binds continents and families. But it is also that which allows us to think of the bind: it holds things together, it bandages wounds, but it also obliges us to think about what it means to be bound together. We are as bound by the struggles of the migrant workers who have inserted their bodies and desires into our society as we are by the granite block of the power elite that is loath to cede its power or open its purse. This bind is the central metaphor of Shailja’s book.

Shailja’s book is not simply about migrants. It’s about the condition of migration – of migritude. It is not a cultural anthropology of migrant lives, but rather a philosophical meditation on what it means to live within the concept of Migrant. Riffing as it does off the term négritude, it is also about race. Léopold Sédar Senghor caught the spirit of négritude when he wrote: “Far from seeing in one’s blackness an inferiority, one accepts it, one lays claim to it with pride, one cultivates it lovingly.” Senghor’s friend Aime Césaire coined the term in his Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (1939, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), where he wrote that négritude is “not a cephalic index, or a plasma, or a soma, but [it is] measured by the compass of suffering.”

Migritude draws from this heritage to suggest that there is a “compass of suffering” shared by migrants of color into the heartlands of power. It shows how this compass binds them in unexpected ways. The term migritude suggests the horizontal assimilation engineered by migrants as they smile at each other, knowing quite well what is carried on each other’s backs.

I came to Shailja Patel’s Migritude joyously, embraced by the first few lines about the teardrop in Babylon. The embrace didn’t falter. The words held me. They are a song. What does the song hope for? It wants understanding, which is a gesture toward freedom.