“Dixie” in Dharamsala

The Nobel Peace Prize day is always a wonderful ceremony in Dharamsala, most when, as is no longer often, the Dalai Lama can come. It is at the Lha, the Dalai Lama’s palace (he lives simply but has large meeting places for Tibetans and others). I met Tenzin Tsundue there, with several of his students who were learning to speak and write English. Tsundue told me of being in 9th grade at the Tibetan Children’s Village when the Nobel announcement was made. He expected, spoke for powerful consequences for Tibet and for human rights and peace. As we listened, Tsundue underlined that TIPA – the Tibetan Institute of the Performing Arts – had composed an innovative song, with electric guitar and drums though traditional in melody and words – which fills Tibetans with pride.

***

But as a Tibetan youth band ascended the walkway, playing, the strains – though not the words – of “Dixie” boomed up exuberantly. The British, Tsundue told me, had taught this to the Tibetans in the 1920s. The youth band plays it in schools as well as at ceremonies.

***

“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten” – Tsundue wrote down the words from me that he had never heard. It is the song of slavery, of “man-owners,” of the Confederacy and of the bestial slavery by another name, Jim Crow. No one asked black folks what they thought about this institution, but the central role of black soldiers in escaping and fighting for the North – the 184,000 troops recruited after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – speaks clearly enough.

***

So does the action of Corey Menafee, a black dishwasher transferred to Yale’s Calhoun Hall dining room – named for the infamous slave-owner and advocate of bondage. A small stained glass window in the hall depicted a man and a woman burdened down with cotton. Menafee climbed up after a few weeks and smashed it. Yale fired him (its commitment to bondage and the KKK alive and well), but massive protest finally forced them to rehire him.

***

The racist strains of “Dixie” in Tibet highlight the continuing influence of colonialism or post-colonialism long after the masters have left. It is a result of trans-generational trauma, of needing not only a King or a Gandhi to lead a movement but also a Malcolm X to root out, in the mind of each person, the horrifying whispers of colonial voices (h/t Ramona Beltran).

***

I grew up liking “Dixie” before I knew much. It was on television, perhaps even at Walden School where I went from first to fourth grade in Manhatten.   Already by the time I was a teenager, I had the idea that it represented the slave-owning South. But when my childhood friend Andy Goodman was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner, for acting for equality and opposing a church burning, distaste turned into revulsion and enmity.

***

Tenzin Jigmey, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress and a friend with educational roots in Denver, also immediately saw the significance of Tibetans playing this melody and called over two of the young musicians with whom I spoke. They got it.

***

Any examination of the history and political bent of “Dixie” will result in it no longer being played here. The British in the 1920s were masters of India, looking down their silly, colonial noses at the greatness of Indian culture. When they came to Tibet, they did not celebrate the Dalai Lama or observe the psychological as well as spiritual insights of Tibetan Buddhism (Donald Siegel, Mindsight, a leading book among today’s psychologists, makes creative use of Buddhism in working with people).   No, they looked down from their smug, imperial superiority – an empty stupidity – on Tibetans.

***

To invoke John Rawls’ original position, it would be as if a band of young Jews in New York went around playing Hitler’s “Horst Wessel Lied”…(This is no far out analogy: at Texas A&M, Richard Spencer, the American Nazi and support of Trumpf, praised the government of Israel for its exclusivism and racism, and the inarticulate local rabbi could make no response…).

***

“Dixie” was part and parcel of British imperialism in Asia. As with all aspects of that imperialism, may Tibetans sweep it – old dust – away.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *