Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, Reviewed by Nusra Khan

books

In Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity Vijay Prashad offers a cursory history of Asian and African cultures, within the framework of polyculturalism, a term first coined by historian Robin Kelley in 1999, referring to the notion that most people in the Americas, and the world, are a product of a variety of different “cultures” – living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us everyday, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. In this respect, the term “polycultural” works a lot better than “multi-cultural”, since the latter often implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side, a kind of zoological approach to culture[1].

In essence, Prashad’s project is to rethink race and culture – as operating in an American context – and the organization of society by problematizing the ‘standard’ histories of Africa and Asia. As in many cases, Prashad’s preface is the most informative part of the book: tracing the historical development of systems of racial and cultural organization, he argues for the use of polyculturalism in against white supremacy and multiculturalism, which he argues, is simply a blanket term that undermines unequal societal systems. Not only does it imply that cultures can be separated from another, as Kelley notes, but also relies on the (false) criteria of authenticity and purity. Similarly, Prashad avoids the term influence, since it “presupposes that the transit was one way. Polyculturalism does not make a strong statement about the direction of adoption, but it does indicate that those forms hitherto seen as pure are perhaps less so (89)”.

To legitimate this claim, Prashad traces the emergence of a novel European imposed racial ideology, against, what he portrays as, the natural tendency of human societies to blend together. Before the arrival of Vasco Da Gama and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean world, cultural groups did not view each other in racial terms. They certainly classified and distinguished amongst each other – particularly in the realm of the slave trade in Chinese and Arab cultures, where religion was the criteria of freedom – but only because the advent of colonial powers and the use of slavery as the main means for mass production did feudal/caste/religious systems evolve into racial/biological ones.

After establishing this, and the institutionalization of race theory within early European academia, Prashad then situates the modern problem of race discourse. Abandoning it entirely is not productive; nonetheless, neoliberal democracies conflate any kind of race discourse with racism (and in polyculturalism is the remedy). This is where the crux of Prashad’s argument emerges: in embedding the polycultural race theory within the Marxist framework of class struggle. In contemporary America, discussion of race and culture are ignored because of their ‘irrelevance’ to a supposed free and fair capitalist system. For an example Prashad deconstructs the image of the model Asian minority, who demand nothing (in terms of affirmative action) and instead ‘work hard’, unlike ‘lazier’ groups who simply do not work hard enough to make enough money and attain a better economic status. Taking the analysis to various scales, he argues that both on the individual and state level, “Public institutions that seek to redress inequality are to be downsized in favor of private institutions committed to the extraction of profit (46)”.

Thus the changing, dynamic vision of cultural identity in polyculturalism is subsumed within class identity. In fact, Prashad claims that the most illustrative instances of polyculturalism emerged out of the working class: from the Chinese/Indians coolies working under colonial state, unable to negotiate their wages while British workers participate in the Labour movement; on the plains of Jamaica, where Rastafarianism emerged out of contact with East Indian migrant laborers; or in British Guyana, where the polycultural festival of Hosay, incorporating elements of Islamic, Hindu and African-Christian traditions, provided the ideal conditions of a worker’s strike and was subsequently suppressed by colonial authorities through cultural separation. His notion of Third World Solidarity is what stands out the most. The preceding four chapters are spent building up this concept– of polyculturalism representing the unity of the working classes. The last chapter and the conclusion of the book is simply a cursory history of the interconnectedness of independence movements and moments where such polyculturalism and radicalism interact, including gems like Malcolm X’s death in the arms of Yuri Kochiyama; connections between Red Guards and Black Panthers; Ho Chi Minh’s times in ‘Garveyite halls in Harlem’; and the meetings of Nkrumah and Nehru. Marxism and Communism, and largely, post-colonial solidarity, is the main framework of his “Afro-Asian Connections”. Thus perhaps his generous use of the phrase “Third World Solidarity” would be more appropriate in the title of the book. Indeed, it is not until the conclusion of the book that Prashad outright states:

polycultural solidarity is not the melancholic hope for unity that sometimes guides the imagination of the Left, but it is a materialist recognition that people who share similar experiences create the platform for cultural interaction… solidarity of the class, across color, grew not from any predisposition toward class unity, but because Japanese and African Americans had to live side by side, share a similar set of circumstances, and create a common cultural world[2],

an understanding that is much different than Kelley’s. Perhaps this is the greatest weakness of Prashad’s work, that he does not acknowledge it as a work of class relations and not simply a ‘history of polyculturalism”. For its work on the intersections of race and class it is commendable; but after reading Robin Kelley’s article in which ‘polyculturalism’ is first posited,  and without a claim by Prashad about his class dimension, Prashad’s book feels like a disappointing attempt at producing a historical study of the theory. Thus one wonders if Prashad himself may not have misconstrued Kelley’s argument… his emphasis on South Asian and West Indian contexts and his tendency to problematize Black cultural norms by ‘tracing’ their origins to migrant laborers in the colonial period or to Asian Marxism in the postmodern period appear suspiciously one-sided, although Prashad to takes care to constantly remind the reader that “culture is not a category”. But this is simply a virtue of the fact that Prashad tends towards radical class activism, both in colonial and postcolonial periods, while Kelley is focused only on culture.

Nonetheless, for a popular work that attempts to theorize and historicize ambiguous concepts of race and class, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting provides a fast-paced, colorful introduction. Surely a rhetorical gesture, the book itself is a polycultural product, incorporating vibrant references of poems, rap lyrics of the Ruff Ryders and Rakim, historical photographs, and witty sub-titles, all neatly wrapped up in the metaphor of Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, a Chinese-American pop song by Indian songwriter Bindu and performed by the African-American Carl Douglas. Though the argument’s clarity sometimes suffers from its kaleidoscopic approach, it still offers an insight into the overlap of race and class, and unwittingly highlights some of the theoretical challenges of studying race, culture and class together.

Works Cited

Prashad, Vijay. 2001. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity. Boston: Beacon Press

Prashad, Vijay, and Russell Endo. 2003. “BOOK REVIEWS – Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Racial Purity”. The International Migration Review : IMR. 37 (4): 1313.

Kelley, Robin. “People In Me: “So, What Are You?”.”ColorLines, Winter 1999. http://communitylearningpartnership.org/share/docs/Kelley.People In Me.pdf (accessed March 17, 2014).


[1] Kelley, Robin. “People In Me: “So, What Are You?”.”ColorLines, Winter 1999.

[2] Prashad, Vijay. 2001. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity. Boston: Beacon Press, 120.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.