U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Building Common Cause? Derricotte in East Asia

I’m in the point in the chapter about Derricotte going around the world in 1928-29 where I have arranged primary sources into a narrative, done initial analysis, and gotten feedback from peers. What it is missing is an overall structure to contain the chapter, particularly after she leaves India and travels through East Asia (Singapore, China, Korea, and Japan). I’ve spent a lot of time and a conference paper thinking about Derricotte in India, but haven’t spent as much time analyzing her time in East Asia. So I thought I would use this space to try to force myself to explain what that part of the chapter is about. I should say that this is part of my writing strategy–to write my way towards a thesis rather than imposing a hypothesis onto the material before analysis. I forget that sometimes and it feels like a failure to have so much written without an overarching structure, but it is in fact a step towards success.

The chapter as a whole argues that Derricotte is both a Westerner and a person of color and that different situations bring out each side of her identity. Seeing the able and beautiful brown bodies in India brings out her connection to them. She delights in the magnificence of the Maharajah because it shows a brown king “doing things up to the notch” in front of her Western friends. At the same time she says she loves the British for giving her a warm bath and a clean house after an exhausting day of experiencing the Ganges. She also criticizes Western missionaries, not for trying to Westernize India, but for not living up to Western Christian values of charity and kindness, especially in their treatment of their servants.

The next point I make is that Derricotte fulfills and transforms the expectations of Western travel writers. As Nayar writes, English writers used their descriptions of India as a way of controlling and bounding the land. They praised the beauty of the land, but in a way that promoted the transformations that Britain had achieved. Derricotte also praises the marvelous and worries over the poverty, but she is also attuned to the desires of Indians themselves for the future of their land and their individual lives.

As you can see, even as I try to write about the chapter as a whole (which starts in Harlem and traces Derricotte’s journey through Europe,the edge of Africa, throughout India, to East Asia, Hawaii and California), my claims tend to be about the Indian portion of her journey because this is the portion I’ve thought through the most.

As I was rereading what I had already written about Derricotte in East Asia this morning, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. Derricotte does not feel the same connection with East Asian bodies as she does with the brown bodies of India (which look so much like her own mixed-race body). She also focuses much more on the Westernization she spies in East Asia, in part because it is more rare than in the parts of India she visited. Throughout her trip, she tended to stay with and socialize with YWCA missionaries; however, she had more opportunities to live with and talk with Indians than she did with East Asians. She was in India for a month, while she was only traveling through East Asia on her way home. She focused much more on the role of Christian missionaries in East Asia, praising them for their fortitude whereas in India she criticized them for their hypocrisy. She continued to be struck by the contrast between beauty and poverty, using “ugly” and “beautiful” instead of “good” and “bad” for her moral descriptors. The beauty of the forbidden city even led her to consider the beauty that an imperial government can accomplish that a democracy cannot, contrasting the joy she felt seeing the city with the impoverish hordes outside of its gates, many of whom had been impoverished by the building and upkeep of the forbidden city. Was the beauty of the city worth it?

She was also less focused on political matters in East Asia than in India, where she frequently pondered the relationship between Britain and India. She seemed less concerned by the influence of the West on China, Japan, and Korea, although she did praise the YWCA for always having a Chinese administrator. She wanted to see the locals embrace Christianity for its own sake, and did not see Christianity as an imperial force. This links back to my definition of Derricotte as  “Christian Internationalist.”

Hmmmm. I still have a ways to go to organize the section effectively, but I think this writing through the comparisons has been helpful. Thanks for “listening!”

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Lauren. I am always thrilled to see how your study is developing, and what you’re finding and arguing on Derricotte is fascinating. The YWCA connection is of particular interset to me, as my mother and some of her friends were Indians who made cross-cultural connections of their own, as Indians abroad, through work with the same organization.

    The one note I have to make is not so much a criticism as it is perhaps a caution. It seems there certainly is a contrast to be made, even or especially one which takes into account Derricotte’s identity as a Black woman abroad, but I’d warn against treating the imperialist views of India(ns) as monolithic, per Nayar. First, he seems to jump around a lot without properly periodizing their views, and even within a given period there would always be a diverse range of opinions and reactions to the Indian environment with which the imperialists were interacting. You can find just as much counterevidence from imperialist observers, scholars, and bureaucrats which glorifies the Indian peoples, from the martial prowess of certain sub-ethnic groups to the work ethic or intellect of others, and much which argues against the common view of Indian rule (particularly that of the Mughal’s) as inherently despotic. In some places, in certain periods of time, Hindu (and Muslim) scriptures might be glorified and customary practices demonized or dismissed; in others, the opposite would hold true. I think we in the US tend to assume that the ‘civilizing mission’ of (British) imperialism was a given, whereas most scholars of India and the British empire would hold that there was a chronic tension between, at least, this ‘improvement’ ethos and an agenda based on cultural preservation (Utilitarian/evangelistic and Romantic, respectively). Now, I hasten to add, even the views that weren’t (or, at least, weren’t overtly) predicated on cultural/racial superiority were generally still problematic as hell, in several ways.

    There’s a wealth of literature on this, but some starting points might be Bernard Cohn’s “Law and the Colonial State in India” (in his Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge), Neeladri Bhattacharya’s “Remaking Custom: The Discourse and Practice of Colonial Codification” (in R. Champakalakshmi’s edited volume, Tradition, Dissent and Ideology), and “The Creation of Difference” and “The Ordering of Difference” by Thomas Metcalf (in his Ideologies of the Raj). For art, especially religious art/architecture and iconography, you might consider Partha Mitter’s Much Maligned Monsters. I don’t think these sources will make you reconsider the point entirely, but could nuance the argument just a little; admittedly, it’s nuance of more interest to scholars in another field than perhaps in Us history, but nonetheless.

  2. Thank you for this extremely helpful comment! I look forward to checking out your suggestions.

    Derricotte’s destination was Mysore. She also visited Poonamallee, Benares, and Calcutta. Quite a trip!

  3. Sounds like a fascinating chapter. Seems to me the politics of beauty, the relationship between politics and aesthetics in its broader sense, is a key element in how Derricotte constructs her narrative of travel. This was of course not exceptional in Romantic and post-Romantic Western travel accounts of any part of the non-Western world, but the connector between her voyage through India and East Asia might be the relationship between aesthetic value and Derricotte’s gaze on the non-Western other, through what aesthetic frameworks she viewed that other, how she aestheticized India and East Asia differently.

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