#DesiReads: Anjali Enjeti reads from her essay collection, Southbound

Desi Books Ep 55 w/ Anjali Enjeti Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 55 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Anjali Enjeti reading from her essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change.

#DESIREADS WITH ANJALI ENJETIINTRODUCTION

Anjali Enjeti is a former attorney, journalist, and author based near Atlanta. Her critically acclaimed books Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and The Parted Earth have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Harper’s Bazaar, Ms., Garden & Gun, the Star Tribune, the Post and Courier, Chicago Review of Books, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. Anjali’s other writing has appeared in The Oxford American, Harper’s Bazaar, Poets & Writers, USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, and elsewhere. A former board member of the National Book Critics Circle, she has received awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and has attended residencies at The Hambidge Center, Wildacres, and Rockvale Writers’ Colony. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University and lives with her family near Atlanta in Georgia.

The twenty essays in Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change tackle white feminism at a national feminist organization, the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the South, voter suppression, gun violence and the gun sense movement, the whitewashing of southern literature, the 1982 racialized killing of Vincent Chin, social media’s role in political accountability, evangelical Christianity’s marriage to extremism, and the rise of nationalism worldwide. These personal essays span Anjali’s life from when she was ten years old in a Detroit suburb to now, when she’s a political activist, journalist, and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. So they chart her own evolving awareness and identity through all those events and experiences.

I had interviewed Anjali earlier this year for Guernica magazine and you can read that here.

Anjali Enjeti’s debut essay collection, Southbound, spans a wide range of time and topics charting her personal evolution as a feminist, political activist, journalist, and writer. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Anjali Enjeti.

DESIREADS WITH ANJALI ENJETI

[Excerpted with permission from Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti. Copyright © 2021 Anjali Enjeti.]

The fall of my freshman year in college, I learned that I was the only one of my close girlfriends (all of whom were white) who did not receive one of the beautifully embossed invitations to the city’s debutante ball, the Cotton Ball (today called the Chattanooga Ball). Like other debutante balls, the Cotton Ball is a coming-out party for young women of marriageable age, an elaborate celebration of the upper financial crust, of spheres of influence whose members could trace their family trees back several generations to the South’s storied antebellum legacy—white people’s glory days before the Civil War.

Debutante balls were not born of the South. Queen Elizabeth I began the tradition in England during her reign in the latter half of the 1500s. Lucky debutantes (from the French word débutante, meaning novice) in their late teens to early twenties curtsied before the queen with the hope of a prompt engagement. Four hundred years later, in 1958, Queen Elizabeth II banned the tradition, owing to corruption. Today debutante balls are still held all over the United States, though their popularity has waxed and waned over time.

This formerly Eurocentric rite of passage, though, has evolved into something distinctly southern. Chattanooga’s Cotton Ball, one of the oldest debutante balls in the southern United States, was started in 1933 by a woman named Zella Armstrong. Ironically, Armstrong never married and, according to her gravestone, had a career as an author, editor, and publisher. Her father, Captain John McMillan Armstrong, served in the Confederate Army.

Slavery was barely in the rearview mirror in the South, and Jim Crow and the separate-but-equal doctrine ensured the continued subjugation of Black people. Though over the years a handful of Black women and other women of color have been presented, Chattanooga’s ball remains largely a celebration of whiteness, of aristocracy and old money, of men’s ownership of women, and an ode to the selective memory of a region’s cruel and traumatic history.

The mere idea of the Cotton Ball seemed so absurdly racist, sexist, and classist, I could hardly believe it still existed in the early 1990s. “Belles” a year out of high school, with hair swept into elaborate updos, wore satin or silk gowns that swished as they waltzed and curtsied. The Queen, a recent former belle, was paired with a King, an older adult male at least twice her age. (The fact that few people seem bothered by the optics of this is still mind-blowing to me.)

But when all of my white friends received invitations to the Cotton Ball and I didn’t, it hurt like hell.

Despite years of existing in an environment that glorified whiteness, of attempting to be seen in a landscape of whiteness, of incessant othering, I still longed to be included. After learning from my former high school classmates that the invitations had been mailed out, I remember calling my mother and tearfully asking if she could please double-check the mailbox and make sure my invitation wasn’t hiding somewhere amid the junk mail.

“Despite years of existing in an environment that glorified whiteness, of attempting to be seen in a landscape of whiteness, of incessant othering, I still longed to be included.” Anjali Enjeti in Southbound #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Bear in mind, I had no intention of actually attending the Cotton Ball. In fact, I had already composed a letter in my mind to accompany my RSVP declining the invitation, expressing my disappointment that the institution continued to serve almost exclusively white women.

But these conflicting emotions of disappointment and revenge barely scratched the surface of the forces at play. At age nineteen, I still wholly bought into white supremacy. I hated that I wasn’t invited to the Cotton Ball. I also loathed myself for wanting to be invited. Around and around I went, disparaging the Cotton Ball while envying those lucky enough to be able to choose not to attend. The Cotton Ball confirmed every suspicion I’d ever had. White people would never see me as worthy, and it was my own damn fault for trying to prove them wrong.

In my teens and early twenties, I still lacked the clarity or the consciousness to reckon with the ways I was directly perpetrating harm against other brown and Black people. Vijay Prashad writes about this in his book The Karma of Brown Folk, utilizing the framework in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. He asks “how we can live with ourselves as we are pledged and sometimes, in an act of bad faith, pledge ourselves, as a weapon against black folk. What does it mean . . . for us to mollify the wrath of white supremacy by making a claim to a great destiny?”

Longing for a white supremacist goal while complaining about racism is about much more than hypocrisy. The centering of my own individual injustice actively marginalized other brown and Black people. It also fed right into the model-minority myth. I “deserved” a Cotton Ball invitation because other brown and Black women weren’t as “deserving.” Though I did not possess the lens to understand it, my hurt and humiliation were rooted in racism and the deep-seated belief that after white women, I was the next best thing.

The brown desire for white benefits has historical roots in the US. In 1927, in Gong Lum v. Rice, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Mississippi School Board to exclude nine-year-old Chinese American Martha Lum from a white public school because she was “colored.” Certainly, Chinese Americans faced and have always faced racial discrimination. But the Lum family believed that their Asian American identity made them superior to Black families and entitled them to white rights.

My desire for a Cotton Ball invitation was a desire born of a social contract that I, and I imagine Martha Lum, had subconsciously signed at birth. In exchange for years of conformity, silence, humiliation, abuse, and erasure, white people and white institutions would reward us with eventual acceptance and inclusion. Or so we thought.

But that’s not how whiteness works.

“In exchange for years of conformity, silence, humiliation, abuse, and erasure, white people and white institutions would reward us with eventual acceptance and inclusion.” Anjali Enjeti in Southbound. #DesiReads @DesiBooks

One of the biggest injuries of racism in a very white environment is the mask. I projected a fake, false front to everyone, including my own family. (My mother is white passing. My brother, my father, and I are brown.) I pretended that I was confident, strong, and secure. I never cried and almost never complained. I buried the anger. I isolated myself from myself. I attempted to laugh off my own experiences with racism in order to neutralize or defuse them. I did this to attempt to minimize my trauma, but I also did it because I thought (I hoped) it would meet with white approval. That I might receive a gold star in return.

The problem with masks is that it’s very hard to see out of them. My mask made me a terrible ally. The few times other brown people, particularly other Indian American teenagers, confided in me about their own experiences with racist bullying, I was so badly triggered that I found myself incapable of adequately supporting or consoling them. I stayed relatively silent, nodding my head, mumbling a “That’s terrible” or some other empty sentiment, and then quickly changed the subject.

Secretly I believed that because I could carry my own trauma, I was stronger than they were, that my shield to protect myself from racism was more durable. This response was more harmful than any white person’s. Because there’s nothing more cruel than when a person from the same community seeks comfort only to have their trauma minimized or dismissed.

About a year after the Cotton Ball, my relationship to white supremacy, and the ways I contributed to it, slowing began coming into focus. While home from college, I came across an Indian woman on our television screen. A few minutes later, I realized the setting was Mississippi. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I grabbed the remote control and turned up the volume.

It was Mira Nair’s 1991 feature film Mississippi Masala. The film is about an Indian family cast out of Uganda by Idi Amin. The family immigrates to Greenwood, Mississippi, to run a motel. The prodigal daughter, Mina, played by Sarita Choudhury—who happens to be one-half Indian like me—falls in love with a Black man named Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. The Indians exiled from Uganda are heartbroken over leaving their African homeland, and yet they are racist against Black people in Mississippi. Colorism is also in play. Mina’s mother fears her daughter is too dark for a good marriage.

“[Mississippi Masala] forced me to look inward, particularly at how the ways I moved through the world directly impacted Black people.” Anjali Enjeti in Southbound #DesiReads @DesiBooks

The film forced me to look inward, particularly at how the ways I moved through the world directly impacted Black people. It shined a light on my own internalized racism, and it forced me to see my non-invitation to the Cotton Ball in a new light. Anti-Black racism and colorism carried out by brown people is pervasive, though for years I didn’t even notice it. Or, more accurately, I probably did notice it and brushed it under the rug. In this sense, Mississippi Masala was my reckoning. The fact that I endured racism myself didn’t exonerate me from being anti-Black or from perpetuating colorism.

Brown people (myself included) are racist. As it turns out, after more than a decade of calling the South my home, of criticizing Confederate flags and Civil War memorials, I was also very much a product of it.

Anjali Enjeti’s debut essay collection, Southbound, spans a wide range of time and topics charting her personal evolution as a feminist, political activist, journalist, and writer. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 55 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was with Anjali Enjeti reading from her essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change.

Episode 56 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. And please share this on via social media to support the writer and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
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