SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

Ambedkar in America

Anupama Rao

Date: 7 June 2022Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 7 June 2022Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: Alumni Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Seminar


B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and social thinker of democracy, attended Columbia University between 1913-1916. As we build out the multimodal Ambedkar Initiative, work in the University Archives at Columbia allows us to think about the relationship between the social space of the university (and its relationship to Harlem), the formation of the social science disciplines, and the global and racial diversity of the interwar classroom as the enabling context for new practices of scholarly production and critique. I would like to explore this moment by considering how works by Ambedkar and Du Bois—Castes in India (1916) a precursor to the Annihilation of Caste (1936), and “Reconstruction and its Benefits” (1915) which preceded Black Reconstruction (1935)—provided a distinct and distinctively modern understanding of the categories of “caste” and “race.” Both thinkers had a deep investment in global historical processes as these had shaped the histories of caste and race, even as they diverged significantly from their forebearers’ understanding of the relationship between history and identity, and the work of the concept. 


Anupama Rao is Professor of History and MESAAS at Columbia University. She is the Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Organiser of the Ambedkar Initiative, and outgoing Senior Editor, Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Rao received her BA, with honours, from the University of Chicago, and her Ph.D. from the Interdepartmental Programme in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. Her work has been supported by grants from the ACLS; the American Institute for Indian Studies; the Mellon Foundation; the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the SSRC. She was a Fellow-in-Residence at the National Humanities Center from 2008-09, and a Fellow of the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford during 2010-11. She was a Fellow at REWORK (Humboldt University, Berlin) in 2014-2015.

She has written widely on the themes of colonialism and humanitarianism, and on non-Western histories of gender and sexuality. Her book, The Caste Question (University of California Press, 2009) theorised caste subalternity, with specific focus on the role of anti-caste thought (and its thinkers) in producing alternative genealogies of political subject-formation. She is currently completing Ambedkar in America (Columbia University Press). Recent publications include the edited volume Gender, Caste, and the Imagination of Equality (Women Unlimited, 2017) and The Many Worlds of R. B. More: Memoirs of Dalit Communist (Leftword, 2019).


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