Nico Slate (Harvard University)

Peanut Milk Politics: Religion, Rural Development, and Race in the Relationship of G.W. Carver and M.K. Gandhi

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Indians and African Americans forged connections with each other in what many saw as similar struggles for freedom. In 1929, a recipe for peanut milk sparked such a link—one that lasted more than a decade—between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the renowned Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver. While chronicling the interactions between Gandhi and Carver for the first time, I will argue that a religious understanding of social change guided both men toward similar efforts to end poverty and prejudice. The pursuit of God linked peanut milk to politics and two distant men to each other. The relationship between Gandhi and Carver reveals the way universalities—in this case of religion, development, and race—can cross borders, infusing local, particular histories with transnational meaning.

American historians have recently begun to recognize the centrality of religion to much of American history. This recognition, however, has come largely in scholarship on “the religious Right.” Religion is thus lamented as reactionary when not simply ignored. Similarly, much of the literature on religion in South Asia focuses on the rise of “communalism,” often equating religious faith with narrow, exclusionary politics. Literature on the American Civil Rights movement evades this trap to an unusual degree, often recognizing the potential for religion to inspire progressive social change. Accounts of what Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Gandhi, for example, often point to the centrality of religion in both men’s visions of social progress. Studying Carver’s relationship to Gandhi reminds us that long before King, African Americans had built bridges between religion and social activism and had learned from Gandhi in the process.

Drawn to Gandhi’s impact on King, scholars have largely overlooked the complex attitudes toward African Americans that Gandhi developed during his lifetime. Exploring his relationship to Carver redirects attention to what Gandhi himself thought of African Americans, a topic that deserves more attention than it has received. Similarly, Carver’s life and work look very different when viewed through his relationship with Gandhi. Studying Carver through his relationship with Gandhi presents a man more internationally minded, politically active, and intellectually significant than previous scholarship has suggested.

To uncover the relationship between Carver and Gandhi, I will explore the collected works and letters of both men and of several of their mutual friends. I will also make use of articles from the African American press and from Gandhi’s journal Harijan to investigate the context of these connections. Furthermore, while revealing the specifics of a forgotten relationship, my study will enrich the broader, though equally neglected history of the many connections Indians and African Americans forged with each other before 1947.

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