H.G. Mudgal, Harlem Editor
By Tizarat Gill, Manan Desai |
FEBRUARY 1, 2018
On February 15, 1931, a crowd of gatherers had packed into Fulton Studio in Brooklyn to watch a heated debate unfold on the topic of race in America. Organized by the Frederick Douglass Interracial Forum, the debate pitted two powerful 20th century ideologies of liberation against one another. "Communism or Garveyism," a notice in a newspaper read: "Wherein Lies the Solution of the Race Question?"1 Representing the Communist side was Edward Welsh, the editor of Revolutionary Age, who argued that the "Negro problem was essentially a class problem." His opponent, the editor of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper Negro World, retorted, "No Non-Negro could pretend to give a philosophy to just suit the needs and moods of the black masses."2 That editor’s name was H.G. Mudgal, and ironically, he was not Black either. An immigrant from India, Mudgal had become a familiar figure in Harlem political circles in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. His story reveals the complex pathways by which immigrants from South Asia had not only navigated the racial terrain of America, but directly participated in African American struggles against white supremacy.
Hucheshwar Gurusidha Mudgal was born in the city of Hubli in what is now modern-day Karnataka, India. Where exactly he spent his time between his birth and his arrival in the U.S. is the subject of some debate. While one source suggests that he was raised in Trinidad before coming to the U.S., a 1931 profile in the Pittsburgh Courier claims he left India at the age of 20, traveling first to Zanzibar and South Africa before moving further West to Barbados, Cuba, and Santo Domingo.3 What is known for certain is that he eventually landed in New York around 1920. In the U.S., Mudgal turned to higher education, earning an almost absurd number of degrees. He enrolled at Columbia, where he pursued an M.A. and Ph.D. and studied comparative politics; City College of New York, where he took courses in French, German, and English literature; and New York University, where he joined the journalism program.4 When he was turned down for several jobs at newspapers, a professor at NYU suggested he apply to African American newspapers provided he "did not hold any prejudices." The advice worked and in 1922, Mudgal was hired by T. Thomas Fortune to work for the Daily Negro Times and its successor the Negro World, both mouthpieces for the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and his organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Mudgal’s first job was as a reporter, but within a year, he was running his own "Foreign Affairs" column. By May 1930, Mudgal had risen in the ranks, serving as an acting managing editor for the Negro World, a position he held until June 1932.5
Before delving into Mudgal’s career with the Negro World, it’s worth taking some time to understand Marcus Garvey and the movement he led. Beginning in the 1910s, the Jamaican-born Garvey had founded the UNIA, an organization dedicated to the values of Pan-African unity, racial pride, and economic self-empowerment among people across the African Diaspora. A charismatic and controversial leader, Garvey soon established centers in the U.S., supporting a "Back to Africa" movement and the famous Black Star shipping line which was intended to connect to ports across the African diaspora and help establish an African independent nation. Perceived as a radical threat by J. Edgar Hoover, Garvey was charged with mail fraud by the Bureau of Investigation in 1919, eventually imprisoned for three years before being deported to Jamaica. While a radical in his own right, Garvey had antagonists on the Left; he believed, for instance, that Communist activists were interested in "the Negro’s vote" but had no real interest in demolishing racial prejudice. The African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois was deeply critical of Garvey’s ostentatious brand of politics, once describing him as "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America." A more recent and sympathetic view has disentangled the personality of Marcus Garvey from Garveyism, describing the latter as a mass political movement that emboldened black communities across the globe "to direct attention to their own needs, to build upon their own traditions, [and] to confront systems of power within the purview of their own discretion."6 It’s through this lens that we might make sense of Mudgal’s participation in the Garvey movement.
By the 1930s, Mudgal’s close association with Garvey had made him a familiar name in New York's African American political circles. He could count Du Bois and George Schuyler as acquaintances.7 Newspapers often recorded him giving speeches, organizing panels, and turning up for debates defending the movement’s vision for racial uplift through economic empowerment. Given Garvey’s well-publicized stance against Communism, Mudgal was often at loggerheads with New York’s Communist groups. His debate with Edward Welsh in Brooklyn in 1931 was only one of many. That same year, Mudgal debated Albert Weisbord, editor of Class Struggle at St. Luke’s Church in Harlem. Weisbord argued that "the ills of the Negro can be cured only if he embraces Communism," whereas Mudgal countered with his familiar refrain, "the Negro’s ills can be cured only by himself and by no others." During a speech in 1930, Mudgal drew the ire of a group of Communists in the crowd, when he evoked eugenicist language and advocated for birth control as a means of ending "wars of necessity," instead of arguing, as the "Reds" would have, for a change in the economic system.8 Mudgal responded to their protests by slyly offering that he was neither capitalist, communist, liberal nor socialist but an "intelligent free-lance." Not unlike Garvey himself, for that matter.
Indeed, Mudgal’s publication record reveals a deeply committed Garveyite. In line with UNIA’s mission of establishing an independent nation in Africa, Mudgal wrote a series of eclectic columns entitled "How to Build Up Liberia" in the Negro World, describing the country’s natural resources and practical uses for its vegetation. Mudgal consistently advocated for Garvey’s ideology of economic empowerment. In 1931, he publicly backed a "trade with your own" drive sponsored by the Harlem Business Men’s Club, which boycotted white businesses that had discriminated against African Americans. In one editorial, Mudgal described his plans to train a group of men and women in Harlem in the art of picketing and boycotting: "We must persuade, if possible and force, if necessary, the white employers to do simple justice to the Negro and employ him according to his ability and not starve him by refusing him work because of his color." Throughout his career, Mudgal was unabashed in his support for Black cultural pride, once arguing that African Americans rescued American culture from being "the drabbest and most unoriginal civilization known to history."9 His commitment to Garveyism led him to author the 1932 pamphlet "Marcus Garvey: Is He A True Redeemer of the Negro?," answering the title’s question with a definitive yes.
Writing during the post-war period, Mudgal often stressed the interconnected nature of the African American struggle and worldwide anti-imperialist movements. In a column from 1931, he emphasized that "the American Negro is [...] indirectly affected by the seemingly remote events in China, India, Egypt, Kenya, Tanganyka (sic) or South Africa" and thus "must be wide-awake to their import."10 During his visits to Dar es Salaam and Durban in 1920, he had already witnessed first-hand the British mistreatment of native Africans, recording his observations in the Poona-based newspaper The Mahratta. For Mudgal, Indian independence would play an especially critical role in breaking the global color line. "A successful revolution in India," he wrote in his "Foreign Affairs" column, "means a complete collapse of the present sinister imperialism the world over."11 His interpretation of the Indian movement often led to him drawing comparisons between Gandhi and Garvey, both charismatic and eccentric personalities who he described as "pests" of the British Empire:
"Since I took up the study of world politics, I have watched the activities of the U.N.I.A. This movement is not going to change only the condition of the Negro, but will also affect other races of people. I read an editorial of the "Two Fleas" in the collar of British Imperialism. The names of which are supposed to commence with two "G.’s" They are Gandhi and Garvey. As long as Great Britain does not cast off the garment of imperialism, these fleas will remain in her collar."12During the 1930s, issues of the Negro World were often filled with articles about the Indian nationalist movement, including a steady stream of news reports, announcement for lectures, and the occasional editorial from Indian American writer Haridas T. Muzumdar. For Mudgal, it was clear that anticolonial and nationalist struggles in India, Egypt, China, and of course, Africa, would, "have an effect on the destiny of the Negro, not only in Africa but even in the United States."13 His desire to see the connections between Black and South Asian struggles placed him in a long line of activists like B.R. Ambedkar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Ram Manohar Lohia, who were drawing similar comparisons. (Learn more at BlackDesiSecretHistory.org)
These Black-Asian solidarities extended beyond the realm of geopolitics, and Mudgal often threw his weight behind countering the negative representations of Blacks, Indians, and other racial minorities in popular media. In 1932, Mudgal was reported to have collected signatures to protest Amos ‘n’ Andy, a radio show that featured caricatures drawn from blackface minstrelsy.14 In a 1922 Negro World column, Mudgal penned a scathing critique of Rudyard Kipling, for his disparaging portrayals of India. Kipling possessed a "rank, filthy mind," Mudgal wrote, describing the Anglo-Indian writer as a "stinking carcass with gaudy clothing and fragrant flower on."15 At other times, Mudgal countered negative portrayals of Blacks perpetrated by his fellow compatriots. In one instance, K. Romola, an Indian immigrant, published a vicious letter in The Chicago Defender that dismissed any similarities between the conditions of African Americans and Indians. "Too much has been written by the Negro papers, magazines, and fourth rate writers like Du Bois, about the darker races," Romola wrote, "but who in the hell wants to join the caravan with the black ones? Our caste system in India excludes those who do not belong to the Aryan (white) race and we even here exclude any Indians who live and socialize with the Negro."16 Romola, whose real identity was most likely Kaelas Chowdury, signed off with the self-anointed title "Director of the Aryan propaganda society."17 The term "Aryan," as discussed before in Tides, marked a racial categorization that applied to South Asians, and several Indians had used the category for the basis for their right to citizenship.
Mudgal authored a ferocious response to Romola’s casteist and racist claims, describing his fellow Indian as an "out of touch" snob and self-hating "victim of the white propagandists." In criticizing African Americans, Mudgal suggested that Romola had "utterly forgotten the political, social, and economical oppression that India has been subjected to under the British." While Mudgal did not challenge the argument that "Indians are Aryans," he also seemed to acknowledge that racial classifications were ever shifting and could never shelter Indians from racism in the U.S. After all, he explained, "Europeans are now […] trying to create a mythical race term which is symbolized by the so-called ‘Nordic’ race." Overstating the case, perhaps, Mudgal added that "Young India is in the grip of humanism and they care no more for Mr. Romola’s caste ideas than they do for his race snobbishness."18
After Mudgal stepped down as editor of Negro World in 1932, we briefly lose track of him in the historical record. Some time later, we know, he returned to India.19 In 1950, Mudgal reappears in the record, albeit at the center of a scandal in the early years of Indian democracy. He had been elected as a member of the Indian parliament, and in his early tenure, circulated a pamphlet to Bombay business firms entitled "Your Spokesman in the Parliament." In 1951, Prime Minister Nehru and a parliamentary committee investigated the charge that Mudgal had illegally accepted money from the Bombay Bullion Merchants Association to further their interests, and was subsequently expelled from Parliament.20 A quick search of Mudgal’s name in newspaper databases reveals that he continued to freelance as a writer, publishing at least one piece in The Times of India in the 1970s.
Like his mentor Garvey, Mudgal left behind a complex historical legacy. In India, Mudgal’s name remains tied to parliamentary scandal. Yet, his work with the Negro World also places him in recent histories that have revealed the close ties that developed between South Asian and African American communities and politics in the 20th century. These histories challenge the prevalent narrative that treats South Asian American history as somehow separate from the history of African American communities and other communities of color. As Mudgal’s story shows, the history of Black and South Asian solidarity was as complex and multi-faceted as the various threads and movements that together make up the long-standing struggle for racial justice in the U.S.
1. "‘Garveyism or Communism’ – Which Will Solve the Negro Problem," Pittsburgh Courier, January 31, 1931, 10.
2. Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1986: 260-61.
3. Tony Martin, The Pan-African Connection: From Slavery to Garvey and Beyond, Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1983: 81.; Floyd J. Calvin, "H.G. Mudgal, Harlem Editor, To Back 'Jobs' Drive, Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1931, 6.
4. The Pittsburgh Courier reports that Mudgal’s M.A. thesis was a study on "‘Soviet and Fascist Dictatorships’ being a ‘Study in Post War Political Experimentation.’" His Ph.D. was on "Comparative Party Politics," focused on "all the leading countries."
5. In 1924, he married Anita Matusow, who was born in Latvia; together they had a daughter, Nilochena. Anita Mudgal appears in various databases for her published poetry in the 1960s, when they moved to Bombay.
6. Adam Ewing, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014: 6-7
7. In his capacity as editor of the Negro World, Mudgal had also reached out to Du Bois on a few different occasions. Once, he contacted Du Bois to set up an exchange between Negro World and Du Bois’s NAACP magazine The Crisis. Some years later, Mudgal reached out to Du Bois again, as a way of introducing an Indian academic who had arrived on an education tour. Letter from H.G. Mudgal to W.E.B. Du Bois, June 17, 1932; Letter from H.G. Mudgal to W.E.B. Du Bois, February 18, 1931.
8. "Indian Speaker at Douglas Forum," The New York Amsterdam News, October 22, 1930, 18.
9. H.G. Mudgal, "A Unique Gift to American Art," Pittsburgh Courier, December 20, 1930, A3.
10. H.G. Mudgal, "The Temper of the Times," Negro World, January 3, 1931, 4.
11. H.G. Mudgal, "Foreign Affairs," Negro World, March 8, 1930, 4.
12. "Sunday Night at Liberty Hall," Negro World, June 7, 1930, 4.
13. "The Temper of the Times," 4.
14. "Editor of Negro World Has Secured 66 Amos ‘N’ Andy Signatures," Pittsburgh Courier, July 25, 1932, 5.
15. H.G. Mudgal, "Foreign Affairs," Negro World, October 7, 1922, 4.
16. "A Hindu Speaks His Mind About Us," The Chicago Defender, November 29, 1930, 14. This case is also discussed in Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.
17. An immigrant from Sylhet, India (current day Bangladesh), Chowdhury owned the "Aryan Herb-Tonics Company" in Gary, Indiana. He was later charged by the Food and Drug Administration for misbranding and labeling a product which "bore false and fraudulent therapeutic claims."
18. "Another Hindu Writes," The Chicago Defender, December 13, 1930, 12.
19. In 1943, he authored Human Order, an interpretation of the Indian National Movement, which was published in Bombay.
20. V. Venkatesan, "A Precedent and the Law," Frontline, vol. 22, no. 17, Dec 31-Jan 13, 2006.
Tizarat Gill graduated from the University of Michigan in 2017 with a degree in Communication Studies. During the Summer of 2017, she did an internship with SAADA, generously funded by the Center for South Asian Studies and sponsored by the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan.
Manan Desai is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and a member of SAADA's Academic Council.