As curators search the Capitol Building, cataloging and repairing the damage done by the January 6 riot, I read for news of a painting of Dalip Singh Saund that I saw two years ago when I visited Washington. On the landing of the East Grand Staircase, the portrait’s richly marbled frame is adorned with symbols of Saund’s immigration, education, and career. A plaque below the painting commemorates his historic election as the “First Asian American in Congress”—he represented California from 1957 to 1963. As reports emerge of how mob vandalism targeted, in particular, certain racialized objects within the U.S. Capitol, we need to reckon with the artifacts within its walls.
Images from the January 6 riot make clear the white supremacist terms upon which entry into the U.S. Capitol is premised. While these scenes are new and unprecedented, they are not an aberration. Those who make a study of U.S. empire, enslavement, genocide, segregation, and voter suppression know that the Capitol represents the illusion of democracy. To the extent that the rioters stand for antidemocratic, fascist, and racist principles, it is not surprising to see them inside the Capitol Building. They are a feature of the system. This is their house, and they write on its walls with impunity.
People of color have learned to navigate the terms and conditions of power in the United States. The complexity of this negotiation is what drew me as a literary critic to Saund’s life and work, and to his character in particular. He has remarkable ideological appeal. After his election, Saund was deployed as a prototype of model minority and audiences around the world were regaled with the news of his unlikely election, even as the civil rights struggle gained momentum and the Little Rock crisis came under international scrutiny. More recently, politicians as vastly different as Bobby Jindal and Barack Obama have extolled the figure of Saund in a tradition of heroic individualism and upward mobility. Such deployments of Saund do troubling cultural work, for they promulgate the ideology of the American dream while obscuring racist economic and social structures that constrain the majority of minorities, immigrants, and other working-class people.
One gray chilly morning in 2019, I met Felicia Wivchar inside the south entrance to the Capitol Building to see the portrait. The Office of Art and Archives for the U.S. House of Representatives, where Wivchar works as associate curator, commissioned artist Jon Friedman to paint the portrait, and installed it in 2007. Though the painting is not large, it is captivating.
Luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln appear in the frame, along with maps, flags, and monuments that serve to chart Saund’s triumphal journey from Punjab to California to Washington. Symbols of the “East” become progressively Western from top to bottom, as an oxcart gives way to a tractor and the Sikh khanda is succeeded by the University of California seal. The painting recruits Saund (and its viewers) to the American dream. It captures a fantasy of racial assimilation, one that solicits immigrants to the United States; a fantasy that the January 6 riot throws into sharp relief. Saund’s racial difference appears to be incorporated into the United States: his turbaned image along the border is overshadowed by the much larger image of him at the center, his hair cut close and his body enveloped in Western clothes. Despite his visibly dark appearance, his suit and tie seem to fit like a second skin, as if to suggest, dubiously, that the mantle of Americanization can be assumed as easily as new clothes.
It is impossible for me not to admire Saund, who beat all odds to enter the inner sanctum of U.S. government. The portrait transmits a sense of belonging to me. It evokes a personal connection to Saund, with whom I share some of the tropes and touchstones of the immigrant’s journey. He was born in Chhajjalwaddi, not far from where my maternal grandparents lived in a high-walled compound in Amritsar, flanked by narrow gullies, where my grandmother called across to her neighbors as she watched for my grandfather bicycling home, their unshorn hair marking their adherence to a faith Saund also shared.
The catalog of Saund’s successes during a period of racial violence and nativist turmoil is impressively long. After immigrating to the United States in 1920, he studied agriculture and mathematics at U.C. Berkeley. He then moved to the Imperial Valley and became a successful businessman. He campaigned for people of South Asian descent to be allowed to become naturalized citizens, and nearly as soon as it was possible, in 1949, became one himself. He served as a county judge for a time (an election he won twice, after his first win was thrown out because he had been a citizen for less than a year), then went on to beat the considerably more wealthy, well-connected, and renowned aviator and businesswoman Jacqueline Cochran in a nationally publicized congressional campaign. His 1960 autobiography, Congressman from India, lays out his complex and thoughtful political program, committed to a range of social issues from farm subsidies, veterans’ rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and civil rights reform to transnational collaboration and global self-determination.
So far, Saund’s portrait does not appear to be among the artifacts damaged on January 6. News points to racialized targets of vandalism: a photograph of the Dalai Lama was removed, a scroll bearing Chinese characters was ripped up. In fixating on these items, the rioters acted to erase the complex symbology of the Capitol, which has always been more of a bricolage than official histories allow. We know that Black slaves helped build the Capitol. Now Black and Brown workers are scouring it clean. Blanche Kelso Bruce, Shirley Chisholm, Kika de la Garza, and Henry Barbosa González are some of the Black and Brown politicians featured in the Capitol’s art collection, not to mention Black and Indigenous abolitionists, activists, educators, and visionaries like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Chief Standing Bear, Sojourner Truth, and Sarah Winnemucca. Their legacy is by no means uniform. They span the political spectrum and have varied ideological investments, as Saund’s intermediary role as model minority indicates. Without them, however, the edifice of U.S. democracy as we know it is inconceivable, especially insofar as we honor their push for representative government and their opposition to legislated inequality, racism, and genocide.
As Capitol workers right furniture, repair windows, and remove debris, preservationists are contemplating whether and how to register the marks of last week’s violence. Restoration will not suffice insofar as what is being restored is a status quo that is intolerable to the majority of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and working-class people in the United States and the Global South. In recent months, activist movements including Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, immigrants’ rights, and Indigenous environmental defense have shown us that truly representative government is the work of many hands. The January 6 riot calls us to discover this work within the Capitol Building itself. To read the artifacts is to understand how people of color hold and reshape power, to ask what it means to restore when we must instead rebuild.
Swati Rana is assistant professor of English at U.C. Santa Barbara. Her book, Race Characters: Ethnic Literature and the Figure of the American Dream, was recently published by University of North Carolina.