I was born in Los Angeles and raised in California’s Mojave Desert. My mother was a single parent. She worked many different jobs but spent most of her career as a public school teacher. More than anyone else, my mom inspired me to love teaching and to believe in the power of education.
When I was fourteen, my older brother was attacked in a club in Santa Monica and lost his right eye. I used to call it a hate crime but the truth is more complicated. My brother’s father was from Nigeria and had returned there when I was a few years old. Growing up in a multi-ethnic family, with an African American brother and an African American step-father (not my brother’s father…it’s a long story), I had developed a strong curiosity about how race works in the United States. My brother’s attack turned that curiosity into purpose.
My brother always had big dreams and I inherited many–chief among them to play professional basketball like my childhood hero, Magic Johnson. I credit my high school science teacher, Ed Sparks, with helping me let go of professional basketball and turn toward college. Dr. Sparks is one of thousands of teachers changing lives every day in our public schools. I cannot imagine a more committed, skilled, and effective teacher.
Dr. Sparks helped me get into the Quest Scholar’s Program, an initiative housed on the campus of Stanford University that helped low-income kids develop new skills and networks. (The Quest program has evolved into QuestBridge, a major nationwide organization that helps low-income students get into college.) Going from the Mojave Desert to the Quest Program was like traveling to another planet—a planet full of inspiring people and ideas. The Quest Program reinforced my belief in the power of education. It also helped me get into Stanford.
As an undergraduate at Stanford, I studied pretty much everything except history. I earned two interdisciplinary degrees, one in Earth Systems and the other in the Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. After graduation, a Rhodes Scholarship allowed me to study environmental change and management at Oxford University. There, I realized that ecology was not quite right for me. While I continued to love science and to care deeply about the natural environment, my heart was with the humanities.
After teaching English at a high school in Mountain View, California, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. I chose history because several of my mentors told me that history was inherently interdisciplinary. I was also drawn by the prospect of learning lessons from the past that could be applied to problems in the world today. My teachers at Harvard, especially Jim Kloppenberg, Lizabeth Cohen, Sugata Bose, and Evelyn Higginbotham, helped me realize that history was the ideal discipline for me. I came to love history not just because of its interdisciplinarity or its utility to the present, but because of the strange power of worlds that once were and are no longer. The fact that my brother passed away in a car accident in 2003 deepened my sense that the past is more than a source of lessons for the future. The past was the present for those who lived it.
It was at Harvard that I started what eventually became my first book: Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2012). Colored Cosmopolitanism connects histories very close to my heart–the civil rights movement in the United States and freedom struggles in India. My connection to South Asia began with a three-month research trip to Nepal in 1999. I visited India for the first time in 2002 and returned over and over again during the next decade. Originally drawn by India’s diversity and beauty, I quickly became committed to helping, in some small way, to redeem the full promise of the world’s largest democracy. Like the United States, India is home to vast inequalities but also to many talented people struggling to make democracy work for everyone. I feel blessed to consider India my second home.
At Carnegie Mellon, my research and teaching have continued to focus on the history of race and social change in the United States and India. I edited Black Power Beyond Borders (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), a collected volume on the global dimensions of the Black Power movement, and wrote three books: The Prism of Race: W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and the Colored World of Cedric Dover (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2019), and Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World (University of Washington Press, 2019). I also founded the Bajaj Lab for Rural Development and SocialChange101.org.
At Carnegie Mellon, I met my wife, Emily Mohn-Slate, a poet, essayist, and teacher. We have two children now. Watching them grow up is one of the great joys of my life, and a constant reminder to keep growing and changing. My kids are blessed with three loving grandparents and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. I wish they could know my brother too. He would have been an amazing uncle.
It’s strange to raise kids as a historian. Sometimes, I wish I could shield them from the pain of the past. But I know I can’t. They need the past to understand our world today, and to fight for a better future.