Diaspora

“Diaspora” is a contested term. The African diaspora is, like the nation, an “imagined community” (B. Anderson [1983] 2006) conceived of and performed based on imperfect memories, evidence, and agendas. As the historian Colin Palmer asserts, “In many respects, diasporas are not actual but imaginary and symbolic communities and political constructs; it is we who often call them into being” (2000, 29). Within Black studies literatures, diaspora is mobilized as a method in pursuit of collectives whose histories and cultures were/are otherwise hidden or forcibly taken as part of the development of Western epistemes (formal and informal) and the violences of chattel slavery and colonialism. Variously referred to as “Black,” “African” or a series of national monikers prefixed by a version of “Afro-­,” the actors who called for the African diaspora are loosely tied together by a recognition of indigenous Africa as origin as well as a relation to Blackness as sociocultural identity. No more stable than “diaspora,” “Black(ness)” too is a contested term. The literary scholar Michelle Wright argues that “from the start, Black identity has been produced in contradiction” (2004, 1), noting the irregularity of the category and appellation as well as the fact that Blackness as production—­becoming—­and as material experience only exists relative to a series of additional constructions and world systems that produce “differences and disagreements among black populations on a number of registers” (B. Edwards 2003, 7). The word “diaspora,” then, invites experimentation within the categories of identity—­citizenship, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and ability—­that the theorist Stuart Hall argued are “never complete, always in progress” (1990, 222). Diaspora as performance and practice is contested and (re)made over and over again, revealing its complexity and dynamism, which stems from the constant agitation among its subjects as well as the movements that disperse those persons around the globe. As such, the African diaspora is a people, process, encounter, ambition, and project.

More than a constellation of individuals, the African diaspora proves to be a political project of affiliation and camaraderie that unites members through historical condition as well as deliberate choice. Indeed, diaspora has been a formative element in the construction of modern Black identity. The language of an “African diaspora” rose to popularity in scholastic discourse in the 1950s and early 1960s in large part through the work of historians of Africa who brought grounding to the term through studies of anticolonial struggle in Ghana and other African nations. The popular birth of the term from and in continued reference to resistance movements necessarily makes the African diaspora a politically charged formulation designed to be read in contradistinction to structures of power. According to Lisa Brock, “if we rid ourselves of race and nation hierarchies, which were/are largely constructed at ‘the top’ by elites, important comparative paradigms might evolve and analytical lessons be drawn from isolating specific processes of oppression and the experiences of those below on ‘the bottom’” (1996, 11). Investment in scholastic inquiry “from below” is a hallmark of much of the work in the African diaspora, including that of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, who has theorized new frames for Black resistance, arguing that “we have to step into the complicated maze of experience that renders ‘ordinary’ folks so extraordinarily multifaceted, diverse, and complicated. Most importantly, we need to break away from traditional notions of politics” (1994, 4). The “translocal” politics described by Frank Guridy (2010) between poets in Havana and Harlem is one example of the ways in which scholars have shown the intimacies of diaspora and how those microrelationships became a defining element of influence and change on multiple scales. This revision to our understanding of politics, which is not held captive to formal organization, mass mobilizations, or charismatic leadership, opens up opportunities for examining how transnational cultures of thought and action function at the ground level and reveal the density and impact of diasporic contact.

Regularly used as a synonym for “African diaspora,” the term “Black Atlantic” (Gilroy 1993) brings with it a series of provocations detailing the fluidity of identities across the expanse of difference. Like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (2000), the literary scholar Omise’eke Tinsley details the intimacies that structured the transatlantic slave trade and intervenes in narratives of its formation by arguing that the “black Atlantic has always been the queer Atlantic” (2008, 191). Deep engagements with eroticism, desire, consumption, and masculinity widen the scope of global Blackness in consideration of how nonnormative bodies produce counterpoints to narratives of the family, respectability, and labor (J. Allen 2011; Carrington 2010; Ferguson 2004; Thomas 2011; Tinsley 2010; Erica Williams 2013). The intellectual investment in the Black Atlantic—­no less the Black Pacific and Black Mediterranean—­suggests that the buoyancy of Black cultures and identities have been built in between spaces and are supported by myriad strategies, including the creation of new knowledges. The ocean’s edge is a location of critical inquiry in diaspora studies and a location where feminist geographies become “demonic” (McKittrick 2006), manifesting the crossing and “interrupt[ion] of inherited boundaries” (M. Jacqui Alexander 2005, 6) that show again how diaspora refuses containment, producing instead new constitutions and ways of living.

The African diaspora’s relation to the three “classic” diasporas (Jewish, Greek, and Armenian) was marked in the language of the First African Diaspora Studies Institute, which convened in 1979 at Howard University and offered this definition of the African diaspora: “the voluntary and forced dispersion of Africans at different periods in history and in several directions; the emergence of a cultural identity abroad without losing the African base, either spiritually or physically; the psychological or physical return to the homeland, Africa. Thus viewed, the African diaspora assumes the character of a dynamic, ongoing and complex phenomenon stretching across time and geography” (Harris [1982] 1993b, 5). This dynamism has been displayed in multiple forms, from the techniques of agricultural innovation carried by enslaved Senegalese women and men to the rice fields of the hemispheric Americas to the efforts by the African Union—­the cooperative continental governing organization—­in the late aughts of the new millennium to prioritize diaspora as a strategy of socioeconomic advance for Africa. These relations, in addition to many others forged through radicalisms and performance, index the coherence of the term, even when it is unevenly experienced or accessed. The “voluntary” aspect of the diaspora is witnessed through the multiple movements of Black peoples throughout the world due to ongoing independence struggles, crises in labor, and genocide that, following the forced dispersals of slavery and imperialism, extend diaspora’s teleology well into the future. Along with the dispersal of African-­descended subjects, Hazel Carby and Tina Campt encourage scholars of the African diaspora to reckon with the inter-­ and intranational “settling” of these populations, which requires investigation on different registers of Black existence. Similarly, the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy (1993) famously suggested a focus on “routes” rather than “roots” in the African diaspora in order to trouble both the unidirectionality and racial essentialisms that impair diaspora study.

Africa holds a compelling and urgent location with the diaspora as a site of the “originary displacement,” as Nahum Chandler (2000) names it, tradition, and, in some cases, repatriation. As a sociocultural project, diaspora is reliant on the traditions and movements stemming from Africa, which stands as “a site of struggle and imagination but also as the progenitor of a flexible set of transferable knowledges of technique and performance” (Redmond 2014, 6). Yet, in spite of Africa’s centrality, it remains vulnerable to caricature, fancy, and/or outright dismissal in literatures of Blackness. The theorist Achille Mbembe argues that within Western discourse and scholarship, Africa—­“a great, soft, fantastic body”—­is an “object of experimentation” requiring constant supervision and intervention (2001, 8, 2). The mischaracterization and/or disarticulation of Africa from the wider African world haunts the field, leading diaspora scholars to imagine alternatives. Instead of “African diaspora,” the anthropologist Xavier Livermon (2018) proposes the language of “Afrodiasporic,” which he argues mitigates against the scholastic and discursive erasure of Africa.

Africa’s representation as an entry to diaspora functions on at least two different registers: it is an opening into the long histories of culture, exploitation, and violence as well as a metaport or site of reentry. The traditional diasporic fixation with return to a homeland has rightly come under scrutiny in post–­civil rights African diaspora literatures. Unlike Greek, Armenian, and Jewish diasporas, there is no singular “home” or nation of origin for the African descended, making “return” more of a philosophical exercise than a practical aim or movement objective. That is not to say, however, that it has been pure fantasy. The influential diaspora theorist and movement icon Marcus Garvey is perhaps the most lionized advocate for Black repatriation in the postemancipation moment. His mantra of “Africa for Africans” and investment in a return to Africa was tied to gains in political power for global African peoples—­power that, due to colonialism and Western hegemony, could only take root on the continent. As he argued after World War I, in the cause of colonial expansion “white propagandists have been printing tons of literature to impress scattered Ethiopia, especially that portion within their civilization, with the idea that Africa is a despised place . . . where no human being should go, especially black civilized human beings” (2004, 93). Though he never traveled to Africa and was only able to encourage the passage of a minimal number of members from the Universal Negro Improvement Association, return to Africa was a significant organizing strategy within diaspora, if not a tangible end, and carried weight well beyond the height of Garveyism in the 1920s. In a study of African American expatriates in postindependence Ghana, the historian Kevin Gaines documents a diverse group of activists and intellectuals whose various investments in Pan-­Africanism and Black nationalism led them to practice “a transnational culture of opposition to Western culture seeking the preservation of colonial and neocolonial dominance over the majority of the world’s peoples” (2006, 12–­13). These legacies also encourage contemporary members of diaspora to chance their fate at “home” with mixed yet profound results, demonstrating again how Africa is imagined as a terrain of struggle that welcomes participation from its children near and far, even if those children initially are referred to as “stranger” (Hartman 2007).

Explorations of the multiple, intersectional identities in diaspora are a constituent part of its epistemological and political work. According to Brent Hayes Edwards African diaspora is a sign “formulated expressly through an attempt to come to terms with diverse and cross-­fertilized black traditions of resistance and anticolonialism” (2001, 53). This critical offensive in the literature highlighted a multicentury diasporic assembly now theorized as the Black Radical Tradition and in so doing exposed submerged histories and performances of identity formation while also contending with Western thought, culture, and the very notion of “civilization.” Canonical Western epistemes were read as terrain for critical disruption and dismantling; as the social theorist Cedric Robinson argues, “Solon, Aristophanes, Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle . . . all could not entirely conceal or effectively dismiss the moral challenges of the poor (demos), slaves, and women” ([1983] 2000, xxvii). These subjects indeed surfaced, leaving a “record of resistance, for four centuries or more, from Nueva España to Nyasaland, [that] leaves in no doubt the specifically African character of those struggles” (5). The shared concerns and qualities of these critiques and mobilizations indicate a corresponding labor from a coordinated body. Histories of radical organizing and movement building in the African world (Bush 1999; Gore 2011; Horne 1997, 2014; Kelley [1990] 2015, 2002; Makalani 2011; Von Eschen 1997) have built on these synergies and demonstrate how Black subjects’ “defiant citizenship . . . gave way to diaspora through an identification with blackness as a condition of affinity and camaraderie beyond knowable signs and signals such as homeland, language, and appearance” (Redmond 2014, 127).

Elucidating the scenarios and circumstances that give rise to the African diaspora exposes how race is imagined, constructed, and repeated and why diaspora developed as “a means to theorize both culture and politics at the transnational level” (B. Edwards 2001, 55). That culture and politics are twinned in this description is not a coincidence. Culture is a formative element of political study in the African diaspora and has provided new idioms and methodologies in its study. Visual art and aesthetics (Brody 2008; K. Brown 2015; Copeland 2013; Fleetwood 2011, 2015; K. Jones 2011; McMillan 2015; Mercer 1994), dance (Cox 2015; DeFrantz 2001; Gottschild 2003; F. Griffin 2013), literature (Carby 1999; E. Edwards 2012; Goyal 2010; Moten 2003; Nwankwo 2005; David Scott 2004; Stephens 2005), and other artistic forms (and their breaks) materialize the continuities and disjunctures that constitute the African world. Due to music’s accessibility, ample supply, and demand in the global Commons and marketplace, it is perhaps the most resonant art form within diaspora. According to Samuel Floyd (1995), it is precisely the hearing and maintenance of African traditions throughout the long, global genealogies of Black music that constitutes its power. Black music is a hybrid tradition of diasporic exchange that exhibits a series of techniques and performances over time/space that according to the musicologist Olly Wilson are “not basically quantitative but qualitative” (1983, 2). In working against neat, determinate outcomes, engagements with Blackness as/in/through sound necessarily evince the sometimes messy and ephemeral nature of diaspora by exposing the significance of encounter, spontaneity, and rehearsal to its practice. Recent theoretical interventions in the study of the African diaspora, including “soundtexts,” “anthemic event,” and “stereomodernism,” variously articulate the ways in which musical productions have mediated and challenged the exclusions of access and citizenship faced by subjects throughout the African world (E. Hill 2013; Redmond 2014; Jaji 2014).

As a flexible and dynamic “way of life,” culture and its performance also have inspired some observers to invent or entrench diasporic essentialisms (Raymond Williams 1983). While recognizing that continuity “in the work of Afro-­Americanists and Afro-­Caribbeanists is in part the measure of the sympathetically affirmative character of the anthropology of peoples of African descent in the New World,” David Scott has critiqued anthropological uses of “Africa” and “slavery” as synonyms for the “authentic past” of diasporic subjects (1991, 263). While genealogies of diaspora may begin with the continent and/or enslavement, they are not the only openings to its examination, nor are either static phenomena. As scholars have amply documented, enslavement was not a uniform institution, nor was it totalizing in the lives of its captives (Blassingame [1972] 1979; V. Brown 2008; Diouf 2014; Finch 2015; Gomez 1998; Morgan 2004; Roediger 2014; Smallwood 2007; D. White [1985] 1999). Similarly, the richness of African histories and cultures begs for a continuation of material readings that evade easy overtures to universalism and consensus while still being mindful of and holding onto the symbiotic approaches to life and living that occur globally (Higginson 2014; Kelley 2012; Pierre 2012; Ray 2015; Rodney [1972] 1981; Soyinka 2012).

Presently caught between physical and state violence and (the violence of) neoliberal incorporation, the African descended worldwide are facing economic and political conditions that very well may widen the difference gap between their various communities. With African-­descended people having lived slavery and abolition in the U.S. and Britain and across the Caribbean and Latin America, colonialism and war in the clash of nations during World War I and II, and the genocide and imperialism that continue to outline the shape of global capital, one can know that the form and function of the African diaspora has not reached its end, perhaps not even its zenith. If we believe, as Cedric Robinson has written, that “the peoples of African and the African diaspora had endured an integrating experience that left them not only with a common task but a shared vision” ([1983] 2000, 166), then we are left not with a tomb of dead practices but a canvas of invention that will hold the futures expressed and impressed on it, whatever they may be.

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