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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 2

 | 
Sarah Barbour
, 
David Howard
, 
Thomas Lacroix
, 
et al.

Questions of Theory, History and Memory

African Diaspora Theory: Here, There, and Everywhere

Maggi Morehouse

Résumé

Although the term ‘African Diaspora’ seems relatively new, a number of twentieth century scholars have utilized a diasporic framework to explain the commonalities among people of African descent around the world. While the earliest scholars did not use the term African Diaspora to describe the communities that were dispersed from Africa and germinated in the New World, modern scholars have consistently used the analytical concept. Many intellectuals and other scholars, from the social sciences through the humanities, link the black experience around the world using a diasporic framework. They explicitly categorize the identity communities created out of the enslaved experience as one of African Diaspora identity formation, and they are building consensus for using the framework to describe the commonalities among black communities in today’s global world. In simple terms, diaspora as a concept can be defined as the identity community that is formed when people move. However, this multivalent concept has been anything but simply defined. This essay will highlight the competing attempts at theorizing the African Diaspora, from its earliest proponents to its more contemporary cultural studies adherents.

Texte intégral

1Although the term African Diaspora seems relatively new, a number of twentieth century scholars utilized a diasporic framework to explain the commonalities among people of African descent around the world. By the twenty-first century, there are suggested rules of usage when engaging the explanatory paradigm. The field of inquiry and the tools of explanation continue to grow and African Diaspora adherents are slowly populating all of the ‘traditional’ disciplines of academe. Today there is a veritable cottage industry of African Diaspora theorists in the academy continually employing concepts and frameworks that add richness to our understanding of black life in different locales. There are even interdisciplinary African Diaspora Studies programs located in several universities. Most of what has been theorized and analyzed utilizes an Afro-Atlantic model as the norm with slavery as the point of trauma and dispersal, although this norm has been expanded to include modern-day African migrations and diasporas including black life via the Indian Ocean. The first task of any narrative analysis is to provide clarity to the concepts employed, and in diaspora scholarship, we must also define the community and individuals under investigation.

2African Diaspora theory provides a framework for understanding the socio-historical experiences of peoples who have been categorized by phenotype or skin-color. However, what are the problems associated with categorizing people of African descent into some kind of transnational, historical continuum and then describing the communities using diaspora concepts? First, individuals in diaspora do not necessarily accept or engage the concept when talking about their own communities. One does not need to self-identify as an African Diaspora individual for the concept or theory to be useful. Second, sorting peoples by racial categories and assuming everyone imagines their own histories similarly risks the worst kind of essentialist scholarship. This work critiques numerous trends in conceptualizing the African Diaspora, illuminating ideas from its earliest proponents to its more contemporary cultural studies adherents while also providing a few examples of African Diaspora life and culture.

3In simple terms, diaspora as a concept can be defined as the identity community formed when people move. However, this multivalent theory has rarely been so simply defined; rather it has been employed to characterize a complex set of circumstances, from individuals who are racialized into specific categories, to oppressed religious or cultural groups, to communities of consciousness, to a whole host of other dispersed groupings. The concept of diaspora originated in the Greek language with a certain ambiguity about the Greek imperial project of dispersal and migration. Subsequently, the concept was applied to the forced migration of Jews out of the Holy Land, and our understanding of diaspora became inextricably linked to this ‘classical’ Jewish model of oppression and victimization (Cohen 1997). Today, scholars who study black life and culture in the African Diaspora generally employ several characteristics in their analysis: 1) Dispersal/Migration; 2) Germination; and 3) Community of Consciousness.

4For people in a diaspora, the dispersion is the beginning of a split, with new communities formed or germinated in the new locale (Hesse 2000). Within these new dispersed communities of diaspora, there are identifications that are individually formed, making the germinated community a sort of ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983). These new germinated communities are at times made real with the active and creative memories of the individuals. This creative memory process or ‘re-memory,’ as Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, is especially descriptive of dispersed Africans who were displaced around the world during the hundreds of years of slavery’s existence (1987). Diaspora as a framework of explanation has been utilized and theorized differently over time, and it should be understood as mutable. Although scholars of the African Diaspora come from a multitude of disciplines—history, sociology, literature, and political science—what binds us all together is our study of black life. Scholars using African Diaspora theory employ different modes of inquiry, study different historical trajectories, and analyze a multitude of objects; yet, all are working to uncover the multitude of histories and realities of black people over time and in different geographic spaces.

5The five centuries of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Africans involved millions of people on all seven continents. There need be no further validation of the racialized, globalized, and victimized aspect of this African or Black Diaspora. The trade in African slaves impacted all continents and peoples of the Atlantic, hence diasporic communities were formed at every port of the triangular trade. The everyday consumption habits of Europeans changed because of the new staples provided by the plantation communities in the new world. Sugar and coffee, among other items, flowed back to Europe from the world system of globalization that the slave trade created. Europeans engaged in the slave trade—whether as slave traders, insurance investors, plantation owners, or periphery workers—were marked by their experiences of trading in the lives of people. New communities were formed in the locations where the slaves were dumped. These communities engaged in a continual regenerative process rather than a static carry-over of values and behaviors from their point of origin. Within Africa, many communities exhibited different behaviors because of the impact of the slave trade. Slavery’s global reach impacted people at the point of origin and the point of relocation.

6Colonial regimes engaged in this global trade of goods, moving soldiers, merchants, and families around the world, while also redistributing native peoples to other locations. This ‘Imperial Diaspora’ of dispersed Europeans germinated new communities in all corners of the world (Cohen 1997). New variants of slavery and indenture and hierarchy emerged in the communities the Europeans created. These Europeans of the Imperial Diaspora were not ‘pure,’ they crafted new behaviors and identities the longer they stayed on the islands, creating ‘creole’ communities among the peoples and places that they encountered (Naipaul 1981). The process of identity formation born out of slavery is necessarily ‘creole’ (Holt 1999).

7Generally, creolization is understood as a linguistic phenomenon; however, the concept can be used to investigate identity formation. Creolization is what emerges as the clash of languages; it is halfway between two basic structures (Glissant 1989). For example, in Caribbean so-called creole languages, you will find West African syntax and grammatical structure overlaid with European words. All languages are combinations of languages and can be thought of as creolized. Creole is the norm for language patterns and can be useful when applied to the process of identity formation. The descendants of the diasporic movements wrought out of slavery (both the Imperial Diaspora and the African Diaspora) have developed their own unique cultures that both retain and often elaborate on their original cultures. These new world diasporic communities may be imbued with some of the same cultural practices as the ‘originating community’ (the village communities within the continent of Africa, or the members of European nation-states), but the originating culture does not need to be seen as ‘pure.’ Do not look for a true original form—any sort of purity in either language or identity—in the originating culture, nor in the dispersed diaspora community. These creolized diasporic cultures are constantly in motion producing and reproducing new identities. Diaspora theory and concepts are useful when studying these groups.

8So how was this African Diaspora ‘creole’ identity forged under slavery? How can we interpret the primary sources using the framework of African Diaspora theory? Over 6,000 Africans in the Americas narrated their own stories of enslavement through books, memoirs, essays, poetry, and interviews (Gates 1987). The preponderance of primary source evidence never completely convinced whites of the humanity of blacks—that battle is still being waged—but reviewing the evidence today allows us to place this historical evidence among the many creative enterprises of people of African descent. Enslaved Africans were thought to be simply cargo; in fact, ‘enlightened’ Europeans and Americans were not convinced that the African was capable of writing literature. This was the special province of the white male. Within the hierarchical scale of being, the African was placed at the bottom of the well unable to scribble his way to the top. As many societies measure greatness by literary production, a brief investigation of the autobiographies of ex-slaves Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince is instructive in understanding some of the first formulations of an African Diaspora identity. These African Diaspora slaves were involved in creating literature in order to prove their humanity. The autobiographies of Equiano and Prince reveal what these African Diaspora individuals were saying about their place in the global world order that slavery wrought. These individuals moved around the world and in their writings reveal their interior thoughts about home, being in motion, and freedom. Their experiences while traveling through the ports of the slave trade, encountering European diaspora communities, and ultimately gaining their freedom, are key to the formulation of an African Diaspora identity.

9There are many similarities in the highly stylized and gender differentiated slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince. Equiano displays a diasporic consciousness in his 1789 Interesting Narrative and Prince overlays gender to her diasporic identity in her 1831 History of a West Indian Slave. They are transnational: African, American, Caribbean, and British, while at the same time rejected by all cultures. When Equiano and Prince write their narratives it is expected that only imminent (white) men should pen memoirs. Important and political people were expected to write their own stories, not slaves. Equiano the traveling slave wrote himself into existence and also proved his humanity, employing a distinctly European literary style. When he writes his interesting travel narrative, he is retelling an African story from a western perspective. He is free, and his African Diaspora identity is constantly reborn and re-crafted based on his life experiences—travel, slavery, business enterprises, and finally literary endeavors.

10What ties the Equiano and Prince narratives together is their personal reflection on the institution of slavery, the disruption of family values and personal life, their understanding of their own diaspora identity (although neither used the term), as well as their understanding of the liberating forces of literature. Like Equiano, Prince lived with the hope that God (and the British government) would give her freedom and let her return to her husband in Antigua. Prince like Equiano is a traveling slave; her testimony is another example of diaspora literature. She ponders her place in the world and she acculturates to the multitude of environments and peoples she encounters, ultimately forging her own creole or diaspora identity. Clearly, this bridging of worlds is central to an African Diaspora identity. These two historical accounts are primary source examples of the saliency of diaspora theory.

11Another subtle explication of the multi-impact of the slave trade, diaspora theory, and creolization can be found in Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Here a Brazilian born slave trader identifies himself as ‘pure Portuguese’—an anomalous category of identity—and succumbs to the peculiarities of trading in human lives. His move to the African slave-coast kingdom of Dahomey renders his identity as completely one of diasporic citizenship. He is neither Brazilian, nor Portuguese, and certainly not African. He is a member of the new global order that slavery created. Whoever travels into the heart of darkness to engage in the trade of human beings is forever victimized and stained with the blood of slavery. The two-way aspect of the slave trade needs to be expanded to encompass the marking or victimization of all participants; to address what happened to the Viceroy as well as what happened to his ‘cargo.’ The Viceroy seems to slip between the Imperial Diaspora while also displaying the victim characteristics of the African Diaspora (Cohen 1997). These formulations of diaspora—the imperial diasporas of empire, the creolized communities in the new world, and the victimized Jewish diaspora—reflect the ways the original Greek concept has been expanded to incorporate more imagined communities that germinated from the migration experience.

12Scholars must expand on the idea of the Jewish diaspora as a normative model, because it is simply too constraining. Today, there are more Jews around the world, dispersed and diasporic, than in the ‘homeland.’ As Thomas Holt explains: ‘Africans in the Americas and Jews embody the two archetypal narratives of diaspora, of holocaust, and of redemption’ (36). Holt links the Old Testament story of Jewish dispersal to a similar diasporic consciousness among the African American population. Both communities have identified with the same story of exile and enslavement. The story that is key to Jewish consciousness of community also serves as inspiration for many Christians in the African Diaspora. However, there does not need to be any sort of similarity of experience within either of the diasporic communities for the theory to be effective. We must look for the point of victimization and then uncover the multitude of ways that the diasporic communities forged new identities. Here we may see more variety and dissimilitude than consistency.

13Scholars should use the African Diaspora concept metaphorically, focusing on the history but also focusing on the contemporary or voluntary aspects of African migration and diaspora formation (Shepperson 1982/1993). In addition, when undertaking a study of Africans in the diaspora, scholars must carefully deploy a periodization scheme that clearly delineates the time and people under investigation. Colin Palmer (2000) noted how the African Diaspora concept had been around since the 1800s, but its current conceptualizations came about as a result of the independence movements in Africa. He warns that there is no single African Diasporic community, or consciousness, because there are five major streams of African Diaspora migration. These streams periodize different histories of peoples of African descent and provide a timeline for African Diaspora research. Besides the five major streams, Palmer also noted how the diasporic communities generally possessed: an emotional attachment to their ancestral land; recognition of their dispersal; a sense of alienation and oppression; a sense of racial pride, and a belief that all members of the diaspora should be committed to the maintenance or restoration of the original homeland (27). All of Palmer’s formulations utilize a checklist of behavior in order to be called a diaspora.

14Joseph Harris’s theorizing on the African Diaspora framework also valorizes the African aspect of the dispersal, while adding a new subtlety. He focuses on the global dispersion of Africans, both voluntary and involuntary, and identifies:

the emergence of a cultural identity abroad based on origin and social condition, and the psychological or physical return to the homeland, Africa. The African Diaspora assumes the character of a dynamic, continuous, and complex phenomenon, stretching across time, geography, class, and gender’. (3)

15In this formulation, Harris is engaging in some of the necessary dynamics and specifics of African Diaspora theory. Harris adds more cogency to the concept, but he still points backward to revalorize the African origin in both individual identity formulations and group consciousness. Africa is an entire continent with a multitude of histories and experiences, which defies any single monolithic interpretation of its essence. The trajectory of Africans moving around the world has never been a singular experience, and establishing a checklist of migratory streams does not provide for the particularity necessary for defining a diaspora. Too many people and histories slip through these checklist formulations of African Diaspora theory.

16Michele Reis and Tina Campt periodize other African Diaspora formations as ‘modern’ and then ‘late modern or contemporary’. Reis specifically places slavery within the ‘modern’ phase of diaspora and moves away from establishing a checklist of victimization. Reis studies recent immigrant/migrant communities in the Caribbean and advocates for their inclusion in a widened understanding of the ‘contemporary’ diaspora. She writes that she is ‘critiquing the theories in the conventional literature, exposing the lacunae in terms of interpretation of diaspora’ (41–42). Campt places Afro-Germans in the twentieth century within the lacunae of contemporary diasporas, asking about the political stakes in the modern day uses of diaspora (94). She is specifically working within the field of postcolonial and feminist studies, informed by the cultural anthropology works of James Clifford (1994). Reis and Campt push away from checklists and ‘normative’ explanations and use specific time periods, peoples, and migratory flows in their explorations of African Diaspora identities.

17Many scholars approach diaspora from the view of migration. Dwayne Williams sees a symbiotic relationship between diaspora and migration. ‘Social processes such as migrations (forced, induced, or voluntary) do not simply divide people of African descent, but can and do serve as a reunifying force’ (108). Steven Vertovec joined Robin Cohen (1999) as both attempted to define the parameters of migrations, diasporas, and transnationalism, ultimately stating that at times each theme is subsumed into the other. They distinguish the new global migration flows as a recent phenomenon inextricably linked to economic push/pull influences from the entering and exiting locations. For Vertovec and Cohen the framework of diaspora explains the multi-locality of social and cultural identity formations. The concept of transnationalism provides a foundation for understanding how global identities are formed. They warn against applying the term diaspora to communities that have been deterritorialized or can be described as transnational. They understand diaspora formations as linked to migration flows. However, nowhere in their six-hundred-page tome can one find a clearly delimited definition of the three concepts. Theorizing each of these themes of migration, diaspora, and transnationalism is still under development: ‘That these three themes are intuitively linked is incontestable, but how they are linked is still a matter for further theoretical reflection and detailed empirical research’ (xiii). What both authors want to prevent is any sort of conflating of categories— migration and/or transnationalism—that describe the movement of workers or ‘racial minorities’ with the active identity formation that is central to the framework of diaspora. Cohen’s solution is to offer a qualifying descriptor (victim, labor, trade, imperial, or cultural) to denote the type of diaspora, but then he is forced to apply this descriptor to all of the peoples and processes he has identified (1997). This categorization or checklist approach is too general, and in many ways misses the vibrancy of the African Diaspora communities that germinated long after the victimization process of slavery.

18African Diaspora theory is organic; it is developed, applied, and altered as different scholars undertake studies of black people around the globe in different epochs. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza notes the difficulty in defining the African diaspora (mostly choosing to use the term in lowercase). He wrote: ‘there are several conceptual difficulties in defining the African diaspora; for it simultaneously refers to a process, a condition, a space, and a discourse’ (41). Avtar Brah succinctly represented the tensions in the use of diaspora as an explanatory paradigm. In her monograph Cartographies of Diaspora, she describes how the use of ‘diaspora’ can be too general: ‘Its explanatory power [is] in dealing with the specific problematics associated with transnational movements of people, capital, commodities and cultural iconographies’ (196). Kim D. Butler understands these difficulties, yet proposes ‘how’ to use an African Diaspora framework when studying transnational and contemporary diasporic communities. Butler advocates that scholars employ a checklist crafted around earlier theorists’ models and then adapt the checklist to reflect the unique characteristics of the people in diaspora within the study group. Butler identifies some problems when scholars have attempted to define diaspora by observing the characteristics of single diasporas and [then] using them as a checklist’ (126). Her solution is to acknowledge complexities within the group being studied, and then to clarify and illuminate the research questions within the written narrative. These scholars complicate the concept of the African Diaspora by setting out its inherent problems, and then crafting useful timelines while detailing the specific characteristics of the individuals that they study. They understand and employ the organic nature of African Diaspora theory.

19Earlier twentieth-century scholars, W.E.B. Du Bois, St. Clair Drake, and C.L.R. James, used African Diaspora theory to understand black life both in slavery and freedom. Du Bois deliberated from a diasporic framework, writing from both Ghana and the U.S. about the African Diaspora experience. St. Clair Drake cites Du Bois as the beginning point for his own explorations of black life in the diaspora. C.L.R. James always wrote from a diasporic perspective, moving both himself and his investigations of diaspora from the Caribbean, through the U.S., into Africa and Britain. Du Bois, Drake, and James lived and analyzed ‘Black People Here and There’ throughout the African Diaspora (Drake 1987). Most of these first scholars of the African Diaspora utilized the concept ‘as both a political term with which to emphasize unifying experiences of African peoples dispersed by the slave trade, and an analytical term that enabled scholars to talk about black communities across national boundaries’ (Kelley 1). These scholars were the first to give meaning to the idea of a worldwide black brotherhood—a diaspora community formulated out of the forced migration experiences of slavery.

20Du Bois, Drake, and James distinguished themselves by using different objects of study and modes of inquiry when studying the black experiences on a diasporic or global level. They were able to investigate the black experience by studying a wide spectrum of cultural objects, including history, literature and art. They contextualized black life in different geographical regions using an organic methodology of African Diaspora theory. Each advocated placing the study of slavery within a globalized framework, the key to forming any African diasporic community. Drake explained his own study of the enslaved as constituting ‘an analysis of values and symbols that have emerged within Black communities in the Diaspora,’ and he links those cultural products with the ‘coping processes at various periods in history and in diverse places where ecological and economic contexts present quite different options’ (xv). Drake also understood the linkage between blackness and the African diaspora. He wrote:

The adoption of a black perspective in history, philosophy, or the social sciences deliberately restricts the frame of reference within which people and events are observed and evaluated. The focus is narrowed so as to concentrate on the Black Experience, with full awareness, of course, that social class, nationality, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, and/or religious orientation all make the experience different from person to person. (1)

21Here we see a conflation of the idea of blackness and the African Diaspora, which helps to clarify both terms. Ronald Segal calls the five centuries of Africans moving out of Africa The Black Diaspora, and he focuses explicitly on the phenomenon of phenotype: ‘The racism which sought to sustain slavery and the subsequent forms of subjugation or discrimination based itself increasingly on the blackness of the diaspora’ (1). For Segal the terms African-American, or Afro-Caribbean or Afro-British, confuse rather than clarify. It is the descriptor ‘black’ and the concept of diaspora that gives him the most purchase when comparing the black experience outside of Africa. Yet, scholars should be careful: there is no one idea of blackness or African-ness that controls how the people in diaspora are studied or understood. We must employ our concepts and theories and test against realities, while constructing an explanatory narrative that illuminates rather than crushes historical actors into flat and essentialist categories. Earl Lewis in his investigation of ‘Overlapping Diasporas’ (1999) noted the multi-positionality of members of the black diaspora. Lewis says these historical actors cannot be defined in terms of race or class, or race and class. We must formulate African Diaspora theory organically, identifying the patterns of stratification within the community (time period, race, class, migration) and make these distinctions explicit in our narrative explorations.

22Thomas Holt warns academics not to abuse the diaspora framework and think of all peoples as ‘in diaspora’. He is afraid academics will overuse the diaspora idea, causing it to become just another academic ‘buzzword’. Uncritical over-usage will dilute the saliency and importance of the framework and in the process cause it to lose its critical edge. Still, he recognizes how utilizing a diasporic framework helps us ‘to see global connectedness as well as difference and separation’ (35). Holt warns against the umbrella diaspora concept, however, he does see the overlap of globalization and mass movements of people, migration, as central to the framework of diaspora. These are the caveats and warnings that every African Diaspora scholar must recognize in their explorations of black life around the globe.

23There are many modern-day or ‘contemporary’ examples of African Diasporic communities and this is where the organic nature of the theory can be tested. Today the African Diaspora framework is a burgeoning field of inquiry with polyvalence and a myriad of new theorems. AfroGermans, Black Russians, AfroBrazilians, and Black Irish, are just a few of the diasporic groups that scholars are studying today. They are finding resonance with African Diaspora theory to explain these contemporary communities. Whether researching slavery, emancipation, black military life, black politics, social institutions, philosophy, or African Diaspora arts and letters, the scholar must employ a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach. Next, we must focus on sources from different geographic areas—the key requirement of diaspora studies. We should be able to look at black life in two or more locations and analyze the systems side-by-side utilizing a framework of African Diaspora theory: Dispersal/Migration, Germination, and Community of Consciousness. Theorizing the modern-day African Diaspora will be enhanced when we undertake studies with these methodologies.

24For most of the twentieth century, scholars have been using the African Diaspora framework to explain black life around the world. Though informed by different disciplines and ideologies, these diaspora scholars have all called for an understanding of black life as inextricably linked with the brutality of slavery, a global enterprise. If we recognize slavery as the point of dispersion/germination that is the requisite of a black community in diaspora, then we are on the first platform of conducting diaspora research. From that platform, scholars need to engage in interdisciplinary research as they communicate about the communities of consciousness that the diasporas continue to express. There is proof that African Diaspora theory works when comparing systems of slavery, and today there is burgeoning evidence that these tools work to reveal continuities and divergence between contemporary Black Diasporas. Theorizing about the African Diaspora helps us to understand history and literature in a more nuanced way. As we continue this line of inquiry across the globe, new theories of diaspora will be germinated in the academy and take root in scholarly works. Scholars, go out into the field and into the archives, and conduct your research using this multivalent theory. There is much work to be done!

Bibliographie

Works Cited

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Auteur

Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina
Associate Professor of Southern History and Director of the Burroughs Fund in Southern Studies at Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina, is the first graduate of the African Diaspora Studies program at the University of California Berkeley, completing her PhD in 2001. Today, she teaches southern history with a focus on connecting the American South to global diasporas and migrations. She is author of Fighting in the Jim Crow Army and editor of Civil War America: A Social & Cultural History. She is currently at work on The Routledge Handbook of the American South, a guide to southern culture and history. She is a former Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad. In addition to traditional scholarship, she has been working with media, providing historical consultation and crafting oral histories into visual short stories on topics ranging from black soldiers, to enslaved potters, to southern women, to diaspora and migration.

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