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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Re-Presentations of the Black Subject

African Diaspora and Coalition: Multiracial Writing and Arts Activism in Canada

Heather Smyth


This paper engages with the ways diaspora theory, and diasporic identities, can be imagined more broadly and with new implications when we re-route their trajectories in unexpected ways and into new contexts—both geographical and intersectional. It proposes that despite the connotations of mobility and flow invoked in our use of the term diaspora and its constellation of critical approaches, it is still potentially about a moving community with boundaries. The concept of coalition, on the other hand, offers the analytical resources of a community of affiliation where those boundaries are themselves moving. To that end, this paper offers three examples of a coalitional or re-routed diasporic theory: it explores Vancouver writer Wayde Compton’s work as exemplary of the Black Pacific; it presents a description of how coalition is a relevant context for the African diaspora and for antiracist arts activism, particularly in Canada; and it explores the theoretical possibilities of complementing diaspora theory with relational models of community.

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1This paper will engage with the ways diaspora theory, and diasporic identities, can be imagined more broadly and with new implications when we re-route their trajectories in unexpected ways and into new contexts—both geographical and intersectional. It proposes that despite the connotations of mobility and flow invoked in our use of the term diaspora and its constellation of critical approaches, it is still potentially about a moving community with boundaries. The concept of coalition, on the other hand, offers the analytical resources of a community of affiliation where those boundaries are themselves moving. To that end, this paper will present a description of how coalition is a relevant context for the African diaspora and for antiracist arts activism, particularly in Canada, and will then explore the theoretical possibilities of complementing diaspora theory with relational models of community such as coalition.

2The following discussion will raise a number of questions: how do multiracial arts coalitions reconfigure our ideas about racialization and representation? What are the opportunities and limitations of extending African diaspora studies through coalition theory? Can coalition help us push at the limits of the terms ‘culture’ and ‘community’ to explore how multiracial literature animates a broader vision of the interrelationships of social differences, where gender and sexuality, for example, can be considered forms of culture? And what can we learn from the values of solidarity and collectivity within coalition that might help us reaffirm the most transformative political, intellectual, and affective commitments of diasporic politics?

3Two examples will be used to explore these questions: first, a look at the unexpected contours of one node of the African and African-American diaspora in Canada; and secondly, the practice of antiracist coalition in arts communities in Canada. Finally, the discussion will turn to some models for relationality that may support this connection between diaspora and coalitional work.

4This paper’s first example explores how Vancouver writer Wayde Compton’s work on black British Columbian culture can be seen as partly derived from, but distinct from, the ‘Black Atlantic’ core of the black diaspora. Compton writes of the perception of this node of the black diaspora as ‘Afroperipheral’—‘the appendix of the epic and the echo of the odyssey’ (Compton 2010: 16–17). In contrast to seeing this diaspora as peripheral to the ‘Black Atlantic’, we might re-position it via the term ‘Black Pacific’. A re-routed diaspora like this offers relational possibilities: not just through its geographical claim to space—though it does attempt to centralize a place and culture that seems spatially far removed from the core narratives of the African and African American diaspora—but also by transforming the African diaspora in this context. The term ‘Black Pacific’ as it is used in this paper derives from Africa but also looks across the Pacific to Asia, and looks inward to the conjunctions of many diasporas and colonial histories that meet on the coast of Western Canada.

  • 1 I am grateful to Omar Ali for drawing my attention to the idea of under-explored African diasporas (...)

5Although I intend my use of the term ‘Black Pacific’ to gesture to contemporary and coalitional cultural relationships, there is a longstanding connection of cross-Pacific migration as well as solidarity connecting Africa and African diasporic culture with Asia. Omar H. Ali1, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya and Jean-Pierre Angenot, Ali A. Mazrui and Seifudein Adem, and Don J. Wyatt, for example, document longstanding patterns of migration from Africa to Asia (including China, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East) through trade, travel, and slavery. De Silva Jayasuriya and Angenot posit that ‘migrations of Africans to Asia, both free and forced, has gone on for several centuries’ (Jayasuriya and Angenot 2008: 2), though others trace these migrations much further back in time. Joseph E. Harris and more recently Omar Ali have documented the East African slave trade across the Indian Ocean. While these are examples that shape a historical African diaspora that precedes the black Atlantic narrative, Adams Bodomo also engages with contemporary, 20th and 21st century migration from Africa to China. In the 20th century, alliances between Africa and Asia were formed at critical points of anticolonial political negotiation such as the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the beginnings of the Non-Aligned Movement (Mazrui and Adem: xvi, 12).

  • 2 This section of my paper develops and extends my research previously published in Callaloo. See Smy (...)

6Shared African-Asian diasporas are less studied than the trans-Atlantic African diaspora, but some scholars within literary, historical, and social science disciplines have used the term ‘Black Pacific’ to foreground the unexpected cultural connections and commitments we can witness when these diasporas grow in their respective locations.2 Taketani, Horne, Schleitwiler, and Sharma, for example, have given the appellation ‘Black Pacific’ to African American cultures in and alliances with Japan, the Philippines, and Hawai’i. Bernard Lucious, in turn, uses ‘Black Pacific’ to describe Afro-Amerasian culture in America. The term ‘Black Pacific’, it should be noted, is also used to refer to African diasporic cultures located on the Pacific side of North and South America without reference to cross-Pacific Asian connections. Jonathan Ritter and Heidi Carolyn Feldman, for instance, explore the hybridity of ‘Black Pacific’ musical culture in Ecuador and Peru, respectively. Feldman notably asserts that ‘the Afro-Peruvian Black Pacific [is] a periphery of the Black Atlantic’ (Feldman 2006: 14). For her, the isolation of black culture in Peru, the predominance of national mythologies of criollismo, and the relatively large indigenous population lead to her formulation of the term ‘Black Pacific’, and she argues that Afro-Peruvians in the Black Pacific make use of Black Atlantic syncretic cultures for purposes of cultural reclamation, as if they were ‘authentic’, original African culture. In the most pertinent context for this paper’s purposes—black Vancouver and Compton’s work—Peter Hudson has also used the term ‘black Pacific’ to describe the literary and arts culture of the African diaspora in Vancouver. Hudson similarly attributes to the concept of the ‘black Pacific’ a sense of a culture ‘outside the circuits’ of the Black Atlantic ‘cultural exchange’: isolated from the Black Atlantic but perhaps oriented more towards the Pacific rim. While Hudson’s reference to ‘black Pacific’ shares my focus on the peripheral nature of black Vancouver culture (geographically, with reference to the Atlantic), I propose that the term also gestures to unexpected cross-diasporic alliances made possible in peripheral geographies.

7These uses of the term ‘Black Pacific’, of course, respond to and adapt Paul Gilroy’s term ‘Black Atlantic’. Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness brought to diaspora studies a critique of cultural nationalist approaches to the study of black diaspora cultures. His focus, too, was relational: the productive cultural exchanges, cultural mobility, and ‘outernational’ reaches of black cultures that inspired him to replace the concept of cultural ‘roots’ with ‘routes’ (Gilroy 1993: 17, 19). The following discussion pushes at the mobility of Gilroy’s diaspora to address what happens when black diasporic cultures are pushed off-route, so to speak, in places like Vancouver. If Gilroy’s ‘routes’ describes ‘identity as a process of movement and mediation’, an ‘off-route’ diaspora offers further possibilities for the exploration of unexpected identities. As Compton points out, ‘In the periphery [...] there are things to be learned from owning and exploring oblique kinds of blackness’ where ’radical experiments of identity can be tried’ (Compton 2010: 13).

8It is clear that unanticipated political and cultural possibilities can take shape when different diasporas edge up beside each other and shape each other. What is more, our critical practice can gain much from exploring the places where the boundaries between diasporic groups start to overlap, and also where diasporas are internally differentiated. Avtar Brah in Cartographies of Diaspora points out both that all diasporas are ‘differentiated, heterogeneous, contested spaces’ (Brah 1996: 184) marked by indices like gender, sexual orientation, class, and generation; and also that ‘diaspora space’ always includes indigenous and settled peoples as well as migrants—those who travel and those who ‘stay put’ (Brah 1996: 181)—though clearly mobility versus staying put does not necessarily line up with migration and indigeneity exclusively. Her term ‘diaspora space’ offers analytical possibilities for ‘historicis[ing] trajectories of different diasporas’ and ‘analys[ing] their relationality across fields of social relations, subjectivity and identity’ (180). The remainder of this paper will explore the value of keeping the concept of relationality—between and within diasporas—at the forefront of diaspora studies.

9Compton’s work exemplifies the Black Pacific in several distinct respects. First, Compton’s writing draws its predominant signifiers from Black Atlantic and Caribbean music, faith rituals, history, artists and writers, and imaginative culture generally, and moves them into a Pacific context. I have explored this feature of Compton’s work at length elsewhere through a comparison with Kamau Brathwaite (Smyth 2014: 389–403), but will briefly offer a few examples here. ‘The Reinventing Wheel’, one of Compton’s most remarkable extended poems, addresses the translation of diasporic culture as it moves across its routes, and the liminal position of both peripheral diasporas and mixed-race black diasporic communities as the ‘receivers’ of globalized African American music. The poet-speaker maps the non-linear or parabolic path of the word and sound through diaspora:

The reading of the Red Sea bleeds into me
as parable. The parabola
of the word crossing water,
Kamby Bolongo. The perambulation
of call and response,
the word made vinyl. The Nile,
like the culture,
overflows, the line secedes.
(Compton 2004: 101)

10His appropriation of African diasporic resources is creative, inventive, and forward-looking, suggesting both an honouring of the past but also an assertion that what happens here will be new and grounded:

We are awake. We have archived ourselves.
The ancestors we have honoured
will be born as our descendants
to remember us. We are conscious
as we speak our names.
(Compton 2004: 104)

11Compton acknowledges Vancouver black culture as off-route through his references to ‘hip hop/in the boondocks, /the relief package/drop zone’ (Compton 2004: 108) and its position as ‘a cargo cult/of reception’ (110) but turns this ‘echo’ into something creative and new through a reinventing and turntabling ‘Crusoe’ (108) who draws from African sound and word:

The word is the body
of Osiris, it’s spliced. A communion
is happening worldwide, a whirlwind
of performances, black English, black expropriation
scattered to the four corners. Every ear shall here.
The word of the prophets are written in graf.
James Brown never said, ’Say it loud,
I’m mixed-race in a satellite of the U.S. and proud’.
There’s no echo, but there is culture
falling from the firmament like virga,
and I’m an instrument of the verge,
cupping the snail shell to my ear, hearing
and placing the phrases brought forth from rock by Thoth,
the living palindrome and magician.
(Compton 2004: 106)

12Throughout his poetry he ties Osiris, Baron Samedi, Malcolm X, limbo, the Middle Passage, and other African diasporic references to specifically Vancouver signifiers and landmarks: in ‘Sam’Baron Samedi dances in a local club; in ‘Ex’ he is evoked in a dreadlocked beach wanderer, ’his cane engaged/in a kind/of cuneiform. signaturing the breach/at Ambleside [...] the Narrows, the Lion’s Gate/Bridge (Compton 1999: 21). In ‘49th Parallel Psalm’ the speaker is ‘singing Zion’s song/into a stranger’s land./sing Zion signified/among the other others’ (Compton 1999: 169):

don’t lock
or pop
or break
but black
star line us back, rewind us
to Zion’s song.
to get, hear.
to wear here.
to where we be
ain’t but ten black people in all of be see
synching Zion’s song analog.
diasporic digits strum the striations.
leaf through pages of moraine.
the motion of Moses’ hands.
(Compton 2004: 170–175)

13In Compton’s poetry the compass is turned, to point to Vancouver as the endpoint of an African diasporic migration: British Columbia governor James Douglas is ‘a lesser Legba’ in the poem ‘JD’, ‘shuffling passports’ for the black immigrants from San Francisco ‘to make a black northwest be’ (Compton 1999: 18).

14In fact, I would argue, a second feature of Compton’s work that evokes a Black Pacific consciousness is his countering of the epic narrative of the Black Atlantic through an invocation of this alternative Pacific founding migration story for Vancouver black culture. Compton’s poetry, historiography, and anthologizing work focuses intently on the 1858 migration of African Americans from San Francisco up the Pacific coast to Vancouver. Compton writes in Bluesprint of his commitment to trace a ‘phantom lineage’ of black British Columbian writers back to the founding black pioneers from San Francisco so that ‘the sounding line it extends backwards into history will provide a foundation of sorts, one for which I have often felt an aching need’ (Compton 2001: 14–15). In ‘The Commodore’ Compton describes the first scouting venture of thirty-five members of the black San Francisco community aboard the steamer The Commodore, seeking ‘an exodus from racial persecution in California’ for what will eventually be a migration of one thousand people (Compton 2001: 17). He crafts this Pacific migration story using signifiers evoking the Middle Passage, escape from slavery, and even Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants:

from Pacific and Folsom Wharf
in SF
thirty-five left
full of fathoming
on the run
the San Francisco-Victoria run
in the hold
and hovering
over the hull and ahoy
in limbo
the steamer The Commodore
thirty-five black arrivants
at the colony
of Vancouver’s Island
and I
the railing deliver
my interior to the sea
my inward debt
my survivor’s agony
of dreams
our Pioneer Committee
vomitting from the depths
of our ancestry.
(Compton 1999: 45–46)

15 Finally, while Compton’s off-route translation of the Black Atlantic into the Black Pacific primarily emphasizes the African and African American continuities in this version of the diaspora, he also challenges black Vancouver’s position ‘outside the diasporic master narratives’ (Compton 2010: 14) by instead giving it a different centre: the racialized cultures located on Canada’s Pacific coast, including First Nations and many diasporic cultures. The ‘claim’ of the poem ‘Claiming’ refers both to the gold rush claims but also to a claiming of identity, ‘fingers in the earth, holding/like roots./fingers finger the routes’; and those claiming are

a circle of out
casts. Irish, Americans, Chinese, criminals, and one
runaway me
are in In
dian country.
(Compton 1999: 58–59)

16In ‘Pyrites’, the new transplanted black community arrives in British Columbia to a place already peopled by First Nations and other diasporic groups, ‘arriving, /soil alive under/Kwakiutl, Salish, /Songhee, and we, /and them’ (Compton 1999: 74). ‘Illegalese: Floodgate Dub’ connects the long history of migration and racism in the region through Compton’s naming of Chinese refugees as ‘Chinese maroons’, echoing the escaped slaves of the trans-Atlantic, and his connection of that diaspora with British Columbian authorities’ 1914 refusal of the Komagata Maru and its Punjabi migrant passengers (Compton 2004: 31). Finally, ‘Performance Bond’ crystallizes the cross-diasporic affiliations of Compton’s poetry when he writes, ‘The history of BC is the history of whiteness [...] /The history/of colour is the history of BC’:

Chinese Columbia,
Haida Columbia,
Punjabi Columbia,
Japanese Columbia,
Vietnamese Columbia,
Squamish Columbia,
Jewish Columbia,
Salish Columbia, and
British Columbia
In an integrated outpost,
a province of edges,
a contact zone.
(Compton 2004: 43–48)

17Clearly, transplanted cultures are socially embedded and take root and grow in a cultural context, and that cultural context will be different in each geographical space and depending on who else is there. As Wayde Compton’s careful historiographical and community-building work demonstrates, the Black Pacific is both crucially a coherent part of the African diaspora and yet, like all branches of the African diaspora, shaped by the politics of race and place. That context in Western Canada in this instance includes the cultures and literatures of First Nations groups, Asian diasporic, South Asian diasporic, European diasporic peoples, and others. The socio-cultural context of Vancouver includes this diversity, but at the same time there is also a deliberate and longstanding practice on the part of many writers in that circuit in Western Canada to work across those diasporic lines to challenge racism within the Canadian arts and literary scene.

18The concept of coalition, therefore, when brought into our investigation of diasporas, can offer models of relationality that address the shifting contours of the cultural connection of diasporas in different contexts. Coalition refers to temporary alliances and affiliations between people and groups who may have distinct identities but who come together for a shared particular purpose of strategic, oppositional work. This paper addresses cultural and antiracist coalitions that verge between grassroots and academic participation, not state-level political parties forming governing coalitions. Coalition has long played a role in feminist antiracist work: in the 1970s Bernice Johnson Reagon described coalition as the structural foundation for the kinds of African American feminist theory and praxis that took shape in the Combahee River Collective Statement (Reagon 1993). That Statement outlined the idea of intersectionality and the ways women could work together across interlocking oppressions such as racism, gender oppression, homophobia, and class oppression. Reagon importantly pointed out that coalition is not safe nor a place of ‘comfort’ (Reagon 1993: 359): it is not a home, and it is dangerous work because you need to ally with people across layers of privilege and disenfranchisement—with people who can harm you.

19Coalition is a very useable and context-rich concept in Canadian multiracial writing and culture. In a longer project I explore how coalition might be a more effective concept than multiculturalism to address the place of difference in collectivity in Canadian culture. It is a flexible way of describing dynamics of affiliation and hierarchy, but also is part of the genealogy of antiracist organizing in the Canadian literary scene. The insights and analyses of today’s antiracist and diasporic writing in Canada were to a large part shaped by the identity politics and arts coalitions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and many of the writers and visual artists who work in the circuit described in this paper were either part of those coalitions or have been nurtured and taught by the previous generation of writers and activists who were involved in those movements. Coalition is therefore a real cultural practice followed by writers and artists in Canada over the past thirty years, and has been at the foundation of a productive cultural race politics locally and nationally.

  • 3 For a comprehensive analysis of the cultural politics and coalitional events of this era, see Kin G(...)
  • 4 For a full list of Minquon Panchayat participants from the initial group, Council, and Animating Te (...)
  • 5 In Other Conundrums, Gagnon charts a genealogy of key antiracist dialogue and coalition-building ev (...)

20In the 1980s and 1990s, coalitions of feminists, writers of colour, and First Nations writers worked together to challenge racism in the arts in Canada and organize around gender equity, AIDS activism, First Nations sovereignty, labour, and language issues.3 For example, the 1992 Independent Film and Video Alliance conference About Face, About Frame generated a pressing discussion about representation, cultural appropriation, and policy formation that flowed into the annual general meeting several months later of the Association of National Non-Profit Artist Run Centres (ANNPAC) (Robertson 2006: 36). Frustration at the lack of representation of racialized participants in that AGM led to the formation of a coalition called Minquon Panchayat through what Monika Kin Gagnon calls ‘a spontaneous eruption within the structured parameters of a conference’ (Gagnon 1992: 14; qtd. in Robertson 2006: 37). The coalition in its first and later phases was composed of artists and writers of racialized and First Nations groups such as Lillian Allen, Shirley Bear, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Monika Kin Gagnon, Ashok Mathur, and Richard Fung.4 A similar coalition—including some of the same participants—was formed two years later at the 1994 ‘Writing Thru Race’ conference. It was sponsored by the Writers Union of Canada but spearheaded by a caucus or coalition called the Racial Minority Writers’ Committee that included writers from many racialized and First Nations groups. This committee organized the ‘Writing Thru Race’ conference to address issues of racism within the Writers Union of Canada and within the Canadian literary scene. To enable frank and strategic discussion of racism, some sessions were scheduled for participation by people of colour only. There was a public outcry and the federal government withdrew its funding through the Canada Council. The coalition was able to raise more than enough from donations to cover the cost and stage the conference. Despite the sense of ad hocery signaled by Gagnon’s phrase ‘spontaneous eruption’, clearly both events and their formations of coalitions were the culmination of a long process of critical reflection and dialogue within racialized arts communities.5 It is possible to see this trend and a strong tendency towards alliance and coalition in many spheres of antiracist and First Nations, feminist, queer, and labour-based arts activity in the 1990s, extending from policy and funding activism to collaborative networks within publishing, editing, and conference-organizing as well as literary and artistic production.

21That work in the 1990s influenced a generation of writers and artists who continue to produce work informed by this history. The effects of this era can be seen across Canadian literature in general, suggesting that coalition is a very productive strategy and trope for enabling new perspectives on diaspora, race, and intersectionality. As a mode of cultural/political organization it connotes rhizomatic, provisional affiliations between groups marked by, but not defined by, ethnic, racial, gendered, and queered identities. Coalition helps reorient the political and cultural utility of terms like ‘diaspora’ while also questioning the implications of origins, heterosexual genealogy, and ethnic commonality latent in the term. It achieves some of the critical possibilities of a concept like ‘intersectionality’—permitting an understanding of the interrelationships amongst multiple social differences such that racialization is seen as also gendered, sexualized, classed, and framed by normative ideas of ability.

22 Moreover, what is particularly compelling about these coalitions is the way the participants engage in political and cultural praxis across lines of what might be called ‘identity groups’ (e.g. ethnicity, racialization, class, gender, sexuality) and instead connect with each other through affiliation and shift the terms of their engagement depending on the action being taken. As Monika Kin Gagnon puts it, identities can be strategically ‘deployed’ through coalition, for ‘identities shift as affiliations intersect contextually’ (Gagnon 2000: 105). To bring this back to the question of diaspora, it means that the bonds of community and action to improve the lives of those within the community are formed by choice, affiliation, and friendship more than inheritance or kinship. Or, to put it more simply, the community is based on relationality, not on sameness. This allows for flows across so-called boundaries of difference.

23What critical models for relationality might support these examples of rerouted diasporas and coalitions? Certainly this work has a place in the broader scope of creolization, the ‘fusion, syncretism, transculturation’ resulting from the myriad historical collisions brought by colonialism— the ‘outcomes of intimate relations and discrepant fusions between formerly geographically disparate cultures; variously European and hegemonic, as well as variously American, African, Asian, and subaltern’ (Hesse 2011: 37–39). Barnor Hesse points out that creolization is ‘productive of the political’ and ‘the antagonistic distinctions and relational identities of European coloniality’ (Hesse 2011: 40). The form of politics that Hesse gestures to is ‘socially meaningful, creative, disruptive, liberating activity’ that includes ‘the affective and collective’ (Hesse 2011: 42).

24While Hesse helpfully points to the trajectory from relational identities to affective collective politics, Lionnet and Shih provide a structural way to understand the creative potential of affiliation. They propose that ‘thinking through the minor, transnationally’ offers a way to think laterally instead of vertically—to think of minority subjects identifying themselves with each other laterally, rather than vertically in a minority-majority struggle for national recognition and citizenship: ‘we study the center and the margin but rarely examine the relationships among different margins’ (Lionnet and Shih 2005: 2). They point out, ‘the figure of the rhizome suggests an uncontainable, invisible symbolic geography of relations that become the creative terrain on which minority subjects act and interact in fruitful, lateral ways’ (Lionnet and Shih 2005: 2). These creative acts include ‘the counterhegemonic operations of the nonelite [...] the quotidian and the everyday’ that they call ‘micropractices of transnationality’ (Lionnet and Shih 2005: 6–7). While ‘lateral’ can describe the actions of coalitions within one nation, as my examples above illustrate, the inter-diasporic, antiracist foundation of those coalitions does suggest transnationality. If ‘resistance to the major’ can ‘reify the boundaries of communities’, an adjustment of perspective to lateral relationships may allow ‘awareness and recognition of the creative interventions that networks of minoritized cultures produce within and across national boundaries’ (Lionnet and Shih 2005: 7).

25To my mind, it is critical here to find ways to speak of these lateral relationships in coalition without ‘reify[ing] the boundaries of communities’. Philosophers like Giorgio Agamben (The Coming Community), Jean-Luc Nancy (The Inoperative Community) and Maurice Blanchot (The Inavowable Community) consider whether one could imagine a community with no criteria for either exclusion or inclusion (de la Durantaye 2009: 157–158)—one that could resist an appeal to purity, to origins, or even to identity. Agamben, like these others, turns to the idea of ‘being-together’—a term from Heidegger (Mitsein)—and uses the term whatever (the Latin quodlibet) to deal with the question of the particular and the universal in a way that does not lose sight of the importance of different singularities within a universal. Quodlibet can be translated both as ‘it does not matter which, indifferently’ but also ‘being such that it always matters’, leading Agamben to argue,

The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property [...] but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal.
(Agamben 1993: 1)

26He links this proposition to Spinoza’s idea of ‘the common’ through ‘the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence’ (Agamben 1993: 17–18). Although The Coming Community extends Agamben’s work on potentiality and singularity in multiple directions, one application is clearly the place of belonging and singularity in political community: he asks, ‘What could be the politics of whatever singularity, that is, of a being whose community is mediated not by any condition of belonging [...] nor by the simple absence of conditions [...] but by belonging itself?’ and answers that ‘the State cannot tolerate [...] that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging’ (85–86). He imagines in ‘singularity without identity’ the possibility for ‘planetary humanity’ (65), ‘irrevocable hospitality’ (24), and ‘love as the experience of taking-place in a whatever singularity’ (25).

27‘Being together’ does appear to motivate coalition-building in Canadian arts coalition, and one can look to a public intellectual like Roy Miki as an example. Miki has been a linchpin in many of the coalitional and antiracist arts activities described above, and as Smaro Kamboureli points out, ‘the ethos and politics of the work Miki has been performing for long bespeak, to echo Alphonso Lingis’s book of the same title, the importance of building a “community of those who have nothing in common”’ (Kamboureli 2012: 183). Kamboureli confirms that ‘what coalesces such communities is animated by an understanding of difference in all its ambivalent complexities’, highlighting ‘the liminal and contingent conditions of identity formations, the incommensurability of difference, the incompleteness of such communities’ (Kamboureli 2012: 183–4).

28Agamben’s ‘planetary humanity’ is mirrored in Paul Gilroy’s recent work. In Postcolonial Melancholia, Gilroy works on recovering a form of humanism that would not be structured around exclusion as were modern forms of humanism. He seeks a way to ‘recogni[ze] alterity’ and ‘active[ly] engage [...] with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness’ (Gilroy 2005: 67). He offers two particular concepts that might be useful here. The first is planetarity, which he introduced in his book After Race, and he uses it in preference to the term global or globalization. It is marked by ‘contingency and movement’ and it marks a form of humanism that he thinks can critique racial hierarchy without being exclusionary. The second concept is conviviality, which he positions against the term ‘identity’ within multicultural spaces, and it functions to connote a ‘radical openness’ that ‘turns attention toward the always unpredictable mechanisms of identification’ (Gilroy 2005: xv). It is perhaps not a great leap to segue from conviviality to hospitality and friendship. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the coalitions discussed here, and their potentially greatest strength in terms of relationality, is that in them, friendship becomes an ethic that underlies the work and makes it both spontaneous and durable.

29Given this paper’s investigation of the dynamic between distinct diasporic communities and cross-boundary relationality, it is fitting to end with a quotation from Edouard Glissant’s Poétique de la relation. He points out that although an original, formative experience like the Middle Passage and transatlantic enslavement will initiate a diasporic community as a unique formation or exception, communities will tend towards relation: the originating event will become ‘something shared and ma[ke] us, descendants, one people among others. People do not live on exception. Relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge. The experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange’ (Glissant 2008: 8).


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1 I am grateful to Omar Ali for drawing my attention to the idea of under-explored African diasporas in his presentation on ‘Islam and the African Diaspora to the East’ at the ‘Diasporas and “Race”’ conference, Wake Forest University, North Carolina, 25-27 October 2012.

2 This section of my paper develops and extends my research previously published in Callaloo. See Smyth 2014: 389–403.

3 For a comprehensive analysis of the cultural politics and coalitional events of this era, see Kin Gagnon, Other Conundrums. See also Augaitis et. al., Butling and Rudy, Gagnon and Fung, Lai, McFarlane, Miki, Nourbese Philip, and Robertson.

4 For a full list of Minquon Panchayat participants from the initial group, Council, and Animating Team, see Clive Robertson 2006: 42–43, fn 21–24.

5 In Other Conundrums, Gagnon charts a genealogy of key antiracist dialogue and coalition-building events that includes Makeda Silvera’s 1983 address to the Women and Words conference in Toronto, ‘foreground[ing] issues of race and racism in Canadian writing’ (Gagnon 2000: 66); the 1989 protests against the Writers’ Union of Canada and P.E.N. over issues of lack of representation of writers of colour and First Nations writers; the 1989 Vancouver international film and video festival In Visible Colours; the May 1992 Racial Minority Writers’ Committee conference ‘The Appropriate Voice’; and the 1993 ANNPAC AGM It’s a Cultural Thing conference, organized by Minquon Panchayat (Gagnon 2000: 51–71).


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