Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic


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The Caribbean diaspora is a diverse, deterritorialised community. Not only in terms of their present locations e. This study does not attempt to capture all the makings of the Caribbean diaspora.

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Rather, it focuses on a select group of men and women, primarily from the Anglo-Caribbean and predominantly of African descent. They are referred to here collectively as the Afro-diaspora, Afro-Caribbean-Canadians and the black diaspora. Other than occasional team newsletters and brochures arranged for and year club anniversaries, there is little documentation of what these first-generation immigrants do with their recreational time. There is no in-depth analysis of the sporting practices and important associated social activities such as team banquets, fundraising dances and picnics of the Caribbean men and women who were among the first to arrive in Canada from that region.

The stories of the Mavericks, black men born in the Caribbean in the s and s, who migrated to Canada in the s and s, and now continue to play friendly cricket, have much to tell us about the history of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

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A thorough understanding of the concept of diaspora is necessary in order to comprehend how these disciplinary boundaries are crossed. Diaspora is conceptualised in a variety of ways depending on the region, case study and actors involved. Its overuse and increasingly imprecise application makes it difficult to use as a heuristic device Edwards, In this study, diaspora is theorised broadly, using a cultural studies approach that draws from black and Caribbean diaspora as well as transnationality literatures, to study the racial, ethnic, local and national imagined communities and cultures that span borders as a result of historic and contemporary migrations.

The notion of diaspora depends on an understanding of flows, boundaries and hybrids, outlined as key terms of transnational anthropology by Hannerz In the case of cultural flows, it is true, what is gained in one place need not be lost at the source.

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Just as cultures become reorganised in unpredictable ways, as migrants transplant from one place to another, their movements need be neither unidirectional, nor permanent, especially when technological, material and nostalgic connections to the homeland are considered. Flows suggest continuity and freedom and are typically contrasted with boundaries, which prevent passage and restrain.

When cultural and migrant flows cross boundaries, they create spaces that are neither culturally homogenous nor ethnically pure. The black diaspora, while it may hold onto certain heritage practices, is also a deeply creolised community. It features the histories of complex cultures that subverted and destabilised colonial authority, as well as the adoption of local traits based on the dominant customs and structures of the nations in which migrants have ended up.

This text aims to show the human face of the flows, boundaries and hybridity of the Black Atlantic and specifically the Afro-Caribbean-Canadian community. In studies of blackness, sometimes referred to as African diaspora studies or black diaspora studies, there is a long history of research on the maintenance of culture across the middle passage; the syncretism that results from the fusion of African and Western cultural forms; and the desire for origins that results from the present complex experiences of racism, hybridity and in-betweenness of postcolonial peoples.

His studies of the simultaneous survival and rupture of African cultural forms in the Americas remains foundational to black diaspora studies. Influenced by the respective Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian scholarship of Fernando Ortiz and Arthur Ramos, and also by Jean Price-Mars , who traced the rich cultures of early African kingdoms in western Sudan, Ghana, Mali and Songhai to the rural voodoo cults of Haitian peasants, Herskovitz helped to elevate the rank of African heritage hitherto despised as semi-heathen.

I raise this history to show that Caribbean sites have been foundational to the study of the black diaspora since its founding as an academic discipline. Building on this legacy, black diaspora scholars demonstrate the prevalence and transformations of Igbo, Kongo, Yoruba and other African art Thompson, , religion Routon, and food Houston, traditions in the Americas. For example, Afro-Caribbean cooking styles and cuisine also owe a debt to enslaved Africans and colonisers who brought their culinary habits to the region.

Cornmeal, okra and root-crop dishes; use of hot peppers, salt, tripe and tail; one-pot stews; and the preference for cooking outside derive from African traditions Houston, , but these are also mixed with Indian and Chinese spices, foods and customs to create the cuisine that Afro-Caribbeans call their own today. These sophisticated analyses recognise the ongoing dialogue between Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas, and describe cultural forms as drawing on African roots, yet constantly evolving. Rather, he is in favour of research on contemporary individual and community travel and cultural productions that cross borders and allow black groups to form distinctive cultural and political identities by borrowing from elsewhere.

An examination of the cultural interdependencies between peoples in the Caribbean, Britain, the United States and Canada helps in understanding how a borderless or deterritorialised identity forms for black people. From the ships that began the journey of millions of enslaved Africans, to the sea and train porters who comprised a majority of North and South American and European black proletariat, to the contemporary refugees, fugitives and migrants that leave their homelands daily, the routes of black people have created a dispersed community on the move as an alternative to national allegiances.

As Gilroy , p. The history of the Black Atlantic since , continually crisscrossed by the movements of black people — not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship — provides a means to reexamine the problems of nationality, location, identity and historical memory.

To examine Canada from the perspective of the Black Atlantic is to raise unique questions about the project of nation building. However, to speak of the Black Atlantic, with common cultures and ongoing desires for elsewhere, obscures the heterogeneity of the black diaspora. Her description of diasporic resources is worth quoting at length.

Diasporic resources:. Cultural practices such as wearing kentia fabric or natural hairstyles, or listening to and creating hip hop music may all signify dissatisfaction with, and resistance to, dominant discourses and mainstream cultures. Notably, these diasporic resources are gendered and attention to making of masculinities and femininities via diasporic resources deepens our understanding of the Black Atlantic.

Cultural expressions such as the philosophies of Muhammad Ali or the batting of Vivian Richards, to use two gendered sport examples, are anti-hegemonic cultural practices that permit the mapping of the black diaspora onto particular locales such as the United States and Antigua and broad regions such as the Black Atlantic and the Caribbean at the same time.

Expanding the Black Atlantic to include Canada allows for greater understanding of the supra-national, transnational and multinational contexts and cross-border flows that create black diasporic cultures. Burman , Campbell , Joseph , Trotz , Walcott ; and others have shown black popular culture in Canada to be dependent on transnational relationships and movements to and from the Caribbean, North and South America and England. The Black Atlantic provides an appropriate alternative interpretive framework.

In Canada, black aspirations for belonging are activated by specific local debates about the exclusivity of Canadian national white belonging, and also by desires for membership in an inclusive community that happens to be dispersed across borders. Thus, expanding the Black Atlantic to include Canada and drawing from a mode of cultural production such as sport exposes how the Canadian nation-state intersects with local dynamics of the countries from which black Canadians have come and the nations to which their kin and kith have dispersed.

The Caribbean, arguably more than any other region, has felt the impact of international movements of people throughout its history. Transnational social and family networks, emotional connections to a homeland, and cultural formations that transcend borders can be regarded as fundamental aspects of Caribbeanness Foner, ; Gmelch, ; Mintz, ; Nurse, ; Richardson, When the legal systems of slavery were reluctantly dismantled in , the British colonies expressed a need for replacement labour and a need to depress wages where former slaves had begun to agitate for more income.

Eventually a system was devised for recruiting labourers, from Portugal, China and especially the Indian subcontinent Niranjana, ; Peake and Trotz, ; Williams, Workers continued to be abused and exploited.


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For example, Munasinghe notes that working conditions on plantations were so poor that thousands of Africans and Indians after them were ill, punished for constant ill health and worked to death, and little was done to improve their circumstances or integrate them into society by way of education. Gmelch points out that for Caribbean peoples migration is not only a result of global economic push—pull factors. Migration is embedded in the social, cultural and mental fabric of Caribbean people and a predominant feature among men and women, including not only working class, but also skilled and highly educated groups, as the main means of upward social mobility and family reunification.

The first emigrants, beginning shortly after the formal end of slavery in the late s until the s, moved away from plantations to small landholdings on other islands with expanding sugarcane cultivation and high demands for labour. Afro-Caribbeans migrated within the region, going to Spanish and other non-British territories to work on sugar estates or banana plantations and for jobs such as the building of the Panama Canal Gmelch, They also went to the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States after the Second World War to help with unskilled and semiskilled labour shortages in the s and s Nurse, ; Thomas-Hope, n.

Immigration to Britain was mainly from Commonwealth Caribbean regions, especially Jamaica, in the —62 period, in part thanks to the British Nationality Act, which created shared rights including the right to live and work in the United Kingdom to all citizens of the Commonwealth. Nurses and students were the two biggest groups of those who gained entry from the Caribbean during this time.

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As Britain began to impose more stringent immigration requirements on Commonwealth Caribbean migrants, the systems of the United States and Canada became more liberal, and immigration shifted primarily to these countries in the early s. Significantly, since the s, more Caribbean migrants have left Britain than entered, with Canada, the United States and also their nations of origin as destinations.

The ageing population combined with low immigration rates means that although the British-born, Caribbean ethnic population will remain, the stock of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in Britain will soon be diminutive, while the population in Canada continues to grow. Ropero , p. Canadian immigration offices were opened in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and other islands in order to recruit skilled immigrants. Thus, the Caribbean jumped from fourteenth place to third as a source of Canadian migration during these years.

During the period —81, Canada received migrants mainly from the Anglophone Caribbean. Over one-tenth of these were female domestic workers and nurses who started on 1-year visas as a result of government-supported work schemes. The majority were able to become long-term migrants during the period between and , when migration reached its peak and persons who had been admitted as visitors could apply for landed status. Females from the Caribbean have always outnumbered male migrants to Canada owing to the opportunities for work in the service, clerical, domestic help and nursing fields.

The majority were from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, although all Caribbean regions have supplied migrants to Canada. The population was generally younger than migrants to the United Kingdom and the United States, with a concentration in the 25—year-old age group, and a higher proportion of migrants to Canada entered as students Thomas-Hope, n. Christopher and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. However, only four of these countries — Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados — account for 93 per cent of the immigrants. Notably, Afro-Caribbeans responding to racism and declining work opportunities in Britain are listed as British in the Canadian census, but it is estimated that as many as 15, Afro-Caribbeans have migrated twice, first to Britain and then to Canada.

In , there were over , Caribbean peoples in Canada, representing 2 per cent of the total Canadian population, and this population continues to grow. The majority live in Quebec 22 per cent and Ontario 69 per cent , primarily concentrated in Toronto Lindsay, a. For decades Afro-Caribbean-Canadians have waged a number of legal battles around improved working conditions, enhanced access to jobs and non-discriminatory education. The crossing of borders and meeting of other Afro-Caribbeans in Canada, drawing from African-American and black British cultures, and being lumped together as one based on racial difference from the dominant white group, led to a pan-Caribbean, transnational, deterritorialised sense of black consciousness for many migrants in Canada.


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Therefore the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is a deterritorialised community, connected to multiple geographies at once. Much of the writing about black Caribbean men in anthropology, cultural studies and sociology of the Caribbean draws from the gender analysis of Peter J. These groups value the home, self-restraint, work, education, family and hierarchies.

Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic
Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic
Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic
Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic
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