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Black Diaspora and Caribbean Indigeneity

It is sorely discouraging to read about the reclamation of language from someone [Kamau Brathwaite] who is also insinuating that the Arawak tribe and its neighbouring tribes; the Carib, Siboney and Taino are artefact, dead or extinct. The author is not wrong in saying that there was a genocide that sought to wipe out the Native peoples of the Caribbean. It is frustrating, however, to bear witness to the persistence of the genocidal project through the narrative that Native peoples no longer exist: “There is Amerindian, which is active in certain parts of Central America but not in the Caribbean because the Amerindians are a destroyed people, and their languages were practically destroyed.” [1] The erasure of surviving indigenous people living in their homelands or far from home in New York, Toronto or anywhere else that Black Caribbeans were also drawn to, is probably an unintended violence but a violent act nonetheless.



It is encouraging to read in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, about criticism of the conflation of nationhood with racial identity. A Diasporic, pluralistic approach is not only more accommodating, it is simply a more accurate description of heritage than the racial-binary model that is so dominant in the United States and in other settler-nations around the globe. This model collapses under the introduction of non-Black and non-White identities: “the reflexive cultures and consciousness of the European settlers and those of the Africans they enslaved, the "Indians" they slaughtered, and the Asians they indentured were not, even in situations of the most extreme brutality, sealed off hermetically from each other […].”[2] Unfixing ethnic discussions from national identity makes room for de-centering Whiteness and opens the floor to discussions on proximity to Blackness in criticisms of Latinidad and other cultural formations around the globe that seek to promote “whitening” and discourage connection with one’s Indigenous, Brown or Black roots.

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[1] Kamau Brathwaite, History of The Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (New Beacon Books, 1984), 2

[2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, (Harvard University Press, 1993), 2


Krista Thompson describes Bronislaw Malinowski’s concept of Transcultration as a by-product of Diasporas where “both parts of the equation are modified, a process from which a new reality emerges, transformed and complex.”[3] While I wish this same thinking were applied in consideration of non-Black and non-White identities in Brathwaite’s discussion of the Caribbean, it is definitely at play in his discussion of language. Through the ephemera of cultural exchange—vernacular language, culinary practices, styles of dress, music and dance— people bear witness to creolization and other types of cultural hybridization. But these patterns are more easily identified at the sociological scale.


When an individual fails to reflect a homogenized ideal there is a risk of being denied access to one’s own cultural groups and knowledge systems. When critiquing ethnic absolutism, Gilroy introduces the concept of cultural insiderism as hinging on ideals of national purity and enforced by preservative tendencies, “Here the ideas of nation, nationality, national belonging, and nationalism are paramount. They are extensively supported by a clutch of rhetorical strategies that can be named ‘cultural insiderism.’"[4] Continued use of colonizer tools like “blood quantum” with the intention of gatekeeping or preserving racial purity can come from a place of survival and preservation of one’s own people. But weaponizing heritage only furthers the colonizer project: to remove Native people and to make room for White settlers and Black labourers. Reinforcing a binary conception of race that insists Mixed and Brown people “pick a side” when neither describes the complexity of that person’s lived experience is a disservice to that individual and all the cultural groups that have a stake in that person’s self-presentation.


The fault lies in relying on a conception of identity that grants access based on visibility, the same method used by colonizers to decide who ought to perform labour and who gets to profit off that labour. It perpetuates prejudices based on the darkness of one’s skin and continues to make invisible identities that the oppressor would have the public believe no longer exist. Both the actions of picking-out and erasure seek to disenfranchise those that could jeopardize the colonial-capitalist project—a project that is further reinforced by nationalist organization. Gilroy’s re-imagining of Martin Delany’s novel, Blake, as a pluralist portrait of the Black man first contends with Delany’s glorification of Western modernity and his dismissal of indigenous African societies as uncivilized. This is yet another example of using the master’s tools against one’s own in a misguided attempt to unify and further all Black people. If a Black nationalistic ideal excludes any of its own it fails to serve those it claims to serve. To exclude any indigenous persons from efforts to unify the oppressed in the fight against White supremacy fails by the very terms in which the national identity is conceived.

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[3] Krista Thompson, A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States (Art Journal, 2011), 13

[4] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, (Harvard University Press, 1993), 3


Bibliography

Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Harvard University Press, 1993.

Brathwaite, Kamau, History of The Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, New Beacon Books, 1984.

Thompson, Krista, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States,” Art Journal, (Fall 2011).

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© 2023 by Sophia Pierre

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