Christine ChivallonThe Black Diaspora of the Americas: Experiences and Theories out of the Caribbean. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2011. xlv + 231 pp. (Paper US$30.00)

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
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  • 1 Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston Houston TX 77204, U.S.A.

This is a curious book. It was originally published in 2004, in French, as an introduction to the vibrant arena of Anglophone scholarship on diaspora and the Afro-Atlantic experience for a Francophone audience, which explains why it reads as an extended review of literature that most readers of this journal will find familiar. It would be a useful text for undergraduate teaching or preliminary graduate work, since it canvasses a wide range of anthropological and historiographical work with a constructively critical eye within the space of 200 pages.

Yet for scholars familiar with the materials Chivallon so valiantly reviews, the book seems anticlimactic, concluding that the Black Diaspora is a paradox of unity-in-diversity which challenges our powers of conceptualization. This by-now self-evident truism in Anglophone scholarship is apparently big news in France, where any concern with diaspora remains fixated on the “classical” Jewish model, making the Afro-Atlantic experience unthinkable in such terms. And although Chivallon notes that she began doing research on Caribbean societies in the mid-1980s, we learn little of her empirical work, which accentuates the review-like character of her text.

Part I deals with the historical sociology of slavery and colonialism in the Americas, as well as postabolition transformations of the nineteenth century, and seeks to highlight structural continuities between colonial and postcolonial experiences of blacks, which are recontextualized in the twentieth century with newer waves of migration and the circulation of both people and ideas throughout the Atlantic sphere. Her discussion is appropriately built on the critical insight that colonial slavery in the Americas figures as the disavowed ground zero for the founding of (European) modernity.

Part II operates in a different register, comparing and contrasting three dominant theorizations of the African Diaspora—referred to as the continuity, creolization, and alienation theses—which are usefully interrogated not as pure types, but in conversation with one another. Chivallon productively explicates these theories in relation to one issue—the “problem” of African-American family structure—by drawing on demographic work suggesting that the so-called matrifocal family is less common than its centrality in (older) scholarship suggests, demonstrating how ideological “theory” is, and arguing for less polemical analysis not only in relation to the “elusive object” of Afro-Caribbean familial forms, but also more broadly in relation to “diaspora.”

Part III reviews the deep genealogical roots of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism as sociopolitical dynamics crosscutting the Afro-Atlantic experience in multifarious ways, excavating how “ancestral land” operates as a resource for cultural reimagination. Chivallon synopsizes the history of Rastafari in order to develop her argument about the Black Diaspora as an a-centered community, comprising “a set of non-hierarchical collective orientations, a plural culture devoid of centrality in its manner of signifying belonging” (p. 127)—“an accumulation of community orientations which exclude a hard-core identity” (p. 196). She emphasizes the absence of any Black Atlantic metanarrative, concluding that the notion of an African Diaspora nonetheless coheres based on the deeply recessive experience of “the slave trade as a founding event” (the title of Chapter 2), granting black Americans (in the widest sense of the term) “an intimate knowledge of the violence exercised by the other” (p. 202).

Chivallon raises big questions and touches on important debates. However, her perspective does not surpass the 1980s—making it feel out of touch for anyone with recent experience in the Caribbean. Nor am I persuaded by “a-centered community” as the least common denominator for such a complex category as the Black Diaspora. For one thing, it casts blackness in idealized oppositional terms and thereby overlooks hierarchical relations among blacks, from Candomblé to the bourgeoisie. Her discussion of Rastafari similarly sidesteps the problem of sexism within the faith that has received such critical recent attention. This is ironic given that Chivallon is at such pains early on to emphasize the reality of domination, as well as her familiarity with the essentialist ins and outs of Black Nationalist projects. I would have preferred that she lean more on Bastide’s own, more polythetic formulation, which approaches Afro-Atlantic cultural history in terms of two overlapping, yet non-synonymous registers: the experience of “black” people of sub-Saharan descent in the Americas whether or not it involves African culture, per se, and the routes and transplanted roots of “African” cultural forms whether or not tethered to black people.

For me, the most valuable aspect of Chivallon’s study concerns her observations about the differing conceptual universe of Francophone scholarship. She begins by noting that the concept of diaspora as applied to Black Atlantic experience is next to unthinkable in French inquiry, that postmodernism is less influential in French theory, and that whatever interest there is in diaspora is still very much preoccupied by Jewish experience. She attributes this state of affairs—rightly, I think—not only to French amnesia about the constitutive role of slavery and colonialism in metropolitan national “development,” but also the understandably telescoped metropolitan focus on the French West Indian experience, in which former colonies became overseas departments scaffolded by the political economy of the redistributive, welfare state, thus fostering a greater relative sense of “assimilation” vis-à-vis Frenchness, as compared with other postcolonial Caribbean nations, as well as West Indian migrant experience in other metropoles. Though she does not quite connect the dots in this manner, Chivallon’s own discussion of the Afro-Franco-Atlantic experience also helps account for the peculiar persisting popularity of the alienation thesis, as well as the anemic reception of Frantz Fanon’s seminal work, in French scholarship and public culture.

Though I am not reviewing the original French version of this book, I would be more enthusiastic about it than the English translation, since the impetus for the original in relation to its target audience gives Chivallon’s text more traction and makes it all the more meaningful. If the original successfully introduces French readers to the historical anthropology of the Atlantic World pursued so fascinatingly and rigorously in Anglophone scholarship, then it will have nobly served its purpose.

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