“Blackness” only one of many competing identities in the Black diaspora, says historian Neptune

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Historian Harvey Neptune spoke gave the tenth annual Jerry Wood Memorial Lecture yesterday. Wood taught American and Latin American history at Swarthmore from 1970 to 1996 and was a trailblazer in the field of Latin American Studies. Although Neptune never knew Wood personally, he has been influenced by his work, and his lecture centered around “two themes fundamental to Wood’s way of working, his keen appreciation of the difficulty of forging a sense of unity in a social order… and the recognition of the need to trespass accepted geographical boundaries in academia… he was trained as an Americanist but went beyond that.” Since Neptune shares Wood’s focus on “community-making and spatial adventurousness… today’s talk should be heard as a contribution to his body of work.”

Neptune made a methodological argument about how to write narratives of the formation of black diaspora communities, saying that “we cannot take for granted the ways communities are imagined… we need a sharp sense of the contingencies and uncertainties of diasporic connections.” He continued, “diaspora should not be naturalized because it is a cultural phenomemon… diaspora produces ambiguity and struggle.” Specifically, he that in order to appreciate the process of diaspora, we need to “acknowledge that imagination of this community occurs in places with alternative and competing notions of identity, and we need to understand all the available identities… without these examinations we fail to do justice to the complicated life of people for whom white supremacy was important but hardly the only condition of their existence.”

As far as “spatial adventurousness,” Neptune talked about a shift in his field during the 1980s, when there was “a conviction that proper comprehension [of black histories] required a sprawling sense of space… black histories could not be narrated within strict territorial senses of nation.” He explained that “positing blackness as a site of Africanism did not work,” and that such an understanding of the black diaspora was overly simplistic.

Neptune explained that using the framework of diaspora for black history “showed blacks affirming themselves as part of a global majority engaged in struggles against racial oppression,” recasting them as rebels rather than solely as victims. One way of seeing this is through asking questions about relative power in the black diaspora , since “within slavery existed varying degrees of un-freedom… African-Americans were subject to brutal forms of discrimination but also had access to citizenship status in the most powerful nation in the world…how can we think about them as both carriers of victimization and potential carriers of prestige and privilege?”

In the 20th century, “black Americans saw themselves as participating in struggles that included Paris, Ethiopia, and Martinique… given improved communication networks, ordinary African-Americans arrived at a worldliness that would have been restricted in the previous century.” This worldliness allowed them to “imagine themselves as part of a disaporic communites… it places them as self-conscious participants in a global history.” That said, Neptune is interested in questions of “how do blacks beyond the US apprehend it, and to what extent are they trying to limit it?”

Neptune presented Trinidad as an illustrative case that “shows what we can get to if we think more complexly about diasporic connections.” During World War Two the United States won the right to install military bases in Trinidad, and over two thousand African-American soldiers were installed on the island. This encounter between two diasporic communities has to be understood within a gendered, sexual, and national context as well as a racial one.

Around 9:00 p.m. on April 16, 1943, “a storm of sticks, bottles, and stones sent residents of Basilon Street, Laventille, scurrying under their beds,” said Neptune. African-American soldiers were the cause of the disturbance and were trying to punish the “robust men” in the Afro-Trinidadian community, “black men whose unabashed hostility scandalized the British community.” The soldiers left broken windows and dented walls in their wake, and 24 local men had to be hospitalized.

What caused this antagonism between the local and occupying black men? Local Afro-Trinidadian women were turning to African-American soldiers for monetary support, as “these men earned in one day what local men earned in one week.” Articles written by American servicemen in the locally published monthly “suggest zealous pursuits by both sides.” The women themselves, referred to as “mopsies” by soldiers, “were forces to reckon with… [who] ably asserted themselves and their desires” through requesting gifts and when they did not receive them, simply appropriating what they needed. Furthermore, “despite the pose of being able to master local women, their mastery was constantly contested… some soldiers were victims of physical assaults by local women.” One soldier received a black eye from his “mopsy.”

These relationships, many of which resulted in marriage, “troubled Trinidadian men who sough exclusive relationships… local men and visiting Americans often became embroiled in conflicts that centered on access to local women.” The Basilon Street riots were an example of this. A “robust man” in the neighborhood had tried to attack a soldier the previous day but accidentally struck the woman with him instead. The African-American soldiers attacked in order to “exact revenge for the previous night’s assault.”

Neptune says that while these retaliatory riots may seem like “a contradictory tactic in the larger struggle against white domination… such intra-diasporic struggles have not been marginal but central to diasporic history, and to view history from this perspective is not only enlightening but also humbling.”

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