- The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation and the Rise of Black Internationalism
Studies of African diasporic spaces are now in vogue as the lines of global communication expand. Brent Edwards's book occupies a special space in this burgeoning scholarship. A diligent literary critic and historian with an eye for detail, Edwards has mined international archives from Aix-en-Provence, France, to Fort-de-France, Martinique, via Britain and the United States to frame his study of black intellectual and literary production during the interwar years. His focus on France is refreshing [End Page 153] and opens new doors for understanding the works of organic intellectuals such as Senegalese activist Lamine Senghor and Sudanese militant Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté as well as the early years of more familiar figures such as Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire.
Edwards define internationalism as a political, cultural, and literary movement that relies on translation for its survival. Although the term "internationalism" is slippery, Edwards successfully deploys it to encompass black literary production and political activism ranging from poetry to Pan-Africanism. He skillfully marshals evidence from correspondence, journalism, personal encounters, and everyday discourse to describe the role of print culture in transnational dialogues.
Of special interest is the author's concern with unsung women intellectual. Edwards highlights the roles played by the Nardal sisters, in particular Paulette and Jane, in the French translation of works of the Harlem Renaissance. Paulette Nardal was the cofounder of La Revue du monde noir, a key, although short-lived, French literary journal that became a focal point of expression for African and Antillean writers and artists in Paris. Often viewed as a forerunner of Négritude, this bilingual revue crossed the borders of culture, class, and nation in interwar France. The Nardal sisters also ran an exciting weekly literary salon, or cercle d'amis (circle of friends), from their home at rue Hébert in the Parisian suburb of Clamart. The salon served as a meeting place for African American intellectuals and writers such as Alain Locke and Mercer Cook of Howard University as well as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and other American intellectuals traveling through Paris. While the communication networks were not always as fluid as Edwards would lead u to believe, the Nardal salon was an important early effort at diasporic community formation.
In his discussion of feminism, Edwards also touches in tantalizing ways on the compelling figure of Franco-African performer and activist Josephine Baker. He refers to Baker as an incarnation of French exoticism who simultaneously was able to transcend limiting colonial stereotypes. Edwards states that Baker "set the pace" of image and fashion for women at the peak of the French colonial era (130). Much like the Nardal sisters, Baker was perfectly positioned to translate the cultures of internationalism, but she did so in a unique way that was thoroughly inflected by her year of experience in France.
The book also include a chapter on "vagabond internationalism" illustrated by Claude McKay's novel Banjo and a chapter on "inventing internationalism" that discusses the writings and political activism of George Padmore and Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté. Both of these chapters explore the contradictions of international political activism. The analysis of McKay links him in interesting ways to Lamine Senghor, who engaged in labor organization of dockers and visited McKay in Marseilles. McKay's work had a diasporic impact in English and in French translation, opening up the tensions between race and class in the colonial paradigm. The accounts of Padmore and Kouyaté provide fascinating examples of the barriers faced in international political mobilization during the interwar years. As with Baker, the stories of these men take a different shape decades later.
Historical hindsight offers the advantage of linking contributions of intellectuals, artists, and activists as diverse as Lamine Senghor, Claude McKay, Josephine Baker, the Nardal sisters, and George Padmore. An epistemological question that emerges concerns the depth, content, and direction of these international exchanges. [End Page 154] Scholars...