Any attempt to come to grips with the limits, implications, and resonances that the term diaspora embodies in and for the Caribbean must begin by confronting the involvement of this term with the varied inscriptions of identity that frame the concept of Caribbeanness. Ineluctably bound up with the complex patterns of regional history, identity functions, in Paul Gilroy's words, as "a junction or hinge concept that can help to maintain the connective tissue that articulates political and cultural concerns" ("British Cultural Studies" 225). This conjunction forces us to face squarely the doubleness—or perhaps the dilemma—that the term diaspora signifies in the political history and culture of the region, problematizing the many paradoxes inherent in the term itself. For in a certain sense, following the arrival of Columbus and the profit seekers who quickly followed in his wake, the Caribbean region as a whole had been made an ethnic and cultural tabula rasa by about 1600, because the Spanish conquest, with its pernicious combination of overwork and new disease, virtually eliminated the indigenous population. As a result, pretty much the entire present-day population of the Caribbean arrived there from elsewhere; the populations came via voluntary migration, contract or indentured labor, and slave-based transportation, among others, but in the final analysis, the primary derivation of the Caribbean's principal population groups is ultimately extraregional. As Stuart Hall puts it,
None of the people who now occupy the islands—black, brown, white, African, European, American, Spanish, French, East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Jew, Dutch—originally 'belonged' there. It is the space where the creolisations and assimilations and syncretisms were negotiated. The New World is the third term—the primal scene—where the fateful/fatal encounter was staged between Africa and the West. ("Cultural Identity" 234)
Yet it is also indisputable that the cultural processes that Hall describes resulted in the creation of a home and an identity for the Caribbean people, one which they have made and made their own by affirming and living out the complexities of encounter, invention, and transformation. As Hall continues, "Cultural identity [. . .] is a matter of 'becoming' 'becoming' as well as of 'being''being.' It belongs to the future as much as to the past [. . .]. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation" ("Cultural Identity" 225). At issue in this article, then, is the extent to which the resonances of diaspora reflect the boundaries of contemporary Caribbean identity.
Attempting to account for the Caribbean experience in diasporic terms is a challenging proposition at best; the history of the Caribbean and its people does not conform to [End Page 575] traditional diasporic patterns and exigencies of exile, dispersal, and return. Nor, for that matter, do we discern a single national entity of overwhelming political and psychological importance looming large on the diasporic horizon, a place that mediates both origin and return. Ultimately, constructing a regional diasporic framework draws on the implicit slippage between voluntary and forced migration, a dichotomy exacerbated in the Caribbean context by a diachronic perspective that ranges from the inception of slavery, through the arrivants on contractual indenture that followed emancipation, to the arrival of Portuguese and Syro-Lebanese groups near the end of the nineteenth century, to the labor-driven mass exodus to various metropoles of the late twentieth century. In these terms, it is beyond question that transnationalism and diaspora are key tenets in the region's historical and symbolic framework. Mimi Sheller asserts,
It has become a prime location for the emergence of transnationalism, both in terms of its uprooted people and its hybrid texts, spoken languages, diasporas, and music traveling across world markets. Not only does each Caribbean society embody and encompass a rich mixture of genealogies, linguistic innovations, syncretistic religions, complex cuisine, and musical cultures, but [they] have also exported their dynamic multicultures abroad, where they have recombined and generated new diasporic forms. (174)
Diaspora's central principle of an identifiable, if chimeric national entity cedes, then, in the Caribbean case, to a transnational and transcultural inscription of identity, grounded in communities and locations eventuated in history and expanding and protean in the present...