restricted access Callaloo : The Art of Diaspora
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The Art of Diaspora

Remember that ART is refining and evocative translation of the materials of the world!

—Gwendolyn Brooks (1975)

When I reflect on the personal statement I wrote when applying to Ph. D. programs in comparative literature, I often think that it was a wonder I was accepted anywhere. In a dizzying combination of earnestness and ambition, I explained how I would be beginning my graduate career with English, French, and Spanish already under my linguistic belt, projected that I would add Portuguese during my coursework, and envisioned writing a dissertation on a topic so broad that it might very well have been titled "A Study of All the African Diasporic Literatures of the Americas—Except for Those Written in Dutch." Looking back, I realize that the scope of my interests was not only the result of the naiveté that comes with being a budding scholar but also a response to the possibilities represented by publications such as Callaloo, which I had first encountered as an undergraduate in the early 1990s and through whose pages I discovered the richness of exploring the breadth and depth of cultural production across the African diaspora.

In the journal's inaugural issue in December 1976, Charles Henry Rowell charged his fellow "Black South" writers to invigorate African American literature, to heed Gwendolyn Brooks' call to infuse their language with the force and vitality of the world around them. But just as Rowell urged his peers to consider the impact their words would have beyond the page, so he also challenged Callaloo's readers to appreciate Black South literature as one that grew out of, but was not limited to, a particular American region. For if the immediate geographic context of this re-emergent literature was the landscape of the Southern United States, its broader cultural context was the expanse of the African diaspora.

As this thirtieth anniversary issue is taking shape, to invoke the relationship between African American experiences in the U.S. and African diasporic culture at large is perhaps to state the obvious. Contemporary scholars and artists think, create, and teach in a world in which the dispersal and reconstitution of groups permeate academic, cultural, and political discourse. Buzzwords such as "transnationalism," "globalization," and "Atlantic studies" grace everything from conference programs to book titles to job advertisements. Study abroad has become one of the hottest trends in higher education as colleges and universities seek to transform their students into global citizens, to prepare them for their places in the world as well as the workplace. And the emerging slate of U.S. presidential [End Page 555] candidates has led pundits and the populace alike to reconsider, to borrow from James Baldwin, "what it means to be an American." While the traditional occupants of the halls of power are certainly not underrepresented and the electoral season is young, never has the field seemed more reflective, in a much more immediate and more diverse sense, of the multiple paths that have brought families and individuals to the United States. No longer are sustained discussions of racial identities and interethnic, intercultural alliances the special province of the ethnic studies classroom; in the current moment they are just as likely to take place in the pages of the New York Times.

This move from course pack to front page both recalls and reverses early twentieth century explorations of African diasporic cultures. Because of colonial education systems that, in the Caribbean, drove anglophone schoolchildren to celebrate the glories of the daffodil while francophone pupils recounted the exploits of their ancestors, the Gauls, it was the periodical, not the textbook, which served as the primary means through which intra-diasporic exchange was enacted. In my own fields of African American and Caribbean literatures, the cultivation of diasporic communities in print has been the subject of countless studies. To give but a few examples, the Universal Negro Improvement Association newspaper The Negro World (1918–1933) circulated throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, and Europe and cultivated a broad readership by adding Spanish- and French-language sections in the early 1920s. Novelist and poet Jessie Redmon Fauset brought other...