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  • Black Transnationalism and the Politics of National Identity: West Indian Intellectuals in Harlem in the Age of War and Revolution

It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately only the source of all culture.

—Frantz Fanon, “On National Culture”

In 1996, the American Studies Association Conference, entitled “Global Migration, American Cultures, and the State,” called for papers addressing the “historical and contemporary significance of transnational and intranational migrations for American society [and its] forms of expressive, material, and popular culture.” 1 While migration itself had always been an important theme in the study of American culture, the use of the term transnational signaled a new orientation in American studies scholarship. Transnational approaches to migration examined the heterogeneous racial, cultural, and national characteristics of migrants to the United States, and the degree to which they disrupted the integrity of the state as a homogeneous, nationally-imagined community.

As a discourse on transnationalism has developed over the past decade, the term has acquired a number of different meanings depending on context and discipline. As one group of social scientists have described, in the humanities:

The term “transnational” is used to signal the fluidity with which ideas, objects, capital, and people now move across borders and boundaries. Scholars of transnational culture speak in the vocabulary of postmodernism and make reference to hybridity, hyperspace, displacement, disjuncture, decentering, and diaspora. 2

Researchers in the social sciences focus less on the cultural fluidity encouraged by transnationalism, and more on an analysis of the [End Page 592] processes by which immigrants become “transmigrants,” social actors with allegiances, loyalties and networks that go beyond their citizenship in one nation-state. Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc explore social relations, “how linkages are maintained, renewed, and reconstituted in the context of families, of institutions, of political organizations, of political structures, and of economic investments, business, and finance.” 3

Already, then, transnational studies has developed both a culturalist and structuralist focus. Rather than seeing this as a dichotomy, transnational studies has become a useful site for the interaction of researchers from both the humanities and social sciences. It is precisely the work done by scholars in humanities fields such as cultural and literary studies that has led to a questioning of the bounded meanings of traditional social science categories such as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “nationality.” However, it was also more social scientific approaches such as world-systems theory that first paved the way for an analysis of the economic and political structures of global capitalism that produced “transmigrants” in the first place. 4 At its best, transnational studies offers a new lens or framework for identifying processes, identities, structures, and cultures that criss-cross with those of the nation-building project.

This essay reflects on the emergence of “transnationalism” as an idea in American cultural and intellectual history, by looking at a particular group of transmigrants in America: black intellectuals from the English-speaking Caribbean. The Caribbean American ethnic community has produced some of the most influential figures in American race and cultural politics throughout the twentieth century, figures ranging from Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay through Harry Belafonte, C. L. R. James, Stokeley Carmichael, and Bob Marley, to contemporary writers such as Paule Marshall and Jamaica Kincaid. Yet, despite the continual immigration of Caribbean people to the United States throughout the twentieth century, it is only recently that they have come close to establishing their own group identity as West Indian Americans, a specific American ethnicity in its own right. 5 One reason for this is their own sometimes willed, sometimes imposed, conflation with African Americans due to the shared racial identity of both groups and the “black-and-white” history of race relations in the United States. In addition, Caribbean Americans have always been seen as maintaining an ambivalent relationship to their American citizenship, and as having [End Page 593] a keen loyalty to their islands of origin. Therefore, as Basch, Schiller, and Blanc argue, the Caribbean experience in the United States was seen as a “special case.”

However, it is precisely their “specialness” that makes West Indian...

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