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The Crowded Space of Diaspora:
Intercultural Address and the Tensions of Diasporic Relation
Striving to be both European and Black requires some specific forms of double consciousness.
—Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
Despite the obvious appeal of a hybrid, [albeit] unifying, transnational culture that could invite belonging among blacks everywhere, merely celebrating the ideal without attending to the power relations that thwart its realization invites a familiar brand of policing.
—Jacqueline Nassy Brown, "Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space"
In his 1994 article "Diasporas," James Clifford posed the probing question, "What is at stake, politically and intellectually, in contemporary invocations of diaspora?" 1 It is a question that holds continued relevance to current scholarship on African diasporic communities, and one that should prove central to understanding the links many black scholars see as significant to their analyses of the relations between black communities transnationally. Focusing primarily on black British and anti-Zionist articulations of diaspora, Clifford's article added a necessary degree of specificity to the discussion of the concept by bringing into dialogue two important models of [End Page 94] diasporic discourse. His mapping of these diverse yet overlapping discourses offered a useful site for exploring the links and investments among and between theorists of diaspora and the ethnic and cultural constituencies in whose name they formulated a politics of diasporic histories, relationship, and community.
I find it particularly pertinent to begin this piece by revisiting Clifford's original question. Reexamining it gives us the opportunity to reflect critically on the extent to which the discourse of diaspora has become far more centered, particularly in the fields of black studies, cultural studies, and African American history, than just a few years ago. Taking Clifford's provocative query as a starting point is also intended to invite a reflection on whether our stakes in the concept of diaspora in studies of black communities transnationally have changed as the term and its uses have become more centered. At the same time, it directs our attention toward the less celebratory, less comfortable, and more problematic elements of this discourse, as well as their implications for our attempts to make sense of the histories, cultural formations, and expressions of black communities elsewhere.
This article resituates Clifford's original question, reading it through a very different lens and site of analysis. In so doing, it takes as its starting point a related question, albeit one whose formulation differs from Clifford's in important ways. Specifically, I ask, what work do invocations of what might be termed diasporic relation do for communities situated at what anthropologist Jacqueline Nassy Brown calls "the margins of diaspora"? 2 Although we may perhaps never succeed in answering this question comprehensively with any degree of satisfaction, it might prove useful to reflect momentarily on the term diaspora—both on its more recent genealogy and on some of the methodological and theoretical uses to which it has been put as an analytic framework for the study of black communities in order to even begin imagining what such an answer might entail. Following this brief introductory discussion, I offer a reading of two very distinct encounters with diasporic invocation from my own work on one such "marginal" African diasporic community—black Germans. The first encounter is a scholarly one, the second a very rich ethnographic one. Each offers different insights into the work that diasporic invocation does and the entanglement of intercultural interpellation and interrogation therein. Each asks us to engage the stakes of the relationships between black communities in ways that are at times uncomfortable, at times problematic, yet always insightful and instructive.
As numerous scholars have made clear, the forced dispersal or displacement of a people functions as the foundational notion of diaspora. A diverse array of social and cultural theorists have theorized diaspora in relation to this fundamental notion of [End Page 95] dispersal and displacement from an originary homeland, building on the much cited etymology of the term from the Greek...