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  • Provincializing Harlem:The “Negro Metropolis” as Northern Frontier of a Connected Caribbean

The Survey Graphic’s iconic March 1925 issue proclaimed Harlem the “Mecca of the New Negro.” Mass migration from the U.S. South, wrote editor Alain Locke, had carried Harlemites-to-be “not only from countryside to city, but from mediaeval America to modern.”1 Black foreigners’ transition to the “hectic metropolis” was equally transformative, wrote sociologist Charles Johnson in the same issue.2 Jamaican-born contributor W. A. Domingo described those immigrants as a “dusky tribe of destiny seekers” on “a dogged, romantic pilgrimage to the El Dorado of their dreams,” their “eyes filled with visions of their heritage—palm fringed sea shores, murmuring streams, luxuriant hills and vales.”3 In a poem by Jamaican-born Claude McKay on the same page, the sight of avocados at a New York stand summons memories of home: “dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies/In benediction over nun-like hills.”4 Passages like these make it easy to imagine that the move to Harlem was for British Caribbeans, just like Locke and Johnson claimed it was for black southerners, “a jump of two generations in social economy and of a century and more in civilization.”5 To go from “nun-like hills” to the “hectic metropolis” must surely have been a move from rural stasis to urban commotion, from local absorption to global connection, from enveloping custom to self-aware modernity.

But in fact, the particular communities that Caribbean migrants were coming from were already globally connected and critically engaged. They were the product of a recent history of labor mobility and neocolonial (U.S.) expansion, part of broader global developments in which ideologies of white privilege played [End Page 469] a central role: and migrants knew it and had much to say about it. It is not that every village or family in the British Caribbean was immersed in these processes and critically aware of them but rather that those migrants reaching U.S. shores came from precisely those sectors that were. Mass migration to New York was made possible by the resources and skills that certain British Caribbean working people had built through intraregional migration: to Trinidad and Venezuela in the mid-nineteenth century to cultivate cocoa or dig for gold, to Panama at the start of the twentieth to dig the canal or to care for those digging, to Central America to lay rail lines and heft bananas, and to Cuba after World War I to cut and haul cane during the great sugar boom.

The communities migrants created at all these sites were connected to transatlantic intellectual and political currents not only by the travels of individuals but also by internationally circulating mass media: media that migrants produced as well as consumed. From Panama to Port of Spain, working-class British Caribbean migrants were active participants in transatlantic print culture—in particular, a burgeoning, multisited black press that spoke of and for “the Negro race.”

In Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues against treating the particular path Western Europe followed over the nineteenth and early twentieth century as definitional of modernity. Social, political, economic, and cultural change, he suggests, combined differently in the peripheries than in the metropole. Scholars must attend to the diversity of colonial modernities. But provincializing Harlem—by shifting our optic to more accurately capture the international perspective of the working-class migrants who made Harlem what it became—suggests the opposite lesson. The circum-Caribbean sites that sent British Caribbeans north to Harlem did share many of the characteristics we associate with modernity: wage labor, social and economic mobility, mass media, global awareness—and self-awareness, as people in the tropical peripheries debated the origins and consequences of all this and more through a vibrant periodical press.

A recent wave of scholarship has highlighted the contributions of Caribbean immigrants to interwar Harlem’s ferment. Dozens of British Caribbeans played leading roles in radical politics, literary production, or both, founding or editing periodicals including the Voice, the Crusader, the Emancipator, Opportunity, the Messenger, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Negro World. Key figures include Hubert Harrison (arrived from St. Croix...


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pp. 469-484
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