- Reaching for the Border
If I could make the borderThen I would step acrossSimply take me to the borderNo matter what the cost—Gregory Isaacs
Borders, one might say, are always there: produced in the very acts of linguistic classification that give meaning to things. Contingent though essential accompaniments to centers, they are created by means of differentiation and naming. Borders, moreover, occur in a relational field where they abut and overlap with the boundaries of other proliferating centers. And it is at these points of intersection and by virtue of their in-betweenedness—being neither this nor that—that borders, and the liminal beings who occupy them, take on special social significance in their own right. The ritual recognition accorded the unclassified—the associations of danger, pollution, and taboo that they engender; the circumspection, derision, and vilification they attract—attest to their social import. However, borders and borderlands offer as well spaces, moments, points of vantage from which centers in all of their assumed, powerful normativity can be critically examined, rethought, and contested.
It may be that the border's transgressive, oppositional significance is more apparent to some than to others (holding out the prospect of escape for the slave or the incarcerated, for example, or of self-reinvention for the marginalized) and gains heightened salience at particular times and historical moments than others. Borders summon when centers oppress more relentlessly or else when centers begin to crumble. The present it appears is such a moment. At these moments border crossings are perhaps more appealing and [End Page v] more frequent, and border-work—the act of writing, representing, and theorizing the border—becomes imperative. Newly awakened interest in the displacement of centers, and the invention of and reliance on concepts for talking about mixture, blending, the joining of distinct locations, and the crossing of boundaries—transnationalism, creolization, translation, routes, hybridity, diaspora, borderlands—are some of the indicators of the border-work going on apace for the past decade and more. This is not to say that the concepts or the practices they seek to describe are inherently counterhegemonic, but that they can be made so.1 A renewed sense of the salience of a black internationalism, nowadays more often referred to as a black diaspora, and scholarly interest in finding ways to understand and represent its dynamic, are part and parcel of this border-work.2
Caribbean borders have been particularly charged sites historically, lying as they did at the edges of competing empires: their significance marked by piracy, contraband, marronage, the production of people of intermediate (mestizo) or unclassifiable "race," and the invention of new languages from older language stocks. (Curious, isn't it, the displacement, the disallowance in their time of all these border traces?) I suggest that the artful negotiation of borders that has long gone on in the Caribbean deserves greater scholarly attention than it has so far received.3 The border savvy of Caribbean peoples, and the border activity in which they engage, constitute important veins of historical knowledge and cultural practice that get displaced by a racial/national optic made normative by the colonial and postcolonial state. Instances of the dexterity, versatility, and matter-of-factness with which Caribbean peoples put their border savvy to work include: passing—the phenomenon whereby literally and figuratively, individually and in groups, people alter their racial status cross-generationally through marriage or education, and so-called "free-colored" populations might align themselves now with black, now with white, sociopolitical interests; interracial commercial and other alliances; the neutralizing or alteration of the meaning of racial terms (as, for example in turning the negative "negro"/"negre" into a neutral term, the equivalent of "fellow," in Puerto [End Page vi] Rican Spanish or Martinican French);4 and the common practices of cross-border marronage and interisland huckstering. It is time we woke up to the fact that the singular tragedy of young Lee Malvo's border-crossing career is paralleled by countless other, if not quite so dramatic, instances that our scholarly triangulations have not prepared us adequately to grasp.
But why in the larger scheme of things should it matter the dexterity displayed, the...