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  • Re-viewing Black Studies: Articulating Identity from Diaspora:A Response to Alexander Weheliye
  • H. Adlai Murdoch (bio)

If the task of interrogating humanity from within the ambit of black studies has historically projected black identity as an object of knowledge, its framing and overdetermination by the concept of modernity can be taken to denote only a partial shift in the field's basic underpinnings. For, if an emphasis on the shape and substance of African-American identity ultimately produces Alexander Weheliye's stricture that "the human emerge[s] as a central object of knowledge in black studies and its intellectual enterprise is no longer conscripted to the realm of the particular, either by its practitioners or by critics outside the field," then I would argue that such a discursive shift would also signal an acknowledgement of ethnocultural patterns whose transnational linkages speak strongly to the ways in which communities undergird prior and contemporary conceptions of blackness and black studies.

Whereas the founding questions of black studies were certainly largely grounded in the political, questions of transnationalism and diaspora are useful both as analytical concepts and as categories of material functionality; they permit an active reassessment of traditional inscriptions of blackness even as they mediate a broader understanding of a comparative black collectivity. During the 1950s, for example, writers like Ralph Ellison aligned the alienation of black Americans within the spectrum of colonial independence struggles ("Our so called race problem has now lined up with the world problems of colonialism" [Ellison 224]), [End Page 337] a perspective proving, as Nicole Waligora-Davis writes, that "While the US worried over and sought to extend extraterritorial claims to democracy, domestically it practiced segregation's formal and informal codes of colonization" (395). If such a schéma suggests that "black Americans are unequivocally locked within a sociopolitical interstice around and against which, in part, the State configures its national identity," as she continues (395), then such a concatenation of racialized violence, social dehumanization, and what Weheliye accurately calls "the political exploitation and (re)production of race" can suggest a turn to patterns and principles of diaspora as a viable re-citing and re-framing of the racialized tenets of the contemporary African-American experience.

In his survey of the genesis of the African diaspora in his book Global Diasporas: An Introduction (1997), Robin Cohen points to a "transatlantic trade that deposited Africans in the New World—the Caribbean, Mexico and Brazil—in each case to work on tropical plantations." Within the resulting diachronic framework, he further points to "the extraordinary success of New World Africans in conveying a sense of their plight through art, literature, music, dance, and religious expression" (34). However, while, in Weheliye's words, blackness has historically functioned as "an integral structuring assemblage of the modern human," paradoxically what has undergirded the sameness of the black experience of transportation, transnationalism, and diaspora has been the similarity of First World perspectives regarding blacks and blackness. As a result, it is arguably not the praxes and realities of national boundaries that overdetermine the functional framework of the black diaspora, but rather the shape and substance of the very black culture that enables diasporic identity.

Indeed, given the changing character of diaspora itself, particularly in the postcolonial era with its attendant corollaries of migration and within a burgeoning context of globalization, it is beyond question that, pace contemporary cultural critics like Stuart Hall, substantive new cultural identities are emerging, drawing on varied traditions and influences and assimilating temporalities of past and present. Hall analyzes the historical inscription and valorization of such practices well: "The ways in which black people, black experiences, were positioned and subject-ed [sic] in the dominant regimes of representation were the effects of a critical exercise of cultural power and normalization. Not only, in Said's 'Orientalist' sense, were we constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes. They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as 'Other'" ("Cultural" 225). Yet these subjects have also found ways to go beyond what Frantz Fanon calls the colonial process of [End Page 338] othering, as Diana Fuss points out: "Fanon proposes...


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pp. 337-345
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