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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 32-69

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Nancy Prince and the Politics of Mobility,
Home and Diasporic (Mis)Identification

Sandra Gunning
University of Michigan

IN THE CULTURAL CRITICISM OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, THOSE WHO STUDY African American society have traditionally envisioned black men and women as heavily invested in the politics of local American places and peoples. Although both the Haitian revolution and the transatlantic abolition movement represent important moments of African American participation in transnational political activity, such moments have always conditioned scholarly reading of black claims to U.S. citizenship rather than disturbed general assumptions about African American identities as products of the so-called "New World," a world translated invariably into the "national" boundaries of the United States. 1 Most recently, Paul Gilroy's influential The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) has questioned the very idea that African Americans ever imagined their identities via what he calls a "volkish popular cultural nationalism" that tied them exclusively to an American cultural setting. Looking at the work of Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and also at the fluid traditions of black contemporary music, Gilroy argues that black Americans have always exhibited "a desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity," to fully occupy what he calls "the black Atlantic," a space of African diasporic hybridity enriched by cultural crossovers among peoples of African descent, especially in Europe and the Americas. 2 Challenging both "the archaeology of black critical [End Page 32] knowledges" constructed "on an exclusively national basis--African American, Anglophone Caribbean, and so on"--as well as what he calls the "brute pan-Africanism" of Afrocentrists such as Molefi Kete Asante, Gilroy argues for an understanding of diasporic dialogue that encompasses "the concept of diaspora and its logic of unity and differentiation." 3

Certainly, this refocused attention on diasporic consciousness as a necessary and crucial by-product of the Middle Passage's tragic dispersals is an important challenge to the traditional practice of African American studies. However, especially for discussions of nineteenth-century black culture and literature, scholars who have risen to Gilroy's challenge--as well as Gilroy himself--have spent more time stressing the idea of diaspora consciousness to prove the bankruptcy of the nation as the primary site of identification for blacks than in mapping out precisely how the equally important "logic of unity and differentiation" might shape and even impinge upon that consciousness. That is to say, this most recent privileging of diaspora identification almost to the point of romanticizing the revolutionary and subversive power of this identification threatens to elide the very real impact of color, status, region, and gendered experience as sites of intra-racial difference within the context of black diaspora. Gilroy has rightly argued that from the point of view of traditional African American studies, intra-racial difference has largely been imagined as a "complex . . . black particularity that is internally divided" within the confines of the nation state. 4 However, it seems odd to assume that such divisions might simply fall away or become less problematic if we merely refocus our vision through the lens of transnationalism. Rather, might such difference indeed become the very fabric of diasporic identification, potentially even a primary, defining feature?

If coming to terms with slavery and its aftermath requires us to think in new ways about the circularity of ideas and cultural practices among displaced peoples of African descent, how then are we to trace and understand the manifestations of such cultural forms, many of which (as in the case of literary genres) were appropriated and readapted from Anglo-European sources? And if black populations in the Americas were shaped by heterogeneous migrations, what difference would it make to our critical practice if detailed attention were paid to how conditions of mobility and the specificities of location structure black responses to diasporic subjectivity? This last question seems me to be [End Page 33] incredibly necessary, since the very term "black diaspora" functions in current...


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