- Blackness Unbound: Interrogating Transnational Blackness
Democracy and the rights of man would never have existed without the Haitian revolution—a consideration of which is an object lesson in understanding the debt the Old World owes to the New.—John Maxwell
The essays in the guest-edited section of this issue are revised and edited presentations given at the Small Axe symposium held in late September 2007 at the University at Albany, State University of New York. The event, organized under the theme “Blackness Unbound: Constructions and Deconstructions of Transnational Blackness,” was sponsored by a Ford Foundation grant and additionally supported by the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Albany. As the organizer of the two-day gathering, I intended the first part of the symposium title, blackness unbound, to reference the ancient mythology that imagined Prometheus lashed to a rock and enduring the excruciating pain of mutilation because he angered the gods by giving humankind fire. The phrase also conjures up, by way of textual resistance and opposition, a famous retort to the classical myth of Prometheus's confinement and grotesque punishment, Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Prometheus Unbound.”
The symposium title was, and is, meant to link the Prometheus myth to the traumatic recollection of the New World plantation harnessing and confining black bodies and black experiences. It reverberates with the echo of the historical and psychic successes of New World peoples of African descent, even as it acknowledges the ongoing need among such peoples, [End Page 1] and numerous others across the globe, to expand and extend the discursive unbinding of blackness, to ultimately free it from any vestiges of delimiting conventions of signification. Thus, the first part of the symposium title, redeployed here to contextualize these essays, suggests the emancipatory resonances associated with blackness as an idiom of deconstructive discourse and as a marker for the discursive reclamation of the New World imaginary in its post-emancipation and postcolonial reconfiguration. The phrase blackness unbound conjures up unharnessed blackness in the Caribbean and Latin America, indeed, in the Americas, as a post-emancipation and postcolonial marker of resistance, struggle, revolution, and liberation. Such blackness, like the fable of Prometheus's fire, exists simultaneously as a signifier of destructiveness and constructiveness, a conjoining of opposites such as that observed, for example, in the contradictoriness of Billie Holiday's sweet lamentation, “Strange Fruit.” In Holiday's rendition, we recall, by means of her sad tranquillity, the haunting beauty of the blues delivery conjoined with lyrics (by Lewis Allen) that proffer a weirdly organic reproduction and harvesting of lynched black bodies hanging from poplar trees in the southern United States.
The second part of the title, interrogating transnational blackness, is meant to signal an engagement with academic analyses of blackness and race, particularly within the space of the US academy where I work, that moves beyond the limited and hegemonic readings of blackness and race that tend to dominate so many quarters of this discursive space. As a result, the individuals who were invited to present their scholarship, literature, and art at the symposium, and whose work now appears here, were selected because their articulations analyze the schema of racial configurations along the continuum between the well-entrenched polarities of blackness and whiteness. Their work engages the phenomena of race and racism in ways that speak of racial categorization and racism as complex, historical, and diverse global phenomena rather than as a subject of fixed, narrow, nationalistic concern. Despite being informed by a broad, global perspective, however, each analysis is intellectually and artistically grounded in cultural specificity so that the logic of the racialized and racist configurations described and analyzed is discernible in a manner that links those particular ways of conceiving and practicing race to the historical and cultural contexts out of which the practices derive.
Several of the analyses begin with anecdotes or have aspects of the biomythographical threaded through them. The essays and other presentations discuss and critique blackness, whiteness, otherness, morenidade, and so on, in ways that indicate each author's familiarity with, or grounding in, theoretical and methodological concerns. Theories of race and ethnicity necessarily employ the broad brushstrokes of...