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Social Text 19.1 (2001) 45-73

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The Uses of Diaspora

Brent Hayes Edwards

One of the more vexing problems of recent historical work on black culture and politics in an international sphere is that the term diaspora, so attractive to many of our analyses, does not appear in the literature under consideration until surprisingly late after the Second World War. Of course, black artists and intellectuals, from Edward Wilmot Blyden, Martin Delany, and Pauline Hopkins in the nineteenth century to W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté in the early twentieth, have long been engaged with themes of internationalism, but diaspora has only in the past forty years been a term of choice to express the links and commonalities among groups of African descent throughout the world. Here I will engage this problem by taking up Khachig Tölölyan's signal call to "return to diaspora": the confusing multiplicity of terms floating through recent work, he argues--including "exile," "expatriation," "postcoloniality," "migrancy," "globality," and "transnationality," among others --make it "necessary to 'return to diaspora,' which is in danger of becoming a promiscuously capacious category that is taken to include all the adjacent phenomena to which it is linked but from which it actually differs in ways that are constitutive, that in fact make a viable definition of diaspora possible." 1 Both Tölölyan and James Clifford have recently written valuable comparative overviews of uses of the term. 2 I will limit my consideration here to the politics of "diaspora" in black historical work and cultural criticism, however, as the term marks a quite specific intervention in that arena, one that may not be subsumable into some overarching frame of inquiry. 3 I will be particularly concerned with excavating the function performed by the term in the work of Paul Gilroy, as he is the one theorist cited in almost all recent considerations of these issues. The reception of his brilliant 1993 study, The Black Atlantic, threatens continually (despite Gilroy's own qualifications) to conflate diaspora, and its particular history of usage in black cultural politics, with Gilroy's proposition of that field he calls the "black Atlantic"--a phrase rapidly being canonized and institutionalized in the U.S. academy.

I am not suggesting that one must limit the term's object of study to more contemporary phenomena. On the contrary, I want to excavate a historicized and politicized sense of diaspora for my own work, which focuses on black cultural politics in the interwar period, particularly in [End Page 45] transnational circuits of exchange between the so-called Harlem Renaissance and pre-Negritude Fran cophone activity in France and West Africa. 4 I am rethinking the uses of diaspora more precisely to compel a discussion of the politics of nominalization, in a moment of prolixity and careless rhetoric when such a question is often the first casualty. An intellectual history of the term is needed, in other words, because diaspora is taken up at a particular conjuncture in black scholarly discourse to do a particular kind of epistemological work. 5

The use of diaspora emerges directly out of the growing scholarly interest in the Pan-African movement in particular, and in black internationalism in general, that began to develop in the 1950s. It is important to recall that Pan-Africanism, referring both to Henry Sylvester Williams's Pan-African Conference in 1900 and to the congresses organized by W. E. B. Du Bois and others in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1945, and 1974, arises as a discourse of internationalism aimed generally at the cultural and political coordination of the interests of peoples of African descent around the world. As Du Bois declared in 1933, in a celebrated piece published in the Crisis, "Pan-Africa means intellectual understanding and co-operation among all groups of Negro descent in order to bring about at the earliest possible time the industrial and spiritual emancipation of the Negro peoples." 6

This emphasis on vanguardist collaboration toward a unified articulation of the interests of "African peoples" at the level of international policy is...


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