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Diaspora 12:1 2003 Theorizing Africa in Black Diaspora Studies: Caryl Phillips’Crossing the River Yogita Goyal University of California, Los Angeles Theorists in cultural studies routinely invoke diaspora as a syncretized configuration of cultural identity: shifting, flexible, and invariably anti-essentialist. This notion pointedly revises an earlier definition of diaspora structured by a teleology of origin, scattering, and return. While these older conceptions of diaspora posited an organic link to Africa, and imagined both symbolic and actual returns to the homeland, the new one focuses on displacement itself, maintaining that the lack of mooring in national or racial certitudes generates anti-essentialist identities. Theorists of diaspora contend that nationalist discourses (such as négritude and Afrocentrism) failed to combat racist binaries of good and evil, black and white— they merely inverted the categories. By placing great value on hybridity , these thinkers often claim that their work transcends such binaries.1 In “Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective,” for instance, Paul Gilroy argues that the “essentially symbolic” value of the term diaspora lies in its emphasis on “the fact that there can be no pure, uncontaminated or essential blackness anchored in an unsullied originary moment” (309). At the heart of the Black Atlantic, Gilroy argues in a more recent work, is the “desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and constraints of ethnicity and national particularity” (Black Atlantic 19) in favor of a “more difficult option: the theorization of creolisation, métissage, mestizaje , and hybridity” (2). Gilroy’s definition of the Black Atlantic is thus closely linked to the influential concept of hybridity, as both connote an anti-essentialist, split, or agonistic subjectivity. In his view, hybridity enables cultures to avoid replicating the binary categories of the past and to develop new models of cultural exchange by resisting the notion of pure, homogeneous cultures.2 In this essay, I argue that while such refusal of essentialist binaries is necessary, the new model of diaspora can easily lead to a reification of Africa, presenting a dehistoricized account of the relation between Africa and the black diaspora. Thus, even as the black diasporic advent into modernity is theorized in complex ways, Africa is relegated to a timeless past. This ahistorical view of Africa is apparent, I argue, in the work of Caryl Phillips and Paul Gilroy. xxxxxxxxxxxx 5 Diaspora 12:1 2003 I suggest that the otherwise hybrid aesthetic of Phillips’ postcolonial fiction creates a space of stasis for Africa, freezing it within the realm of myth rather than that of history. In their common antipathy to cultural nationalist binaries of master and slave, Gilroy and Phillips render slavery and the Middle Passage as metaphors, thus allowing the diasporic experiences of dislocation to be available equally to the master and the slave. I will ultimately argue for a more historically sensitive approach to diaspora, which I see exemplified by the work of Édouard Glissant. Producing a definition of diaspora that exceeds both nationalist and Black Atlantic ones, Glissant enables reciprocal conversations between Africa and the diaspora, thus re-orienting current models of transnational dialogue . While Gilroy offers the most influential (and perhaps most stimulating ) theoretical account of the black diaspora, among writers of fiction, Phillips’ oeuvre constitutes the most sustained and extensive engagement with the subject.3 Author of six novels that explore various facets of the diaspora, Phillips also probes the continuing legacy of European racism in his travelogue The European Tribe and retraces the triangle of the Atlantic slave trade in The Atlantic Sound. His fiction spans Caribbean independence (A State of Independence), plantation slavery (Cambridge and Higher Ground), and the Middle Passage (Crossing the River); it also explores the relationship between the African diaspora and the Jewish experience of the holocaust in The Nature of Blood. Variously called “the bard of the African diaspora,” the “chronicler of the dispossessed ,” or, simply, a “citizen of the world,” Phillips creates fictional narratives that crisscross the Caribbean, Africa, the United States, and Britain, mapping the multiple geographies privileged by diaspora studies (Jaggi 28; Dogar 63). Born in St. Kitts, raised in London, and currently living in the United States, Phillips mirrors in his own travels the triangular movement of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 5-38
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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