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Diaspora 1:3 1991 That Event, This Memory: Notes on the Anthropology of African Diasporas in the New World David Scott Bates College It was theAtlantic this side ofthe island, a wild-eyed, maraudingsea the color of slate, deep, full of dangerous currents, lined with row upon row ofbarrier reefs, and with a sound like that ofthe combined voices ofthe drowned raised in a loud unceasing lament—all those, the nine million and more it is said, who in their enforced exile, their Diaspora, hadgone down between this point and the homeland lying out ofsight to the east. This sea mourned them. Aggrieved, outraged, unappeased, it hurled itself upon each of the reefs in turn and then upon the shingle beach, sending up the spume in an angry froth which the wind took and drove in like smoke over the land. Great boulders that had roared down from Westminster centuries ago stood scattered in the surf; these, sculpted into fantastical shapes by the wind and water, might have been gravestones placed there to commemorate those millions of the drowned. Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People 1. Between Old World and New, Past and Present In this unforgettable passage, Paule Marshall evokes the relation between the past and the present of the African diaspora, between the historical trauma of an inaugural event and our collective memory of it. In this essay, I am going to concern myself with a certain way of reading this relation, a way that I believe has been a central element in the identity of the anthropology of peoples of African descent in the New World. And a way that, I also believe, is mistaken . This anthropology has—from its formal inception in the work of Melville J. Herskovits in the late 1920s down to its current elaboration in the work of such contemporary Afro-Americanists and Afro-Caribbeanists as Sidney Mintz and Richard Price—turned in a very profound way around a narrative of"continuities," continuities between the Old World and the New, between the past and the present. The reasons for the privilege and the persistence of such a narrative in the archive ofthis anthropology are not so hard to come by. After all, it is well enough known that the African presence in 261 Diaspora 1:3 1991 the New World began with a sharp and irreversible severance in the holds of slave ships crossing the Middle Passage and in historically unprecedented circumstances of social disordering and social reordering on the colonial slave plantations. Not surprisingly, anthropology manifests a deep, humanist inclination toward a story about continuities and embraces the earnest task of demonstrating the integrity and the intactness of the old in the new, and of the past in the present, of these societies. Nor, likewise, should it be surprising that in the plotting of this narrative of continuities, the two figures of "Africa" and "slavery" have come to form its generative and constitutive points of reference. Obviously, this story about continuities is not confined within the disciplinary parameters of anthropology. It is a story that has in a variety of ways structured our own "imagined community," our own narratives of identity and tradition. For this reason it would be possible (not to say pertinent) to speak here of at least two historically interconnected yet distinct and analytically separable registers . One is anthropological, strictly speaking, inasmuch as it has to do with the properly disciplinary construction of a distinctive theoretical object, namely, "the New World Negro" (to give it its inaugural name) and the conceptual apparatus employed to identify and represent it. The other is, we might say, extra-anthropological, being transdisciplinary, sometimes positively antidisciplinary, and having rather to do with the varying cultural-political discourses of identity and tradition produced by peoples ofAfrican descent in the New World, in the course of our own practices and struggles.1 These registers of knowledge-producing cultural practice are of course not identical, but what is noteworthy is that even in nonanthropological discourse, anthropology, taken as the (self-described) "science of culture," is often seen as crucial in providing the authoritative vocabulary in terms of which the claims of difference are established. Anthropology...


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