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Radical History Review 87 (2003) 78-95
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Manly Rivalries and Mopsies:
Gender, Nationality, and Sexuality in United States—Occupied Trinidad
Around 9 P.M. on Friday, April 16, 1943, a storm of sticks, bottles, and stones sent residents of Basilon Street, Laventille, scurrying under their beds. The source of the missiles, neighborhood folks would soon find out, was a group new to the community and, indeed, new to colonial Trinidad: African American soldiers. Helmeted and bare-chested in some cases, and bearing weapons in nearly all, the black men who belonged to the 99th Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the U.S. Army had set out on a seek-and-destroy mission in one of Port of Spain's most infamous slums. The objects of their pursuit were the community's self-proclaimed "robust men," young, predominantly Afro-Trinidadian males whose unabashed hostility and alleged hooliganism scandalized "respectable society" in the British colony. How many "robust men" the marauding members of the 99th found remains uncertain. What is clear is that during the course of the night, these soldiers wrought serious property damage and assaulted scores of neighborhood men. In their wake, black Americans left broken windows and dented walls, and, by the end of what outraged municipal representatives condemned as a "wave of homicidal fury," twenty-four local men, including four special reserve police officers, had to be hospitalized. 1
This instance of violent conflict between representatives of two groups of dispersed New World blacks offers an opportunity to join the vibrant scholarly discussion about the conceptual framework of African diaspora studies. 2 Specifically, by [End Page 78] highlighting how overlapping concerns with gendered, sexual and, in particular, national privileges conditioned the so-called Basilon Street Riots, the essay calls attention to the underexamined issue of African Americans' relative standing within the diaspora in the last century—the so-called American century. The central argument is that African Americans have occupied a uniquely ambivalent space within the transnational black community since at least the late 1890s. As a racial minority in a society baldly structured around white privilege, on one hand, they have been subject to some of the most brutal forms of discrimination; as Americans, on the other, they have had access, however theoretical at times, to citizenship status in the most powerful and prestigious nation in the world. In the course of many of their encounters with blacks outside of the United States, therefore, African Americans have struck a dual image, embodying simultaneously the domestic oppression and imperial might that have been at the heart of twentieth-century U.S. history.
This ambivalence has appeared most keenly, perhaps, in the figures of the African American men who have turned to the U.S. military as an instrument of advancement during the last century. 3 Ever since the North American republic earnestly embraced an imperialist mission in the 1890s, black men have shouldered part of a national undertaking immortalized as the "white man's burden," hoping to be rewarded with effective American citizenship for their martial efforts. Though their expectations remain unfulfilled (for military enlistment has had little success against the racial presumptions that compromise African Americans' rights) African Americans in the army have nonetheless earned an elevated status within black communities, both in and beyond the United States. Such was the situation of the black soldiers who arrived in Trinidad as part of a United States military force occupying select British Caribbean colonies during World War II.
This occupation, it is necessary to recognize, marked a crucial step toward the complete transfer of imperial responsibilities in the Caribbean from European to American hands. When, in September 1940, British diplomats agreed to allow the U.S. military to establish and operate bases in several British Caribbean territories in exchange for fifty destroyers, they were, like the Spanish (and Dutch) before, admitting, however reluctantly, American supremacy in the region. Under fire from German blitzkriegs, Great Britain's motive for entering into the Bases-for-Destroyers Deal was clear: it was an attempt both to fortify...