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  • Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris by Elisa Joy White
  • Robert J. Topinka (bio)
Elisa Joy White, Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 356 pages

The question of modernity as both a project of domination and a potential promise of freedom continues to resonate in contemporary scholarship. Elisa Joy White enters this discussion with Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris, which examines modernity through the lives of diasporic Africans in purportedly modernized Western cities. As White demonstrates, there is both connection and cohesion and difference and division in the mobility and flux of the diaspora. Hence, White’s focus on distant localities—Dublin, Paris, and New Orleans—which she calls social laboratories for the incomplete project of modernity. White argues that the relationship to racialized oppression that links African diaspora—in all its cultural, national, ethnic, and geographic variety—demonstrates that modernity’s purported gifts of progress, democracy, egalitarianism, and freedom have not been extended to all communities.

White tracks this argument through rich ethnography and a wide-ranging collection of objects of analysis, including political marches, self-published magazines, census data, and Irish soaps. The chapters on Paris and New Orleans focus on racism in mainstream French politics, histories of segregation in New Orleans, and the federal government’s response to Katrina. White’s ethnographic research in Dublin generates the most compelling chapters of the book. In a series of ethnographic vignettes focused on [End Page 227] diasporic subjects, White explores how recent migrants and more settled residents attempt to forge community in Ireland. For example, White demonstrates how a simple night out in Dublin becomes a complex engagement with global flows of cultures, sexuality, and racism. What emerges from these vignettes is the precarious position of members of the diaspora in Dublin who must negotiate immigration law, racism, and cultural and ethnic tensions within the diasporic community. As White demonstrates, these tensions are particularly acute for African women who face white fears of the hypersexual black female body, sensationalized media accounts of African women having babies in Ireland to avoid deportation, and rejection from African men, some of whom come to view migrant women as too headstrong and independent. Diasporic mobility can thus inform perceptions of gender and sexuality.

Although White draws important insights both from her focus on Dublin and her broad geographic scope, there are significant oversights in this wide-ranging work. Despite her focus on asylum seekers, White never offers an extended discussion of immigration law or a legal definition of an asylum seeker. The ethnography is rich in other ways, and omitting a definition or description of asylum law is perhaps a minor issue. But when coupled with White’s almost complete lack of engagement with the rich scholarship on refugees, asylum seekers, and forced migration, such oversights become significant, undermining the force and specificity of the argument.

Ultimately, White’s goal is to argue that domination and exploitation continue to be the experience of many, despite modernity’s promises of freedom, democracy, and equality. White is ambivalent, though, on the status of modernity. At times, White argues that modernity is explicitly built on domination, while at other times (and more often in the text), White seems to view modernity less as a project predicated on inequalities than one still negotiating and perhaps, one day, progressing past these inequalities. This view is apparent in White’s “retro-global” coinage, which she uses to describe Dublin’s ascendancy to the world stage, a turn that has been marked by persistent racism, which White argues is the “socio-cultural equivalent of whiplash” (67). As she describes “the quest for real modernity,” White implies that modernity has a telos, an achievable point of completion (278). This focus on progress mapped chronologically muddies the argument: Is modernity predicated on inequality, or is it somehow predicated on progressing beyond inequality?

This is not to say that the book fails to offer a compelling account of modernity. Quite the opposite: the analysis is deft, the original research is compelling, and the insights are generative. Yet all of this only ups the...


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