- Awakening to the World:Relation, Totality, and Writing from Below
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;
Surely some revelation is at hand.—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
This study commemorates the work of scholar, poet, theorist, novelist and traveler Édouard Glissant, taking up an invitation in his writing to think the world anew. In the pages that follow, we will focus on the influence and implications of Glissant’s reflections on the poetic, theoretical, and geographic dimensions of the African diaspora that have advanced through the specific inscriptions of black thought in the development of the modern world. We will examine a broad range of Glissant’s work in order to highlight how [End Page 112] his reflections on African heritage and expression unfold across the various genres of his writing. Above all, we will seek to demonstrate how these reflections expand the theory, pedagogy, and practice of what we will refer to here as black writing. Glissant’s work highlights the specificity and diversity of the forms, contexts, and meanings of the graphic performances that proliferate in the Afrodiaspora, defining black writing not merely as a modality of alphabetic script but as an ensemble of life practices. In the context of the Afrodiaspora, as within the milieu of “the black radical tradition,”1 black writing thus emerges as a practice irreducible to the “particular context of its genesis.”2 Our study stems from this critical point of intersection between writing and practice, tracing modes of diasporic communication and performance—ones connecting Africa to Brazil, Haiti, and the United States—that are implicated in Glissant’s notion of Relation.
Recasting the idea of Africa from “dark continent” to archipelago, Glissant writes in Caribbean Discourse that “We realize that peoples who are ‘manifestly’ composite have minimized the idea of Genesis.”3 Conceiving Africa not as a monolithic origin but as a birthplace of multiplicity, he views the geographic layout of the Caribbean as a generative ensemble of origins, a cradle of multiple diasporas that figures the African past itself as a set of diasporic practices:4 “There was an African diaspora millions of years ago, which gave birth to the various humanities,” he claims, “And there have been other diasporas—for example, the forced diaspora brought about by slavery and [those] caused by poverty and destitution, emigrants and emigrations.”5 In Glissant’s reflections on the idea of Africa and the philosophy of its history, the idea and meaning of blackness as disseminated by black people is opposed to ideas about race that underlie essentialist understandings of human attribute and origin. “Caribbeanness” is therefore “an intellectual dream, lived at the same time in an unconscious way by our peoples [that] tears us free from the intolerable alternative of the need for nationalism and introduces us to the cross-cultural process that modifies but does not undermine the latter.”6 Through the cross-cultural “poetics of Relation” expressed in the everyday life of the Caribbean and in Glissantian thought, we come to glimpse the contours of black writing as an expression of the life practices that take shape within the complex totality that we call the Afrodiaspora.
As Glissant states in an interview with Manthia Diawara, “the truth that is increasingly coming to light about black reality in the New World is the truth of multiplicity, the truth of the step toward the other. … Relation is the moment where we realize that [End Page 113] there is a definite quantity of all the differences in the world.”7 It is in the spirit of elaborating a Glissantian reading of the ongoing relational practice of diaspora itself that we turn our attention to divergent geographical expressions of reading and writing in order to conceptualize black writing as a graphic encounter with differences. To read such differences in epistemology, geography, ontology, and cosmology from which Afrodiasporic displacements and fugitive New World constructions erupt reveals blackness as something both ontological and transitive: here and beyond here, in the...