- The Black Pacific Narrative: Geographic Imaginings of Race and Empire Between the World Wars by Etsuko Taketani
An exciting addition to the growing fields of transnational, diasporic, and hemispheric black studies, Etsuko Taketani’s Black Pacific Narrative: Geographic Imaginings of Race and Empire Between the World Wars has set out to theoretically de-center the currently popular Atlantic perspective (12). To broaden our historical understanding of African Americans’ geographical imagination beyond the Atlantic, Taketani’s ambitious and finely executed project retrospectively examines the profound transformation that encouraged (or compelled) African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century to view the lives of people in Asia Pacific—their social and political successes and failures, progress and regression, and dreams and nightmares—as directly affecting their own.
In Taketani’s conceptual framework, “black Pacific narratives” refer to a constellation of African American cultural and literary texts written about or in the Pacific region. These narratives were first produced in response to Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. While reflecting and refracting the grand scheme of the U. S. as it became a “burgeoning bioceanic empire” (8) in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898, these early black Pacific narratives either celebrated or critiqued the rise of a “colored empire” in Asia. A series of events further underscored the growing significance of the Pacific Rim for the U. S., from the construction of the Panama Canal (1904–14) to the Washington Naval Conference (1921–22), which gave birth to the vision of a U. S.-led regional order, the “Pacific Community.” Taketani argues that black Pacific narratives again proliferated during the interwar years, a crucial period that is the primary, if not exclusive, focus of her book.
Echoing Benedict Anderson and Edward Said, Taketani argues that the “black Pacific” created by these narratives formed “a sort of ‘imagined community,’ a community imagined contrapuntally to this regional order in the making [the Pacific Community], in which a sense of belonging is manufactured by the performance of black narratives that invent a shared history, one that African Americans imagine they share with the colored peoples of the Pacific Rim, especially in Asia” (6–7). Although Taketani is not the first scholar to historicize the heterogeneous engagements of African Americans with the Pacific or peoples of Asian descent, what distinguishes her project from other recent trans-Pacific studies of blackness is not just her original theoretical frame of the black Pacific but also the extensive [End Page 397] and imaginative archival work that grounds it. Such a mixture of cogent theorizing and the close reading of a wide range of primary texts is reminiscent of the pioneering and innovative transatlantic studies of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), Kate A. Baldwin’s Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (2002), Brent Hayes Edwards’s The Practice of the Diaspora (2003), Michelle Ann Stephens’s Black Empire (2005), and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo’s Black Cosmopolitanism (2014). However, Taketani’s goal is precisely to make a critical intervention into their Atlantic-centered model to study black cultural and political imagination and practice.
Chapter one, “The Cartography of the Black Pacific: James Weldon Johnson’s Along This Way,” provides an extensively researched analysis of Johnson’s active involvement in Big Stick/Dollar Diplomacy. Taketani carefully interprets Johnson’s complicity with the U. S.’s military intervention in Nicaragua in 1909 in connection with his celebration of the Japanese Empire as a regional “colored” hegemon in the Pacific. Taketani reads between the lines of Johnson’s Pacific narrative, Along This Way (1933), revealing the entangled stories of empire-building simultaneously taking place in the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as the paradoxical nature of Johnson’s antiracist struggle as he was confronted with the power politics of empires at war.
In chapter two, “Colored Empires in the 1930s: Black Internationalism, the US Black Press, and George S. Schuyler,” dissects Schuyler’s Black Empire (1936–38), a racial fantasy of a black hegemon taking over the...