- Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora by Nadia Ellis
Nadia Ellis’s Territories of the Soul offers a powerful reconceptualization of the African diaspora. At root, the book is about how ordinary citizens and intellectuals transform the impossible loss and difficulty of the black diaspora into “extraordinary practices of identity and space”—and culture (192). Those extraordinary cultural practices, Ellis argues, create a sense of belonging among diasporic subjects across boundaries of geography, class, nation, genre, and time, not despite but rather because they remain at a distance. As illustration, she offers the young Stuart Hall, who though steeped in British colonialism and committed to West Indian nationalism, experienced “jazz as a call to the soul” because it pointed to “a special sort of contemporary or avant-garde consciousness that was happening elsewhere.” Thus, Ellis takes the work of scholars who conceptualize the diaspora as “constituted by difficulty and loss” to a new level. If Hall recognized the diaspora’s “necessary heterogeneity and diversity,” and Brent Hayes Edwards established that it is constituted by unbridgeable gaps, Ellis insists that these disruptions constitute the diaspora at its most powerful. In her words, “diasporic consciousness is at its most potent when it is so to speak, unconsummated” (2). Black diaspora belonging or [End Page 333] consciousness is at its “most paradigmatic” and “most urgent and productive,” she asserts, when it is “most eccentric” (3). This perpetual yet unconsummated desire, Ellis argues, is structurally parallel to queerness as conceptualized by José Esteban Muñoz; that is, an awareness that the “existing modes of belonging” are inadequate, accompanied by a sense that better will come, though it remains beyond the horizon (5). Ellis also defines diasporic belonging as queer because in each of the cases she examines, she finds diasporic subjects seeking ways of being outside of the heteronormative modes sanctioned by British colonialism, Englishness, and Caribbean nationalism. Her repetition of the superlative (“most, most, most”) to describe this idea of diaspora expresses a need to convince us of an important, unacknowledged reality for which there is rarely “hard evidence.” Disconnection may not constitute the most powerful instances of diaspora; there may not be such a thing. However, the story Ellis tells is new and important. It teaches us to experience the elusive archival traces of queer and diasporic lives as inspiring; brief mentions and vague allusion, she argues, open the door for future understandings of subjects for whom eluding inquiry and convention was a condition for liberation.
In the first two chapters, Ellis exposes profound disconnections in the diasporic thinking and practice of C. L. R. James, James Baldwin, and George Lamming by attending to the role gender played in shaping their thought and by shifting the texts, contexts, and intertexts scholars have used to illuminate their theories. By using as her archive James’s autobiographical writing and his love letters to Constance Webb, Ellis transforms James from “successful, masculine, affect-free intellectual” to “lovesick romantic hero” (31). While James asserted that his mastery of English restraint and culture gave him the power to analyze the Global North and South, Ellis provides compelling evidence that James grounded his theories of the Caribbean and the United States in his own passionate attachments to performing bodies—West Indian cricketers and 1940s’ Hollywood divas. These attachments, she argues, skewed his understanding of the United States and blinded him to the possibility that black women might be protagonists in U. S. national and diaspora culture. Focusing on the overlooked rivalry, or “fraternal agony” between Lamming and Baldwin, the second chapter analyzes the paradox that the 1956 Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris brought together male intellectuals from across the diaspora and elicited not declarations of brotherhood but rather assertions of difference so strong that they constituted a disavowal of the diasporic identity and consciousness that brought them together.
By contrast the final two chapters address diasporic belonging in cases characterized by difference and distance. In her third chapter, Ellis makes a compelling case for the significance of Andrew...