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  • Thinking "Diaspora" with Stuart Hall
  • Jenny Sharpe (bio)

In my twenty-five years of teaching Caribbean literature at American universities, I have found that the most difficult concept for students to grasp is the different historical formations of identities across the African diaspora. They are often perplexed when confronted with Afro-Caribbean characters of the colonial era who do not identify themselves as black. "But how can they not think of themselves as black?" declared one student with indignation. "I have always known I'm black." The answer to her question leads us, as does Stuart Hall's work, to the power of language, narrative, and culture. "Although everyone perfectly understood what 'black' meant," he explains in his posthumously published memoir, Familiar Stranger, "the very word was taboo, unsayable, especially for the middle classes in Jamaica in the 1930s and 1940s."1 Caribbean novels written on the cusp of decolonization, like George Lamming's classic In the Castle of My Skin, describe the damaging effects of an educational system that promoted Englishness to instill in the colonized an identification with the white ruling class. Settled in 1605, Lamming's island home of Barbados was known as Little England because culturally it was the most English of all Britain's West Indian colonies. [End Page 21] Even after decolonization, the new nation continued to take pride in its Little England identity.2

In the Castle of My Skin recounts the process of what Nguūgī wa Thiong'o calls a colonization of the mind, of black people's alienation from themselves, their culture, and their own race, but it does so to introduce the potential for change at a future point in time. There is a beautiful and moving moment near the novel's end when Trumper, a friend of the protagonist, returns from the United States with a Paul Robeson recording. As the two youths lean in to listen to the baritone voice singing "Let My People Go," Trumper explains how he learned about his race during a visit to the United States. He goes on to say, "'Course the blacks here are my people too, but they don't know it yet. You don't know it yourself. None o' you here on this islan' know what it mean to fin' race."3 Trumper's words describe how he discovered his racial identity from encountering civil rights in the United States. The yet predicts a future that would come to pass, and it did as one by one the islands threw off the mantle of colonization and race consciousness spread through the transnational connections of pan-Africanism and Black Power.

Hall similarly introduces a future that would come to pass when he describes growing up in a lower-middle-class family when Jamaica was still a British colony. He explains how the island existed as a black-and-brown society without explicitly identifying itself as black until the late sixties: "Blackness had not yet become a positive term to be claimed, or a leading category for group identification, or for collective political organization—although this was changing fast, especially among the emerging Pan-African minority" (fs, 99). Since Hall left for England in 1951, he missed that moment of change in Jamaica but claimed his blackness through activism in the seat of empire. "Civil rights made me accept being a black intellectual," he plainly states in an interview. Feeling the need to explain what he means, he adds with a smile, "There was no such thing before, but then it was something … so I became one."4 While the phrasing of "there was no such thing before" might appear strange to those of us who can think of any number of black intellectuals prior to the late sixties, Hall's words have to be contextualized by an era in which blacks in Britain were more likely identified as "immigrants" [End Page 22] or "coloured" than as "black," which was an identity that had to be fought for and claimed.

Yet the black identity that emerged in Britain, while influenced by American black nationalism, assumed a form unique to the British experience. "'Black,'" Hall explains about the usage of the...


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