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  • Unsettling Diasporas: Blackness and the Specter of Indigeneity
  • Sandra Harvey (bio)

[T]he wake has positioned us as no-citizen … with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected.

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake

In her much-celebrated The Transit of Empire, Chickasaw critical theorist Jodi Byrd begins a chapter on colonial multiculturalism with a story about land desecration and grave robbing that has stuck with me for years. As she writes, around the turn of the 20th century, archeologist Charles Peabody hired black workers to excavate mounds within the Mississippian Ceremonial Complex. These were burial sites, sacred land that the Choctaw and Chickasaw tend. The Mother Mound, Ninih Waiya, is the site of creation for the Choctaw who are called to be its stewards (Osburn). The 1830 forced removal of the Choctaw to what is currently called Oklahoma was disastrous not only for the violence enacted on their living bodies but for the violent attempt to sever care between the Choctaw, the land, and their deceased relatives dwelling within the land. One elder described the nightmare of removal in the following way: “We were to cast away the bones of our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, for the wild dogs to gnaw in the wilderness, our hunters could kill no more meat; hunger and disease would follow; then confusion and death would come … The vengeance of the offended spirits would be poured out upon this foolish nation” (Akers, “Removing” 133). When a Choctaw dies, one spirit holds vigil over their remains to ensure proper care. The other spirit, the shilup, travels west to the “Land of Death.” For the Choctaws, forced removal to the west literally meant being relegated to the land of the dead where they would potentially be unable to reach the afterworld (Akers, “Living”).

Peabody’s anthropological craft emerged from the American settler colonial and slave owning project and perpetrated this project’s violence simultaneously upon three peoples: he instigated and oversaw the removal of Choctaw and Chickasaw ancestors from their mounds, and he also recorded exploited black workers in song as they carried out the bulk of the grueling physical labor.1 What struck me and continues to weigh on me in this story is the ethical/political relationship of black peoples and, in a more abstract sense, blackness, to the mounds, to the sanctity of the land which we inhabit, and its relatives in this so-called “New World.” This essay represents an attempt at contributing to the many traditions and conversations that try to better understand and enact this relationship, its nuances, and the ethical/political possibilities, both those opened up and foreclosed within its contexts. Drawing on the practices and histories of our ancestors and our interactions with the indigenous peoples of these lands, scholars within western hemispheric Black Studies continue to ask ourselves, how does black life fit into (or not) the histories and ongoing conquest and colonization of peoples and their homelands?2

The question is salient, in part, because of how foundational ideas of diaspora have come to be for both black intellectual history and black politics. The term often conjures up an existential pull or directionality, a persistent elsewhere that renders black existence, especially but not solely outside of Africa, permanently and always already “unrooted.” In one sense, this has been reduced to a deleterious trope within certain diasporic black political circles that engage a projection of Africa rather than Africa itself as an actual, present constellation of geographies, global capital, colonial ties, and post-colonial struggles. In these balancing moves, an uninterrogated or a carelessly interrogated loss or alienation and desire for or recovering of Africa, mirroring the trope of black colonial “unrootedness,” is paradoxically ingrained in the episteme of what Congolese philosopher and cultural anthropologist V.Y. Mudimbe calls the European project of “Africanism.” Here, Africa as image or object arises only as either completely inaccessible to the descendants of transatlantic enslavement and other black diasporic subjects, or romantically awaiting rediscovery or historical recovery.

Yet, diaspora has also been the organizing force of Pan African politics, black internationalism, and other black transnational solidarity efforts. It has come to strengthen lateral...

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