Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age

Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age

Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age

Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age

Synopsis

In the generations after emancipation, hundreds of thousands of African-descended working-class men and women left their homes in the British Caribbean to seek opportunity abroad: in the goldfields of Venezuela and the cane fields of Cuba, the canal construction in Panama, and the bustling city streets of Brooklyn. But in the 1920s and 1930s, racist nativism and a brutal cascade of antiblack immigration laws swept the hemisphere. Facing borders and barriers as never before, Afro-Caribbean migrants rethought allegiances of race, class, and empire. In Radical Moves, Lara Putnam takes readers from tin-roof tropical dancehalls to the elegant black-owned ballrooms of Jazz Age Harlem to trace the roots of the black-internationalist and anticolonial movements that would remake the twentieth century.
From Trinidad to 136th Street, these were years of great dreams and righteous demands. Praying or "jazzing," writing letters to the editor or letters home, Caribbean men and women tried on new ideas about the collective. The popular culture of black internationalism they created--from Marcus Garvey's UNIA to "regge" dances, Rastafarianism, and Joe Louis's worldwide fandom--still echoes in the present.

Excerpt

Louise Helen Norton was born in the fishing village of La Digue on the eastern Caribbean island of Grenada in 1897, at the end of two generations in which tens of thousands of Grenadians had sailed off to seek opportunity “in foreign”—over 10,000 on the goldfields and cacao farms of Venezuela and larger numbers still on the British island of Trinidad. In the years just after Louise’s birth, it was Panama instead that drew thousands of Grenadians to try their luck. When the hemisphere’s economies rebounded after the Great War, Grenadians had accumulated enough capital, savvy, and connections to travel farther afield. Louise was no exception. At twenty, she traveled to Montreal to join an uncle who was already there. She found work as a servant and found support in a new community group, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which fused the ethics of fraternal love familiar to her from the lodges back home with ringing calls for solidarity among black people the world over. These ideas echoed observations that Louise and the Caribbeans that she knew in Montreal made every day, as they navigated an unforgiving world in which their skin color and accents marked them as outsiders for the first time in their lives.

Through the UNIA, Louise met Georgia-born Earl Little, a Baptist lay preacher and fervent Garveyite. They married in 1919 and relocated to Philadelphia, home by then to some 2,000 British Caribbeans. Louise and Earl would have seven children over the course of a decade in which the couple organized for the UNIA—and faced threats from resentful whites—everywhere they went. Their fourth child, Malcolm Little, born in 1925, is better known today as Malcolm X.

Sometimes the experiences and ideas of not-very-powerful people in notvery-prominent places generate very powerful change. I study working-class men and women who left their islands of birth at the margins of the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century to seek work in ports and plantations at the leading edge of a new empire, the informal empire of the United States. Those ports and plantations were mainly located within the borders of Spanish-speaking republics—places like Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. By the time Louise Norton left for . . .

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