Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Capital of the Caribbean": The African American-West Indian "Harlem Nexus" and the Transnational Drive for Black Freedom, 1940-1948

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Capital of the Caribbean": The African American-West Indian "Harlem Nexus" and the Transnational Drive for Black Freedom, 1940-1948

Article excerpt

Great stories are often eclipsed by their most salient moments. The rich drama of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, for example, is well appreciated while in progress, but what most theatergoers remember about it afterward is, first and foremost, "Et tu, Brute?" Powerful moments like this overshadow other vital--albeit less quotable--features of the story. A similar dynamic obtains in the study of history. The sprawling violence of World War II tends to block out many of the stories hidden within the larger narrative of the conflict. Even momentous events, such as the 1940 Bases-for-Destroyers Deal in which Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill exchanged American warships for British-owned Western-Hemisphere bases, while recognized for their intrinsic importance, are folded into the broader tableau of Anglo-American diplomacy. Thus are some of its offshoots, some scarcely perceived, easily lost.

For many the bases deal is usually (and correctly) seen as an important milestone in the gradual retreat of the British Empire and the expansion of the new American regime. However, it is equally important as a milestone in the struggle of Caribbean peoples to secure independence from both. Moreover, the precise reasons also touch upon the American mainland, in particular African people on the mainland. What historian David Reynolds labels wartime "competitive co-operation" between the United States and Britain opened up new opportunities for those fighting the long battle for Caribbean independence. These opportunities ultimately grew out of the black community of New York City, a community burgeoning with southern African American and West Indian transplants who now found themselves neighbors in the urban North.

This in turn points to another important and overshadowed historical development. Just as the history of the Atlantic Alliance eclipses the full story of the Bases Deal, the "New Negro" Renaissance in Harlem in the 1920s similarly obscures the subsequent extent of transnational black activism in the diplomacy of Caribbean decolonization. The renaissance in Harlem was the fruit of the two parallel migrations that brought the black diaspora to New York City: African Americans from the southern United States, and West Indians from their home islands. At its apogee, fully one-quarter of Harlem's population was of West Indian origin, a diverse diasporan community that might be called the "Harlem nexus." The designation is meant more figuratively than literally; outlying communities then growing from Brooklyn to New Jersey, not to mention organizations such as the NAACP located elsewhere in the city, meant that black New York did not end at 110th Street. Yet that neighborhood provided a spiritual home for important cultural and political developments, even if some participants in them "may have" resided outside Harlem proper. The importance of this transnational connection did not end with the renaissance; flying well under the geopolitical radar, it would continue to have an important impact into the 1940s and beyond.

A full understanding of this impact requires transcending conventional historiographical categories in order to illuminate points of contact between them. Much of the literature on U.S. African American urban history tends to focus on localized factors--regional institutions, city geography, economic and cultural particularities--and at most on select, narrowly defined national issues. (1) The literature on diplomatic history, on the other hand, traditionally leans in the other direction--favoring "macro" over "micro," and risking insufficient attention to subglobal actors. Emerging scholarly trends, however, challenge the habits and limits of both literatures. In the last two decades, historians of U.S. foreign relations have fruitfully examined the role of race in American diplomacy. (2) Beyond that subfield alone, the historical profession has begun the "transnational turn," a movement toward new modes of historical analysis that can reap undiscovered insights and connections from familiar narratives. …

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