Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism

Article excerpt

The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. By Brent Hayes Edwards. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. viii, 397; 20 illustrations. $55.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Though trans-Atlantic connections between Africa, Europe, and the Americas have long been a subject of study, its recent revival in popularity, particularly among younger scholars, must be largely credited to the publication of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1993). A sociologist trained in cultural studies, Gilroy's work argued for a diasporic model of cultural connection in order to understand the similarities and differences among black communities around the Atlantic, and, furthermore, the "counter-modernity" such communities have posed against Western humanism and its institutions. Gilroy's argument was both exciting and frustrating: exciting for the promise it held for transcending area studies boundaries and recasting the history of the Atlantic world, frustrating for its lack of empirical engagement. This latter aspect has been particularly resonant among historians familiar with the persistent, hard-won efforts by scholars of the Atlantic slave trade, from Melville Herskovits and Eric Williams to contemporaries such as John Thornton and Joseph Inikori.

The Practice of Diaspora is situated between these two approaches of theory and empiricism. Brent Hayes Edwards is a literary scholar, concerned with contemporary cultural debates, though with a specific historical goal in mind: to recover and analyze the sets of trans-Atlantic relationships-from Paris and Harlem, to Martinique and Ubangui-Shari (contemporary Central African Republic)-that developed among black intellectuals during the interwar period. Edwards's work is consequently more chronologically focused and more empirically based than Gilroy's. His emphasis on Paris and the Francophone world provides an additional, productive contrast. Furthermore, Edwards employs a specific methodology for scholars to consider for future use: an emphasis on language, translation, and the general role of literary work in creating linkages and a common black sensibility in the Atlantic world. Central to his approach are journals, anthologies, and the role of book prefaces in "framing blackness." Such sources underwrite his argument that black internationalism as a twentieth-century phenomenon was not merely imagined, but the outcome of a tactile, technical process of correspondence, translation, and other written practices.

If this appears too textual for some readers, such reservations should be allayed by Edwards's engagement with the diversity of actors surrounding these practices, further enhanced by his eye for compelling historical detail. Chapter 1 begins with a discussion of his sources and method as described previously, additionally underscoring his commitment to "anti-abstractionist uses of diaspora" (p. 12) as well as proposing the notion of "décalage" for interpreting how diaspora may function. The use of this term-a common synonym for jet lag -may seem whimsical, though Edwards's point is the disjuncture of time and distance inherent to any understanding of diaspora. In his perspective, such discrepancies, rather than posing a challenge, actively encouraged movement and articulation. He elaborates this theory of causality in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 2, for example, explores the correspondence between René Maran-the Martinican poet and author of Batouala, winner of the Prix Concourt in 1922-and Alain Locke, the African-American writer and critic. Batouala, born from Maran's experience in the French colonial service in Ubangui-Shari, was a particular milestone, with Maran embodying the complexities of being black, a French citizen, and a colonial administrator in Africa. …

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