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Metropolitan Caribbean Communities: Europe, Diaspora, Identity

Adlai Murdoch

This project seeks to come to terms with two related issues; the ramifications of the cultural and demographic phenomenon of Caribbean postwar migration that took thousands of West Indians to the former colonial capitals of Paris and London between 1948 and 2003, and the ways in which these new inhabitants and their descendants came to represent themselves and their experiences in literature and film. Indeed, in what became a veritable flood of peoples and cultures, there are now more than half a million persons in each of these countries claiming West Indian birth or background, and most recent census figures estimate these communities to be virtually 1% of the population in both cases. What is of even greater interest here is that many second- and third-generation immigrants to these capitals define themselves as West Indian (Guadeloupean, Martinican, Antiguan, Jamaican), irrespective of their metropolitan place of birth, and whether or not they have even visited the Caribbean island from which they draw their ethnic and cultural affiliation.

I would like to concentrate specifically on the situation of the Antillean citizens of the (départements d'outre-mer), or French overseas departments, and examine the paradoxically doubled displacements of migrancy and citizenship in their case, in contradistinction to that of the Commonwealth citizens of the independent countries of the English-speaking Caribbean. This project thus reads the plural patterns that join and separate the contemporary Britishness, Frenchness and Caribbeanness engendered in the metropoles by these migration-based demographic shifts. It is these cultural and identitarian hybridities, I argue, that increasingly destabilize our current notions of nationality and belonging.

Through an interdisciplinary approach that, inter alia, joins the discursive to the demographic, I propose to analyze the ways in which these groups implicitly differentiate themselves from the larger immigrant cultures of their respective metropoles, from the nationalist patterns of their host country and from the established identitarian framework of their countries and cultures of origin. Through their insistent difference, they have transformed the complex ethnocultural structures and stratifications of both London and Paris, even as they form a new Caribbean diaspora whose amorphous geographical boundaries locate its subjects in an explicitly transnational and transformative space of hybridity and renewal. In demographic and political terms, this project also traces the evolution of this hybrid migrant subjectivity in its resistance to both British and French acts of exclusion; from the trajectory traced from the 1948 British Nationality Act which accepted members of the Commonwealth as British citizens with rights of entry and abode, through the restrictions promulgated in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, culminating in the racialization of immigration inaugurated by the Immigration Act and Rules of 1971 and 1973.

All this was but the precursor to the Nationality Act of 1981, which drastically reduced and redefined the criteria for British citizenship, insisting that henceforth either the subject or her/his parents had to be of British birth. From this point on, there would be no further right of permanent entry into Britain for former colonials. On the French side, despite the ethnic, geographical and cultural differences separating the periphery from the metropole, the trajectory from the implicit egalitarianisms of the departmental statutes of 1946, through the formation of state-run agencies like ONI and BUMIDOM in the 1950s whose aim was to promote and facilitate migration, to the promulgation of the increasingly restrictive Pasqua laws of 1986 and 1993 and their revision and relaxation by the Guigou law of 1998 betrays a similar pattern of immigration restriction and narrowing of the criteria of nationness that impacted France's domien migrants through the superficialities and stereotypes of race.

For these two paradigmatic European countries, then, reading the migrant phenomenon through its Caribbean paradigm highlights similarities as well as variations in both the concept and the practice of assimilating difference; indeed, as Adrian Favell puts it in Philosophies of Integration: Immigration and the Idea of Citizenship in France and Britain, their "policies towards immigration and integration provide the perfect complement and contrast" to each other. The British experience tends to "focus on 'race relations', 'ethnic minorities' and 'cultural toleration', concepts anathema to Š the French post-revolutionary idiom" with its emphasis on "republican citoyenneté and intégration"(94). Such themes are obviously grounded in a visceral fear of racial difference, one which was fine when kept at a distance, objectified, and rationalized as helping to make the empire great, but which now -- as the empire re-turned to the center -- was skirting spaces that were uncomfortably close to home.

These new European populations, then, see themselves as European, certainly, but also as part of a 'black' diaspora originally displaced from the African and Southeast Asian continents, and more specifically, as part of an international Caribbean community that has vibrantly reinvented itself beyond its geographical boundaries. The task of self-representation undertaken by this community has engendered increasingly imaginative discourses since the 1980s, exploring and subverting its core principles of otherness and in-betweenness in both literature and film. Politically, the "Black British" movement of the 1970s and 1980s joined culture to politics at a critical moment, contesting the ingrained racisms of "Britishness" even as it gave rise to prize-winning plays, novels, and films. In France, while the zouk rhythms of the Caribbean became increasingly popular on the mainland, workers groups such as ANT, CASODOM and AGITAG were in the forefront of the struggle for rights and recognition for its displaced communities of citizens, eventually giving rise to such new literary and cultural movements as antillanité and créolité. Through the work of such contemporary authors as Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, and Gisèle Pineau, and filmmakers like Mathieu Kassovitz and Horace Ové, then, the themes and techniques of this metropolitan Caribbean diasporic identity -- one grounded in "a 'production' which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation," in Stuart Hall's words -- will be explored, interrogated, and (re)defined.

Potential Workshop Questions:

  • How, if at all, are issues of identity and difference integrated into the universalism of European national culture?
  • How are stereotypes of otherness and exoticism avoided in expanding national and European perspectives of identity?

  • To what extent is national identity inflected by visions of the "foreigner" in Europe, and, indeed, who is a "foreigner" and what is it that marks one as such?
    What differential and discursive practices are at work when these immigrant subjects seek to represent themselves and their experience?

  • How do such immigrant narratives expand or inflect the cosmopolitan pluralism of present-day postcolonial capitals?

  • How do the burgeoning asymmetries of metropolitan hybridity impact and (re)orient the self-fashioning of the diaspora?

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