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Negotiating Dispersion: African Diasporas in Europe

LaShonda Barnett





The recent shift in cultural studies away from ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ paradigms to heuristic devices which explore social conditions and historical processes at the transnational level has refocused academic attention on the concept of diaspora (see, for example, Hall 1990; Gilroy 1993; Clifford 1994; Brah 1996, 1997; Vertovec 1996; Cohen 1997; Anthias 1998; Braziel and Mannur 2003). However, as Avtar Brah states in Cartographies of Diaspora (1996) the term diaspora can be ill-defined and all-embracing, thus weakening its purchase as a theoretical framework. Diaspora, as I intend it here, refers to the voluntary or involuntary dispersion of any population that results in the construction of a new identity on a world scale. In its most tenuous configuration, diaspora has no fixed point of beginning. For the purposes of this paper, diaspora is a useful tool for teaching on the histories and cultures of black transnational communities in Europe informed by distinct geo-social oppressions.

As Allison Blakely noted in the 1997 article, “Problems in Studying the Role of Blacks in Europe,” a discussion of the influence of black Africans on Europe and on Europeans is complicated by the absence of a universal definition of black. Further, while it is a valuable idea, inasmuch as it provides an alternative to the race essentialism that weakens many studies, the African diaspora as framework imperils scholarship that does not adequately investigate the sameness and/or differences among black cultures within and without European borders. Addressing this point, historian Colin Palmer warns against the tendency to homogenize black populations on the transnational level in his article, “Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora”:


Obviously, the history and experiences of people of African descent in such societies as Jamaica, Haiti, and Barbados where they comprise the overwhelming majority cannot be conflated with
those of their counterparts in England, Germany, Canada or the U.S.A. where they form a minority. The differences are too vast. ...We must be careful not to paint a static and ahistorical picture of what was and is a very dynamic set of processes at work, everywhere.


This paper explores the ways in which scholars might approach teaching and research of the black diaspora in Europe with regard to the reality of social and historical continuities and discontinuities within variegated black cultures that Colin’s insightful observation addresses. I will, however, also consider the role of class subordination in teaching methodologies, which Palmer seems to devaluate as a commonality of all black groups at the transnational level--regardless of their population in relation to whites.

This paper will draw on student perceptions, initial opinions, and concluding impressions on the study of diasporic Africans in Europe. Some questions I will address include: When students first think about the African diaspora, what are their initial conceptions? If students are required to study the African diaspora what sources and resources are they most apt to consult? Are these sources primary and secondary? Should we emphasize primary sources? And if so, how do we instruct students to read those sources where references to race (such as census data) are absent. To what extent has racial thought in Europe had the same degree of significance as that in the U.S.? In what ways have European blacks forged community by emphasizing cultural affinities and not racial exclusion.

My proposal includes an alternative format to typical presentations. Attendees are encouraged to visit the Web Board for my year long seminar entitled “African Diasporas: Negotiating Dispersion in Europe and the Americas,” which will be taught at Sarah Lawrence College from September 2005-May 2006. On the Web Board central teaching issues and student questions and comments will be posted each week.

A course description, syllabus and Web Board information is available at: http://pages.slc.edu/~lbarnett/diaspora.html . Following a brief paper, I will devote time to commenting and any group discussion which may be generated from the on-line discussion facilitated by my course Web Board.

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