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Navigating the African DiasporaThe Anthropology of Invisibility$

Donald Martin Carter

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780816647774

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816647774.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface

(p.vii) Preface

Navigating the African Diaspora
University of Minnesota Press

They perceived arts in general to be a crack in racism.


The location of my anthropological imagination began in Oakland, California, where I spent my childhood in the peculiar mix of social exclusion, racism, and normal life that the city offered. One must acknowledge one’s arrivals and departures, setting in this manner the basic structure of the trope of the voyage; for me it was a particular trajectory of black working-class life in Oakland, California, from which a life in the world of the mind was as likely as a walk on the moon.

Diaspora figured in my life from its very beginnings: I am the second son of parents from Louisiana who, along with other relatives, lived in a kind of suspended South in northern California. They never spoke much about their encounters with Southern racism to their children of the North, fearing that their experiences might teach us to hate; after all these years I still find this extraordinary. Every now and then a story would emerge through an aunt or uncle, but never from my parents. It is a quintessential experience of diaspora that the experiences of one generation may seem unimaginable to another. It is the kernel of lived experience and the history of complicated identities through time that draw us back to widening circles of displacement as black people in the Western world. Every circle eventually leads to considerations of the African side of the hyphen. Navigating diaspora is an integral part of my experience, and even if I trace my family back to Louisiana and to the Native American, African, and European roots I might find there, or to a French-speaking island in the Caribbean where some of my relatives are said to have originated in another black diaspora, or again to Africa, (p.viii) the mystic source of all these wonderings, an element of mystery still remains, along with an uneasy cynicism that such will hold real meaning for me in the end. As James T. Campbell demonstrates in his book Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005, African Americans returning to Africa, an imagined place of origin, have confronted the rich navigable waters of subjectivity in this distant homeland only to discover that little is revealed that will quell their sense of longing, while a great many questions arise that complicate the notion of belonging to this at times strange land (Campbell 2006). As a scholar I have devoted much of my life to making sense of the dislocation of others, but I am still trying to come to terms with my own location in diaspora. Like others I am navigating this experience. The nautical metaphor is not fortuitous, it is existential.

In his haunting book Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in Africa and Beyond( 2005) Ekow Eshun stands before the “Door of No Return” in Ghana, one of the many archways through which Africans pass on their way across the Atlantic Ocean, and acknowledges that this gateway had enacted a transformation of unfathomable power in one part of humanity: “I stood beside it and ran my hands along the stonework. I stepped through it as slaves had done, to the shoreline and the waves. As I did, it came to me that, in the wake of slavery, all of us black people born in the West are exiles” (Eshun 2005, 110). Indeed, this distant Door of No Return confronts each of us with our own experience as exiles in the African diaspora in different ways. Certainly the peculiar fate of the black subject in the West inaugurates an ongoing, seemingly perpetuous struggle with social and political belonging on the other side of that door for the member of the black diaspora.

During the late 1980s I was conducting exploratory research in Turin, Italy. In the heat of the summer sun one morning I set out across the historic heart of the city, across the river Po and up into the hills to meet with Italian historian Giovanni Levi. Anthropologist Vanessa Maher arranged my introduction. Giovanni Levi was best known for his work in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century microhistory, most recently the history of young people. I was about to enter my own layer of migration as Levi ushered me into the lovely house that had once belonged to his uncle, Primo Levi. We spoke of sports, the rising anti-immigrant sentiment targeting blacks and Muslims, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism (p.ix) in Italy. Levi’s insights on the importance of sport, anti-immigrant sentiment, and religious intolerance in this period turned out to be one of the first acknowledgments of the early formation of what was to become a new right-wing movement among the youth, resulting some years later in the founding of future-premier Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” political movement. It was a beautiful time of day and the sun filtered through the typically long Italian windows, cascading into the room and over the bare wood floors; all was quiet in the quarter, as the sounds that were about to pour out of the city below had not yet begun to reveal themselves. The great warmth and openness of Levi was very winning; I was concerned that I might be imposing, for he was so generous with his time and so well informed on developments in the country that I might have talked for hours. His uncle was known to be generous with students and others who were struggling to grapple with contemporary events—indeed, he had been a kind of exemplary activist for human rights and tolerance, even volunteering in local schools. Primo Levi was a beacon of light for those who did not or could not fathom the most alarming threat to humanity lurking just below the surface. Before many other voices related the memory of the Holocaust in Europe, Levi taught new generations of its horrors but also (and perhaps this is the great power of his writing) its message of hope. Only twice that day did our talk turn briefly to Primo Levi, but the memory of the writer, scientist, and humanist filled the room as surely as did the morning light.

In 1945 when Primo Levi returned to Turin from his internment in Auschwitz, the full scope of Hitler’s genocide and the new vocabulary of horror it introduced to the world was not yet widely known; it would take years before the true account was fully acknowledged. His experience speaks to us in part because every generation awakens too late to a human tragedy that might have been avoided. For our generation Darfur, the Congo, and certainly Rwanda ring in our ears. Immediately after his return Levi would recount his story to anyone who would listen, beginning with those closest to him. He also found himself telling his experiences to strangers on trains (Thompson 2002). He was struggling to make a world he had known visible to others, being true to those who could no longer speak for themselves. While the landscape still bore the open wounds of the war, Levi (like other exiles) became a story-teller-witness. As events would have it, his writings were among the first (p.x) accounts of the Holocaust to be widely circulated in Italy and Germany, introducing new generations to the horrors of the war years and awakening the living memory of others. Born of a generation steeped in classical literature, his account was shaped partly by the tutorials of his youth.

Contemporary poet Morri Creech in his collection Field Knowledge (2006) imagines Primo Levi in his home in Turin rereading the Divine Comedy of Dante. The poem “The Canto of Ulysses” was published in The New Republic some years ago, and Creech envisions Levi, book in hand in an easy chair, “nodding above the page where Ulysses/tells how his second journey ends” (Creech 2006, 22).1 For Ulysses and for us all, life is a journey. “Drowsing, head propped above the eighth circle, he feels the present shifting like a keel”: the metaphors of the “ship” on a voyage and of the Pilgrim or the author on an implied spiritual journey of the soul mark the poet’s tribute as they shape a thematic in the work of Dante (21). In the tradition of nautical writing, the journey becomes a kind of metatext as the discourse of a ship was its route or itinerary and the pathway or narrative created by the writer for the reader is a route or journey of a different nature (Blackmore 2001, 29). I employ these different readings of passage in my understanding of navigating diaspora as both the individual experience and the representation of the collective experience of diaspora.

In Navigating the African Diaspora I explore the rich modalities of the journey in my own experiences as a scholar and in the collective experience of the African diaspora. Drawing on the work of postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, I interrogate the idea of visibility and invisibility, metaphors that David Theo Goldberg notes “pervade Fanon’s body of work” (2000, 179).

In each chapter I take up aspects of the impact of invisibility on the lives of various categories of person, migrants, colonial soldiers, established Europeans, and newcomers. In chapter 1 I explore the meanings of invisibility for subjects caught in the power play of history. Chapter 2 discusses afrocentrism, race, and the making of an anthropological sensibility through my own experiences, training, and fieldwork. In chapter 3 I review stereotypes and other distinctions in the making of the contemporary crisis in Darfur, Sudan. I further analyze the photographic turn in the representation of Other cultures in chapter 4, where I examine the role of race in the Western photographic imaginary. I consider the play (p.xi) of diasporic nostalgia and political longings for the future in chapter 5 by viewing the experiences and contributions of colonial soldiers through the work of a former Senegalese president, the late Léopold Sédar Senghor and in chapters 6 and 7 by studying the late Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. Finally, the conclusion looks at our passion for exclusion in contemporary society through the experiences of people in diaspora who inhabit new and diverse subjectivities, making themselves known in creative ways against a conceptual constellation that often has no place for them (so-called Fortress Europe) or ability (or expansive cultural ideology) to consider them as equals sharing the same time and space. Throughout the book we consider an African diaspora in motion, at times driven off course only to return to it transformed, with renewed strength and vision for the journey ahead. (p.xii)


(1.) Many anthropologists have considered the legacy of race, nationalism, and gender in postslavery and postcolonial societies and the contested terrain in these societies that results from this legacy. In this book I follow these insights for Europe (see Carnegie 2002; Williams 1991a; Malkki 1995).